Trust and Listening to Students

Recently, I was the unquoted subject of a Chronicle article about students who are the compulsory, unpaid subjects of profitable corporate “plagiarism-detection” systems. Both situations highlight a problem in academia: We need to listen to our students more, both when we work with them and when we try to understand complex situations.

Educators need to do a better job of inviting students to the water cooler. Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece about the use of so-called plagiarism-detection software in dissertations — specifically, in my dissertation. My experience with having my dissertation submitted to Turnitin prior to my defense was used as the narrative that framed the report. I was interviewed for the piece, as were two of my dissertation committee members: Stephanie Vie and Jesse Stommel. Both have gone on the record about their dislike of plagiarism-detection systems, so it’s no real surprise that the Chronicle author reached out to them. That author also reached out to me, the doctoral candidate in her scenario, but the extent of my representation is this:

Mr. Friend had shown Ms. Vie many drafts of his dissertation, and he believed she would have noticed if anything suspicious had popped up. He thought it odd that Ms. Vie had to upload his work to the plagiarism-detection software company Turnitin.

That’s it. I “thought it odd.”

One of the major complaints about systems like Turnitin is that it treats students like criminals, suspecting them of misbehavior and asking them to prove their innocence by passing a systematic evaluation with an “similarity index” that is low enough to please the authorities. Turnitin uses a computer database to evaluate something very deeply personal: a student’s writing. By relying on such a system, universities show their students a lack of respect and trust. By not including a student voice in discussions of the effects of using Turnitin, we perpetuate the divide between those in the trusted inner circle and those trying to get in.
Yes, I acknowledge that the process of creating and defending a dissertation is very much an explicit part of the process of “getting in” to the academic circle. But by the time a student is a doctoral candidate — or, I would argue, a graduate student of any level – academia should treat them as members, not as mistrusted outsiders.

The mistrust implicit in these detection systems extends beyond the student, as well. By requiring my dissertation director to submit my work to Turnitin, my institution showed that it wanted the system to check the advisor and highlight any suspicious writing. To be fair to my university, their policy was fair and well-implemented, setting no arbitrary “similarity index” requirement and allowing the chair to interpret the results as she deemed appropriate. Other schools are worse in those regards. But my school still made submission compulsory, and that’s the part I take issue with: Turnitin gains value from the size of its database, and I was required to contribute my work to that database. The company that sells Turnitin profited from my labor, which I was forced to provide and which they get for free. Here’s what I told the author of the Chronicle article:

As the student, I resented the fact that I was forced to submit my work to a for-profit database, particularly in light of my conviction that my director paid enough attention to my writing that she would have done a better job “catching” plagiarism than Turnitin would have anyway.

This goes back to trust. I trusted my dissertation director to help me with my writing. I still do. I also trusted her to let me know if I wrote anything that would run afoul of academic or disciplinary standards of knowledge-sharing. Believe me: She put me through the wringer over how the writing-studies community employs APA style in terms of referencing other authors. Stephanie Vie is an amazing editor. But my institution made her submit my work to Turnitin, regardless of the care we had already taken to ensure its originality.
Or did we?
At the same time as I talk about my dissertation’s originality, I have to acknowledge the silliness of claiming “originality” for a type of document that is so heavily reliant on prior knowledge and so inherently constrained by expectations for form, content, structure, style, and approach. Dissertations aren’t actually original. They’ve been used for hundreds of years and in that time have developed certain expectations for length, argument, etc. Within a given discipline, dissertations have a certain typical outline that gets filled in with the student’s work, but that work is informed and constrained by the work of others in the field. Certain people have to be cited and acknowledged, or else the work is rejected as not being a part of the right conversation. Dissertations are not entirely original, and yet we ask students to submit them to originality detection systems. Requirements to submit dissertations to Turnitin are built on a misunderstanding of “originality” in academic writing.
Because a dissertation is a scholar’s initial efforts to join a conversation, those of us in academia need to work to make students part of that conversation as early and as often as possible, starting well before the dissertation and continuing after its submission and acceptance. We must ensure our students feel trusted and respected, and we must, as Jesse Stommel says, give them control of their own writing. If we don’t, students should demand such control over their own work and refuse to comply with institutional Turnitin requirements. That was something I didn’t feel prepared or empowered to do at my university, mostly because my path through my PhD program had already been protracted, and the second-largest public university in America seemed a rather large ship to steer. The last thing I wanted was a crisis or brouhaha so close to my graduation.
I may understand why my school’s administration chose to institute its Turnitin requirement, but I detest the unavoidable, compulsory nature of it, particularly at the precise moment in the career of a new scholar where they want nothing more than to be finished. We too often take advantage of the desperate urgency of our doctoral candidates. Instead, let’s meet them at the water cooler, invite them into the conversation, and start building mutual trust.
As a post-script, I want to add two points to the original Chronicle article:

  1. My dissertation returned a 4% “similarity index” from Turnitin, essentially highlighting the block quotes and reference list. Stephanie and I laughed at its absurdity.
  2. The article ends by accurately stating that I “earned [my] PhD in 2014 and started a job at Saint Leo University, where [I] teach writing.” I want to point out that I teach writing without the use of Turnitin.

Because I’ll be damned if I trust an algorithm over a shared respect with my students.