Plagiarism and the Pedagogy of Fear

Students in my classes are able to define plagiarism pretty easily and they understand that plagiarizing comes with consequences. Those same students identify plagiarism under the heading “bad” and its attendant ramifications as catastrophic. Most syllabi include a statement about plagiarism with consequences that range from a failing grade for the essay to failing the class altogether. Beyond syllabi, the University of Connecticut, too, has a statement on the Office of Community Standards page, which includes a brief reference to what “academic misconduct” is, and a lengthy “Appendix A,” that includes an outline of procedures for faculty and details of the protocol for a hearing.



To the University, “academic misconduct is dishonest or unethical academic behavior that includes, but is not limited, to misrepresenting mastery in an academic area (e.g., cheating), failing to properly credit information, research or ideas to their rightful originators or representing such information, research or ideas as your own (e.g., plagiarism)” (Community Standards “Student Code,” Appendix A).

The professional association of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) aims for a little more nuance by advising that “in instructional settings, plagiarism is a multifaceted and ethically complex problem” (“Defining and Avoiding. . .”); it distinguishes by degrees—carelessness versus malicious intent to deceive. The statement also details a number of ways to prevent plagiarism, including teaching students proper citation and documentation conventions, reviewing and offering feedback on essay drafts, and building writing prompts that won’t elicit the same essay repeatedly (and for profit). At the statement’s end, the statement directs instructors to dispense “appropriate disciplinary actions”: “In some cases, a failing grade on the paper, a failure in the course, academic probation, or even expulsion might achieve those goals. In other cases, recreating the entire research process, from start to finish, might be equally effective.”

The WPA’s contribution to the discussions about plagiarism demonstrates a more complex understanding of what it is, what it means, how it’s dealt with, and how it might be thwarted. The context for the WPA statement is pedagogical and is meant to suggest some shared responsibility for plagiarism, while the context for instructional and institutional demands definition and punishment.Yet, even in the WPA’s pedagogical submission, the counsel still boils down to don’t do and don’t tempt. In all of these, the relationship between the definitions of plagiarism and the descriptions of consequences suggests a narrative of inevitability—and there’s a distribution of students into those who will and those who won’t.

In this way, an essay that includes quoted material yet is submitted without citation and documentation—without a reference to the author and location of the quoted material, without a “Works Cited” page—raises suspicion. Until the student can provide evidence by adding the conventional requisite material, the presumption is guilt, and the question becomes whether the student is malicious or negligent.

Students must be aware that we presume guilt, because we remind them that they must submit proof of compliance with the rules every time they submit an essay. Some essay assignment prompts I’ve seen detail the consequences for any essay that doesn’t include the academic conventions. Through HuskyCT (UConn’s Course Delivery System), instructors can quietly check students’ work through the plagiarism detection service, TurnItIn (via the HuskyCT version), and students can even run the essays through the system themselves to ensure their essays have a sufficient number of words highlighted green (TurnItIn’s algorithms decide which words are original), they are in the red.

While the students’ use of the service is often sold as pedagogical—they learn when they might be sliding into plagiarism and can revise the writing before submitting it to the professor—doing so also reduces engagement with other sources to a word count, among other things. What’s needed there is a discussion between instructors and students about making use of another person’s words productively and substantively, as a point of engagement, rather than as part of a patty-cake of assertion and validation.

Most troubling, however, is how a student’s essay must serve as a kind of affidavit, because “to acquit oneself ‘conscientiously’ of one’s task is, then, to construe labor as a confession of innocence” (Butler 15-16).* Moreover, “because this declaration is not a single act, but a status incessantly reproduced, to become a ‘subject’ is to be continuously in the process of acquitting oneself of the accusation of guilt” (16). In our pursuit of an ethical classroom, we’re teaching students all the skills they will need as twenty-first century subject: to surrender privacy and to repeatedly prove their innocence.

To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that plagiarism is acceptable and I am aggravated by intentional deceit, frustrated by students who believe that paying someone else to write an essay the smart and efficient choice. What I do want to argue for is moving away from a pedagogy of suspicion (on our part) and fear (our cultivating that in students). If we promote writing as an entrance into a conversation, and if we want students to make real contributions to those conversations, then why are we not focusing on community and the ethics of responsibility?


Butler, Judith.  “Conscience Doth Make Subjects of Us All.” Yale French Studies 88 (1995): 6-26.

*At this point in the text, Judith Butler examines Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation.