Academic Integrity

by Tracy Mitrano

Tracy Mitrano, NITLE Fellow

When my son, Nikko, was 7, and Sam was 3, I frequently took them on excursions around the Finger Lakes looking for lakefront property. Stumbling upon a new development just northeast of where we lived in Ithaca, I became excited that perhaps I had found just the place. The cliffs are high around much of Cayuga Lake, so I expected the sloping driveway down to the site to be steep. Even so, I was alarmed as we began to descend the unpaved driveway. I could feel the shale breaking under the weight of the car and quickly surmised, too late to turn back, that it would not support us back up the slope. My mood shifted from ebullient to serious as the car slowly crawled down the cliff and I recalculated the distance to the last house we saw. (It was in the days before cell phones.) After what seemed to be a long, excruciating descent, I finally saw the path curve to the right to a level spot where I could stop. I said nothing as I applied the brakes, high above the water, far from the road, nestled in the quiet of the wilderness. Sam, my younger boy, broke the silence. “What’s next, genius?”

From the mouth of this babe came a remark that to this day draws laughter. I relate the story not only for that effect, but to explore a very contemporary example of remix, new media, and its impact on academic integrity. After we hiked up the shale driveway and were kindly received by the nearest neighbors who called us a tow truck, I asked Sam where he got that line. Almost disappointed that I would not know automatically, he said “I heard it on a T.V. show, Mom.” True to stereotypes about birth order, my older boy is rule-bound by nature and an academic achiever. Sam is more rebellious: he tests boundaries and is an outstanding mimic. Now at almost 16 and a junior in high school, he plays varsity sports, loves hip-hop, and uses a music production center (MPC) to sample and remix all kinds of music with beats. Infrequently does he know or care from whence the samples come; he does not commercialize or even post his compositions, so no harm done.

What will Sam’s world be like when he goes to college? As we begin to think about joining innumerable campus tours, I wonder what Sam knows or thinks he knows about the academic world. Moreover, how would he distinguish it – or not – from the market? Will he consider it an inconvenient, instrumental means to the end of a paying job, perhaps even a career that involves him in the cultures he loves in a way that gives his life purpose? Apart from friendships and social networks, will he come away from the experience with the sense that he has had a unique experience, that he has made a personal journey to adulthood and gained critical perspective on the world around him?

In the midst of all these hopes and aspirations, I find myself wanting to sit Sam down to talk about academic integrity. Can you imagine a more pedantic beginning to college? What would be my motivation? First, as an academic and an administrator, I am concerned that he stay out of harm’s way: that’s an obvious answer. Let’s face it – and the example at Harvard is in the news as I write – academic integrity policies are out of date and a virtual landmine for many students. Hand in hand with that observation is the fact that, as a product of his generation, Sam is a digital native. He reads almost nothing in print, prefers to get his news from video, goes to Wikipedia when he starts a research topic, prolifically uses Google, knows cut and paste, and likes to work collaboratively. But there’s another reason motivating me as well: one that has greater value and makes it worth dusting off this topic to find the jewel inside it.

In the United States, college or university is a privilege (of class in many cases). It is not a right and certainly not a legal requirement. As a privilege, a collegiate education assumes more responsibilities for the student than might be expected of them in the K-12 arena. At the collegiate level, students are invited to join a unique community. When they do, they are expected to hold to a higher level of academic integrity: one that has rules and goals greater than pedestrian notions of “plagiarism.” Beginning college with a deep dive into the real dynamics of academic integrity goes straight to the heart of academia: a community of scholars, stretched out for at least a millennium in Western history, whose goal is to develop original work while standing on the shoulders of those who have come before them. Better than any commencement speech or inspired lecture, a deep understanding of academic integrity makes it possible for students to enjoy the privilege of joining a special community with special rules: the opportunity to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, exploring the boundaries of the known world and one’s own potential for intellectual autonomy.

In a digital world, rules might best be thought of as on a spectrum, and the best way to explain academic integrity to Sam (or another new college student) would be to start with the obvious. At the obvious end of where clear violations live, don’t buy a paper off of the Internet! You might laugh, but it is done with some regularity. Recently a ghost writer, Dave Tomar, has come out of the closet to reveal his identity and let us all know how common this practice is – and not only for undergraduates. How about using a paper that someone else wrote for the same or similar course? Notwithstanding the years of fraternity files that preceded the Internet, the new, real temptation here is the ease at which these documents can be posted and traded via the Internet. But what technology disrupts, technology can also address, and repeat papers, or substantial portions of them, are exactly what the popular “Turnitin” product is designed to detect.

As we move down the spectrum to the insertion of cut and paste, here is where attribution makes a difference. Just name your source! If you don’t know the proper format, ask your professor. Slightly less obvious are students who are afraid that their work is not original enough and feel the need to borrow without attribution. Here I would say: see fear as a sign that you are pursuing academic research worthy of exploration. Some students – I call them the “Puritans” – do A work all the time and achieve that level precisely because they beat themselves psychologically with the fear that they have never done enough and that they are always on the brink of failure.

At this juncture it might be useful to distinguish copyright from academic integrity; many cannot explain the difference. Copyright is law; academic integrity is policy. You won’t go to jail or pay a fine if you violate the latter, but within the community of scholars – academic or public – depending on a number of factors, you may lose your job or some degree of credibility. Students may have to rewrite a paper, get a failing grade in the assignment, fail the course, or even be suspended or expelled from the institution. Copyright is not cured by attribution; in most cases, plagiarism is. Those interested in contemporary remix culture may understand that remix and sampling in the commercial music world functions in this orbit, so it is worth discussing more fully. For example, it might be interesting to note that commercial hip-hop artists (their labels, actually) pay exorbitant fees for those samples. In an academic setting, fair use will almost always cover the copyright aspect, but it must be attributed.

If we go back to Sam’s sarcastic utterance at the base of the broken shale driveway on the shores of Cayuga Lake, this distinction between copyright and attribution takes on meaning in an academic setting. Were it an academic assignment, as a matter of copyright, his utterance was a performance and technically a copyright violation, but one that fair use would cure, and nothing need be noted either way about it in the composition. As a matter of academic integrity, it must be acknowledged. Knowing it is a quotation shifts the evaluation. When he first spoke, I thought, “Wow, how original!” After he told me it was borrowed, I switched to “Hey, he has perfect pitch as a mimic!” Both interpretations get an A, but the distinction makes a difference. If I were his instructor, I would need to be aware of the difference in order to coach him forward, advise him on academic or career choices, or perhaps to write an informed recommendation for work or graduate or professional school. I would understand him better as a result, and I’d be able to personalize his education.

Here we are at the crux of our discussion. Current instrumental views of collegiate education might well be viewed as a students’ reaction to the depersonalization of education. When students feel like cogs in the big corporate machines of higher education, depersonalization is a form of a reaction in kind. Real education is a relationship. It often starts off with an instructor or material that acts as the vehicle for the student to develop the skills, discipline, and insight required to cultivate the life of the mind.

At the far end of the spectrum from where we began, we have group activities. Herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge to existing models of academic integrity. Built on notions of bourgeois individualism – the concept of the singular, original author – academic integrity policies need realignment with more contemporary concepts. A panoply of challenges from literary theories that reject the very concept of author to technologies and social practices that encourage group process has fundamentally altered the assumption of the solo artist. Scientific papers have long provided a workable alternative: put everyone who had anything to do with the research on the paper. If there are hierarchies of responsibility, then make that clear.

The key is to think about the issue at the outset of the creation of the paper, project, or group assignment, to have students and instructor discuss or create the rules that fit the exercise. This discussion goes a long way in addressing the underlying dynamics of education as well as the outcome. Moreover, students, long accused of not caring about intellectual property, gain a sense that they are producers as well as consumers. As such, they have a vested interest in both copyright and the privileges that accrue to citizenship in the academic enterprise. Students should be encouraged to think of these issues as a bundle of rights instead of an all-or-nothing proposition for a singular author. Creative Commons is a great alternative to federal copyright; perhaps higher education might think of doing something along these lines in the rethinking of new academic integrity policies.

Let’s conclude with a reflection on the radical meaning of the controlling terms. In a world dominated both economically and culturally by the market, the term “academic” has an immediate pejorative ring to it, connoting that which is boring and overstated. It holds no joie de vivre. What a shame! As an adjective, it defines the circumference of a proud history, one that institutionally reflects the meaningfulness of the idea. Integrity, on the other hand, speaks as naturally to consistency of practice and adherence to rules as it does to the integration and wholeness of the enterprise, a spiritual component as applied to institutional history.

Troubled by myriad challenges – cost and price, for-profit interlopers, the slings and arrows of disruptive technologies and new business process, less public financial support, and greater degrees of public criticism for a thousand ills beginning with extra-curricular activities such as “sex week” extravaganzas and ending with harrowing hazing incidents, suicides, and campus violence – higher education is ever so much in need of a raison d’être. I submit that there is none better than the values for which academic integrity speaks.

Tracy Mitrano is a NITLE Fellow and member of NITLE’s advisory board. In subsequent installments, she will explore the particulars about how technology has disrupted existing paradigms of academic integrity; strategic choices for vesting authority for academic integrity responsibilities institutionally; educational opportunities and a process for adjudicating violations; the relationship between academic integrity and citizenship; and finally, setting the right tone for a twenty-first century classroom and research academics.

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Posted on October 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm by guest-blogger · Permalink
In: Liberal Education · Tagged with: 

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  1. Written by Remixing the future | Digital (Art) History
    on November 24, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    [...] Tracy Mitrano’s comments about academic integrity spoke to me particularly clearly after watching the video last week on the use of the drum beat. [...]

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