Some Thoughts on Teaching and Academic Integrity

by Ellen Kennedy

When the telephone rang late one night in fall semester 1999 and I heard the voice of my teaching assistant, I knew immediately that something was wrong. "I've just finished reading the essays for 180", she said, "and I think there's a problem." The "problem" was one I'd never encountered before: plagiarism. My only experience with cheating had been more than twenty years earlier when as a Lecturer in Government at the University of Manchester, I and several other faculty proctors discovered a student cheating on her finals script for Italian. The results were tragic for this woman: she admitted having concealed crib sheets of Italian vocabulary and failed her examination as a result. Three years of study and her degree were wasted for the sake of a few nouns and verbs.

I never knew what became of that student and, although the story stayed with me, it did not affect me personally. It didn't tarnish my work in the classroom, and the incident seemed an aberration. But experiences at Penn recently have caused me to reflect more deeply about what I do as a teacher, why teaching is important to me and what it means (or doesn't) to the undergraduate students who take my classes. But I've gotten ahead of my story.

The morning after my TA called, I looked over the problematic papers from Ancient Political Theory. Two students had written about the relationship of Aristotle's Ethics to his Politics. The expected answer explored the connection between the texts--the Ethics ends by announcing the problem of legislation and telling his students that we must "take a comprehensive view of which constitution is best, how each must be ordered and what laws and customs it must use if it is to flourish." Having defined happiness in terms of virtue and vice with the "mean" as their measure in the Ethics, Aristotle concludes that happiness is not amusement but "good activity", including "contemplation": the life of scholarship and pursuit of knowledge. Aristotle taught his students that our choices constitute the disposition to do good or evil. These same questions must be asked of the political organization. Badly constituted, it will encourage vice; well ordered, the polis allows the realization of justice, fulfilling man's nature as a "political animal".

The first student answered the question fairly well. The second essay repeated whole paragraphs of the first. Had they copied from each other? One student was absent from my lecture later that day; I spoke to the other after class. Had she had used any sources not cited in her bibliography? Hesitating, she mentioned a web site that might not have been listed. I walked back to my office with the TA, typed in the address, and found the essay within a couple of minutes. Independently, both students copied entire pages and presented them as their own work. I was stunned. The Dean's office advised me to consult Michele Goldfarb at the Office of Student Conduct. After meeting with both students, I decided to refer their cases to her office.

My second experience with plagiarism came barely a year later. The course was much larger; I had five teaching assistants for three hundred undergraduates in my department's required introductory course, P.S. 001. My colleagues rotate this duty, and we all teach it differently. Sometimes it had been taught using only "multiple choice" exams, but I wanted the students--some starting, some finishing their study of politics--to think beyond disciplinary issues, and take away something they would remember as citizens. I organized it around four classic texts that represent the sub-fields of political science: Thucydides' Peloponnesian War (international relations), Tocqueville's Democracy in America (American politics), Aristotle's Politics (comparative politics) and Mill's On Liberty (political theory). Students could choose essay or exam format assessment. Election 2000 was an "on-going laboratory" in politics and the engagement of the students was tremendously satisfying. In the midst of that excitement, came a replay of the plagiarism cases from the previous year. A teaching assistant discovered two identical essays copied from a web site. One student also plagiarized his earlier essays. I followed the same procedure and referred the cases for investigation.

Three experiences of cheating and plagiarism over twenty years at two different universities in two different countries--the statisticians would probably say that's not bad. These exceptions reinforce why teaching is important to me, but they have changed my approach to it. I now know there are two hundred "cheat sites" out there offering everything from essays on line to custom work. For a price, the dishonest student can get that term paper written on special order. This is a far cry from those crib sheets in the Italian exam, or "essay banks" in fraternity houses. I don't look for cheaters, but I tell my classes now that I have zero tolerance for it in every form. I spend more time explaining why footnotes and bibliographies are important in academic work. My essay questions now focus on specific parts of the text. I use comparative formats that are harder to copy. I worry about an undergraduate culture, self and other imposed, that takes these fours years, which should be filled with discovery, and turns them into the prerequisite for graduate and professional schools.

Most of my work is with political theory texts or the statutes of institutions such as the German central bank or the constitution of the Weimar Republic. These are voices from a world more distant, yet immediate in my mind, travels no amount of money could buy. Some of these books I've read many times, others like Bodin's Demonmania of Witches were new and opened new perspectives on familiar issues. I often tell my classes that I have only a few minutes of their time, measured in life spans, and that working with texts--reading them, thinking about their times and places, writing about them--is hard but fulfilling work. How can I compete with the instantaneous, the amusing, the packaged and predicable? Only by demonstrating, through commitment to the integrity of that enterprise, that the life of the mind is the most important human activity.

Oh, and by the way: those quotations from Aristotle can be found in Aristotle's Ethics, translated by John Warrington, (London: Dent, 1970) pp. 226 & 236.

Dr. Kennedy is associate professor of political science.

This essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series, now in its seventh year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 27, March 27, 2001