Objections to Turnitin

Reading Lindey (see last post) made me think about why I don’t like Turnitin, and why I’ve so far declined to use it. The UofM has a license, but has not yet made using it mandatory. This is good, as I would refuse to use it. I have three reasons: building trust with students, commercial interests, and loaded rhetoric.

1) Respect for students

I used to work in a laptop repair facility. Every day I had to walk through a metal detector before I could leave the building. This was because nearly all of us had a degree of access to a massive stockpile of computer parts that could be easily resold. I didn’t like the presumption of guilt, but I was ok with the process as I saw everyone in the building had to walk through the detector, from management down to the temps. There was no trust, but it was democratically applied, in much the same way that members of Congress, like everyone else, have to take off their shoes to get on a plane these days.

Turnitin also presupposes guilt. Students learn up front that they are suspects in an ongoing investigation (watch those crime metaphors for reason #3). Every time they turn in a paper, they must prove themselves once more.

But at least here, not all courses require such draconian measures. I’ve never heard of a graduate course requiring Turnitin. I’ve certainly never heard of a professor being asked to submit a paper to a journal through such a service. So not only is there a jaded eye from the start, but a double standard exists as to who is a suspect. Not everyone is being asked to walk through the detector – there are other lines, with higher trust levels. And in a supposedly democratic society, a tiered system of trust is appalling. Either everyone should go through the detector, or no one, in my book.

2) Commerical interests

I don’t mind the university spending money on copies of Windows, computers, janitors, teacher salaries, etc. These are all part of what is necessary for a modern education.

What I don’t like are companies that are in the education business solely for profit. I worked for one (which will go blissfully unnamed) a few summers ago, and quickly became disillusioned, as everything they did had a veneer of respectibility and concern, but in the end it was all assembly-line – at the end of the day, the organization existed only to perpetuate the organization. Opportunities for soul-searching were non-existent. Turnitin has that same stink about it. They are not there for students, but for a bottom line. Morally, they are at the same level as the sites that sell papers – they only make money off the other end of things. The less academia has to do with such entities, the better. Some are necessary evils – book publishers in particular – but plagiarism detection services (which makes me think of private eyes), we could do without.

I also don’t like how Turnitin retains old student papers, either, a state of affairs that parallels Google’s questionable ability to keep a copy of damn near everything that exists.

3) Loaded rhetoric

Plagiarism is almost always, save by progressive folks, described as a crime – a theft, a kidnapping (from the Latin root), or some sort of vaguely defined moral sin, the 11th commandment. It smears in the same way that an accusation of pedarasty does, even if the case is thrown out.

Efforts to combat plagiarism have the air of a police action. Rules for citing must be enforced. The UoM has a “task force” on plagiarism, which makes it sound like Chuck Norris is getting ready to storm Patterson. This bombastic nonsense all stems, I think, from viewing plagiarism as a crime – the academic streets need cleaning up. And thus the language resembles a police procedural.

We should be jumping for joy every time a student plagiarizes, because that means our existence as teachers of composition is validated, as we have something to teach them – citation, research, the need for critical thinking. We should get down on our knees and thank the Internet for making it easier to plagiarize, because it means we will be employed for the foreseeable future, stemming the metaphorical digital tide. We should be eternally glad that plagiarism is seen as a problem that needs fixing, because if all incoming students cited their sources fairly and accurately and did clever research out of the box, then there wouldn’t be much for us to do. We should leap to the opportunity to teach here. Plagiarism is a blessing, not a curse.

Of course, by doing so, we have to nod and wink at this constructed sin of citation called plagiarism, and allow it to continue to fester unabated so it can be treated. Because if we killed it off or contained it too well, as all these enforcement measures seem to be designed to do… I find this situation more than a little morally ambigious for composition studies; there is a hint of hypocrisy.

3 thoughts on “Objections to Turnitin”

  1. I agree with you about the unfortunate distrust and wariness that promote Turnitin, but (and man, I hate making this argument) that distrust is innate to university classrooms. Most of the Profs I have had, in any subject, have doubted student ability. I had one lower my grade 3 letters because my argument about Hinduism “didn’t mesh with his Encyclopedia Britannica.” (He couldn’t believe that my best friend at the time was Hindi or that I lived in a Hindi neighborhood.)

    … I did have to turn papers in through turnitin.com for two of my graduate lit courses at your university. I thought it was kinda weird, but I did it anyway. I thought it was strange because the profs only had about seven of us in either of the classes, each of which had multiple written responses built into the course structure. Shouldn’t the Profs have been able to recognize my writing and my argument’s style?

    But. Freshman courses are very large. Plagiarism needs to be taught at the freshmen level. Some students simply will not *get* plagiarism until they unintentionally plagiarize and are pulled aside for a “this is what happened in this paper, this is how you should do it” conference. Your suggestion of “jumping for joy” at occurrence of classroom plagiarism works for these students. But it only works if the student *wants* to learn. Some of our students want to see what they can get away with. Again, freshmen comp courses are large. In a course which expects change in style and ability, an instructor may overlook mis-cited material without the use of a program like Turnitin.com. So the student is able to continue with poor habits unchecked. These habits will be caught down the road, with much harsher penalties than a teacher conference.

    I have used turnitin.com. I do not like that it stores papers or that it has fishy copyright ideas. I’ve talked to students about the site and its implications in the classroom (as I’m sure you have). My students were not bothered by the site. Many saw it as part of the grading process. It was as usual as turning work in to a prof.

    Those that knew they were cheating either formed different habits and hopefully became comfortable not cheating or they cheated anyway and I was able to discuss their work with them. Confused students were able to “click” after reading their source percentages. It provided a kind of visual aspect to research and citation.

    But, these are also largely students who *did* have to go through metal detectors everyday in high school. They are accustomed to proving themselves through checks for negative aspects. You graduated before metal detectors (and seem to resent them). So maybe you are not used to proving yourself “worthy” by proving you lack negative aspects rather than by showing that you embody positive characteristics. (Kindof a ‘my dog is good because she does not bite’ versus ‘my dog is good because she learned to sit.’) But this is how are students are being trained before they reach the university.

    For the record, my high school introduced detectors during my sophomore year, and tested irregularly through junior and senior years. They were annoying because you never knew what would be taken from you when. I lost several butter knives to school officials so I associate metal detectors to having to peel my oranges and grapefruit forefinger and thumb, which invariably resulted in citrusy contact lenses. A joy.

    Still, turnitin has pointed out sections in papers that I honestly would not have looked twice at otherwise. This has been rare, but still. These were sections that I would not have even googled. By the way, would you google a section of a student’s work?

  2. You’re right, I never dealt with detectors in high school. Tucson High, where I finished 12th grade, was the first school I’d been in that locked the gates during school hours. It was not uncommon to have knives come out in the hallway there, but that’s not gunplay.

    I google papers when I see something that catches my eye, and only then – a dramatic change in rhythm or thinking level, usually, or writing that doesn’t mesh with what the student’s been turning in. I have no problem with that as I have probable cause to suspect something, to keep the police metaphor, rather than searching every paper I get. Turnitin has no probable cause, only a stereotype that any student may plagiarize at any time.

    It’s interesting that you note HS education has changed in tone. Does that suggest that we need to teach according to how they’ve been taught previously, or that we need to break that pattern? There is a difference, certainly, in telling students they start with 100 points and either keep or lose them during the semester, or telling them they start at 0 and need to earn points toward 100.

    I don’t think distrust has to be part of the university. We can treat students as adults without expecting them to always measure up, instead of assuming they won’t, treating them as would-be criminals, and acting all upset when they fulfill the expected prophecy. Speaking as an established cynic, this may prepare them for a cruel world, but it won’t make them better human beings.

  3. Do current students attend University to become better human beings? I love getting 101 student responses when I ask them why they attend. This school is a bit different from others that I have taught at because the majority answer is “my momma told me to come.” Which is good and bad. They have parental encouragement, if nothing else.

    I do think that universities need to keep up with what is going on in high schools. If for no other reason than to keep an eye on retention rates. College is not for everyone and freshmen hold many different expectations out of a college classroom, but this is no reason that freshman courses should be ice water awakenings. After twelve years of learning under one condition it is unreasonable to expect students to know how to perform under a brand new condition. Junior, senior, and graduate courses are different from freshman courses.

    Freshman courses do not need to replicate high school experiences (ugh!), but they *do* need to keep in mind how the students have learned to learn and the type of environment they are coming from.

    I have never been told that you start at 100 points. At my high school, teachers harped on your C level. You were average under you swayed the teacher otherwise. Your classroom behavior was a large (if unmentioned) part of your grade. People failed classes for having blue hair. Attendance factored in hugely**. It wasn’t until my favorite prof in undergrad announced that everyone still had their “gentleman’s B” at midterm that I had heard of starting at any other point. (When I went to State, each course reported your midterm grade to your parents. Which discusses parental involvement in higher education again…)

    Anyway, yes, universities do need to consider the tone in high schools– but not necessarily to continue it. (It does also effect what needs to be taught. Haven’t you noticed a shift in your student’s abilities since the introduction of the first “No Child Left Behind” students?)

    (**And that wasn’t new. When did attendance become such a large part of education and assessment? My dad was able as an elementary student to miss large parts of school to help out on the farm. They could feign this in high school as well. Just a few years later, mom flunked a course for attending a protest. Maybe this plays more with the excused/unexcused policies?)

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