I recently learned that my institution has signed up for Turnitin.com, an Internet "plagiarism-prevention" service that allows professors to submit students' papers and checks them against other submissions to verify that they've not been copied. There's no mandate at my institution yet (as far as I know) for faculty to participate, and so I plan to opt-out. Not only that, but I am considering making it a point to announce to my students that I will NOT be using the service. I believe that my reasons are fundamentally-- if perhaps naïvely-- principled ones, which may require some explanation. So, here goes:
I posted a somewhat fast-and-loose (in retrospect, maybe a bit too glib) account of my attitudes toward cheating a while ago on this blog under the title "Why I Don't Care About Cheating." I still think that most of my claims there stand up (though perhaps I would've done better to choose another title for that post). Let me state my position clearly here out the outset: I DO-- I really, REALLY DO-- care about cheating, as I think is evidenced in my account. It's just that (as I said there) I do not care enough about it to transform myself into a policewoman. As a rule, I'm usually not a fan of the "it's not my job" excuse but, the truth is, I've probably read too much Foucault and I feel obligated to resist the presumption that my primary responsibility as an educator is to monitor and surveil students. What distingishes me from the police, I hope, is that I still believe the act of cheating hurts the student more than the consequences of being-caught-cheating does.
With regard to Turnitin, however, I want to emphasize a different point. My institution operates under an Honor Code, which (at least ostensibly) governs the conduct of the entirety of the Rhodes communtity, students and faculty alike. My sense is that the Honor Code is one of the things that sets Rhodes apart from comparable schools, and it's one of the things that I appreciate the most about working here, as I've noted on this blog before. I believe that the Honor Code is, at heart, a trust-agreement. That is to say, all of our (tacit or explicit) participation in it constitutes a kind of social contract to which we have all agreed to abide, and our allegiance to it, like all social contracts, is derivative of our faith in the virtue of the other members with whom we have agreed to constitute a community. That being the case, I am inclined to believe that utilizing Turnitin amounts to a violation of that agreement on my part, as a professor. As a member of a community governed by an Honor Code, I believe that I am obligated to trust, by default, in the integrity and honesty of my student co-signatories. (Technically, faculty do not "sign" the Honor Code-- every student does-- though a faculty's signature to the Honor Code is, I assume, implicit in his or her signature to the employment contract.) So, basically, I belive that my consent to abide by the Honor Code necessitates my trust in the honor of my students, and prohibits my "turning them in" in advance of their violation of that trust.
If I participate in Turnitin, I am negating their Honor Code promise and, effectively, treating my students as if they never signed it. Quite simply, I do not know how I can reasonably expect students to take the Honor Code seriously when my actions indicate that I am not taking it seriously. It's like sitting down at a poker game with a pistol under the table. Or being in a relationship where you secretly check your partner's emails or text messages. Sure, there's always the possibility that someone's cheating, but if my obsession with pre-emptive security mechanisms indicate that I assume you already are cheating, what's the motivation for you to take seriously your duty, your promise, to be honest with me? And, even if you are honest, how can I possibly merit you with that honesty under these circumstances, motivated as it is by a fear of certain reprisal and not a genuine respect for integrity, for the trust-agreement, for your or my honor?
I understand that, in all things, balancing security and trust is a delicate maneuver. But I'm concerned that trying to train students in the habits of academic integrity with devices like Turnitin reaches the point of diminishing returns. It doesn't motivate honest students to be any more honest, and it only motivates dishonest students to be more cleverly dishonest.
UPDATE 9/21/10: Dr. Miller over at Anotherpanacea disagrees, and he has laid out his (multi-part) criticism of my position there in a post titled "Why I Use Plagiarism Detection Services."
UPDATE 9/22/10: I respond to Dr. Miller's objections here: "Cold War in the Classroom"
UPDATE 9/23/10: Dr. Miller returns the volley (and, presumably, accuses me of having a hard heart) here: "The Problem with Honor: Cold Wars and Hard Hearts"
UPDATE 9/27/10: Scu weighs in on the debate between Dr. Miller and myself here: "On Using Plagiarism Detection Services"