Saturday, November 15, 2008

Should Students be Publically Humiliated for Plagiarism?

An instructor at Texas A & M International University was recently fired for his treatment of plagiarism in the classroom. According to the report on Inside Higher Ed, Loye Young informed his class that any acts of plagiarism would result in public humiliation in addition to any penalties given by the university. When he found six students engaging in academic dishonesty, he published their names on his course blog.

In my discussion of academic dishonesty with Courtney Campbell, we talked about plagiarism as a kind of moral harm against the academic community, disrupting bonds of trust and amounting to a kind of theft. On this issue, we agreed with Loye Young on the seriousness of the problem.

The question is whether the penalty of public humiliation, above and beyond the failing grades, is justified. At Oregon State, there is a procedure to follow in informing students of allegations of plagiarism. Students are usually given a chance to see the work and the evidence amassed by the instructor that led her/him to accuse the student. Based on that discussion, the case can be sent to the administration and the student may have the right to appeal. In addition to academic grade penalties, the student may have to attend workshops.

Its not clear that the students were given a chance to know about the finding of suspected plagiarism and had a chance to respond. From Loye Young's blog, it appears he completed the grading and posted their names almost immediately. This seems to me the wrong way to go about it. I often find it the case that students simply do not know what constitutes academic dishonesty, especially if they come from backgrounds in which they are the first to attend university. In those kinds of instances, there is an opportunity for education of academic standards. I've never hesitated to fail a student on an assignment for plagiarism, but I have sometimes not recommended further discipline if I felt, after a discussion with the student, that they were simply uninformed or ignorant. In other words, ignorance of the law is no excuse, but leniency in sentencing is sometimes called for.

Loye Young seems to think that shaming is an appropriate response to academic dishonesty. I assume the idea is that if plagiarism is a harm against the community, then the community should know how it was harmed and by whom ( a form of punishment not unfamiliar to our Puritan ancestors). Assuming that students had been informed about the policy beforehand in the course syllabus and the students had been informed that they had been caught in academic dishonesty, would public shaming be a just punishment?



At 7:11 PM , Blogger Dap said...

Shaming is punitive. In my mind, punitive punishment is rarely, if ever, justified, as it's based on the faulty idea that creating equal harm in return actually leads to justice. Certainly in this case, given that it's in addition to traditional academic punishment, I think it's unjustified.

I say this despite having discovered in myself a particularly vicious attitude towards undergrads and academic dishonesty recently. Go figure.

At 11:13 PM , Blogger Loye Young said...

I am that instructor.

I'm a business owner in Laredo, Texas. I had never taught a college course before, and never asked to teach. The department asked me to teach this course. I accepted because of my commitment to Laredo's future.

I worked hard on the syllabus, and everything in the syllabus was deliberate. Specifically, the language about dishonesty was based on moral and pedagogical principles. The department chairman, Dr. Balaji Janamanchi, reviewed the syllabus with me line-by-line, and I made a few changes in response to his comments.

I was surprised by how common and blatant plagiarism turned out to be. Six students in one class is an extraordinarily high number. I thought and prayed about what to do for about a week before following through on my promise. I decided I had only one moral choice. I am certain it was right.

My decision was guided by two factors: What is good for the students themselves, and what is good for other students?

What is good for the students themselves?
I am cognizant of the extraordinary moral difficulty involved when deciding what is in another's best interests. Nonetheless, I am convinced that public disclosure, including the concomitant humiliation, is in the interests of the student because it is the best way to teach the student about the consequences of dishonesty and discourage the student from plagiarizing again.
Humiliation is inextricably part of a well-formed conscience.

The Vice President-elect, Senator Joseph Biden, is perhaps the most well-known plagiarizer in recent history. Biden was caught plagiarizing while at Syracuse Law School. The school gave him an F, required him to retake the course, and subsequently treated the incident as confidential. See

Unfortunately, Biden didn't learn his lesson at law school. He continued to plagiarize for another 20 years. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Senator Biden's career of plagiarizing came to light, and he was forced to end his presidential bid. (For details of Mr. Biden's plagiarism career, see, e.g.,,, and

It is my belief that the Syracuse incident left a subtle and subliminal message in Biden's mind: plagiarism is not a deal breaker. Consequently, he continued to plagiarize. Unfortunately for the Senator, the facts came to public light at the worst possible time: when he was running for President.

I believe that had the Syracuse incident been available publicly, Mr. Biden would have actually learned his lesson and would not have plagiarized later. Twenty years later, if the incident had come up at all, the Senator would have plausibly and convincingly maintained that the incident was a youthful mistake.

There is yet another reason for publicity in such cases: unjustly accused students are protected, for two reasons. One, a professor will be more careful before blowing the whistle. I myself knew that posting the students' names would be appropriately subject to intense public scrutiny. Therefore, I construed every ambiguity in the students' favor. Two, public disclosure ensures that subsequent determinations by the university are founded on evidence and dispensed fairly.

What is good for other students?
On the second question, four reasons convince me: deterrents, fairness, predictability, and preparedness for life.

Deterrents -- Only if everyone knows that violations of plagiarism will be exposed and punished will the penalties for plagiarism be an effective deterrent. (As a lawyer once told me after hearing of another lawyer's disbarment, "I'm damn sure not going to do THAT again!") In fact, one of the six students had not plagiarized (to my knowledge) until the week before I announced my findings. Had I announced the plagiarism earlier, it is possible that student would not have plagiarized at all.

Fairness -- Honest students should have, in fairness, the knowledge that their legitimate work is valued more than a plagiarizer's illegitimate work. In my course, the students were required to post their essays on a public website for all to see. Thus, anyone in the world could have detected the plagiarism. Had another student noticed the plagiarism but saw no action, the honest student would reasonably believe that the process is unfair.

Predicability -- By failing publicly to follow through on ubiquitous warnings about plagiarism, universities have convinced students that the purported indignation against deceit is itself deceitful and that the entire process is capricious. TAMIU's actions in this case have confirmed my suspicions that such a perception is entirely justified.

Preparedness for life -- In the real world, deceitful actions have consequences, and those consequences are often public. Borrowers lose credit ratings, employees get fired, spouses divorce, businesses fail, political careers end, and professionals go to jail. Acts of moral turpitude rightly carry public and humiliating consequences in real life, and students need to be prepared.

In closing, I submit that education died when educators came to believe that greater self-esteem leads to greater learning. In fact, the causality is backwards: self-esteem is the result of learning, not the cause.

Happy Trails,

Loye Young

Isaac & Young Computer Company

Laredo, Texas

At 10:36 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Loye: thank you for responding to this posting. Its seems like a very difficult position to be in.

If your account is correct, then it sounds as though the department did not adequately support you and may have bowed to fear of public pressure in your dismissal.

However, a key issue is whether or not this policy or its implementation meets the university standards which students are expected to hold. I've read the Aggie Honor Code and the processes for dealing with violations, including academic dishonesty. Much like Oregon State, TAMUI has the policy of having the instructor meet with students to discuss an alleged violation and it gives them an opportunity to confront the evidence. Its not clear whether you did this.

Of course, cases of academic dishonesty are not legal proceedings, so standards of evidence are not the same. However, the idea of due process is usually meant to dignify an individual by treating them like a subject who has interests and rights that need to be respected by the institution, including the right not to be treated arbitrarily.

I would think that an initial conversation, to present the students with the findings and have them respond so as to determine the nature of the alleged violation is key here. I've often found that students who have cheated will confess at this point. I take it this is a moment in which an instructor can determine whether further action needs to be taken. To act in absence of that kind of discussion seems to treat the students as subjects of the instructor's power rather than as responsible adults who can learn from their mistakes.

At 11:28 AM , Blogger Loye Young said...

Were I an adjunct of Texas A&M University, you would be right. However, Texas A&M University and Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) are separate universities within the Texas A&M System. The Aggie Honor Code is not the same as the TAMIU Honor Code.

I followed the letter and spirit of the TAMIU Honor Code. Under the circumstances, it would have been a violation of the Honor Code not to have acted as I did.

The TAMIU Honor Code is found in Appendix E of the Faculty Handbook, found here.

I direct your attention to the following portion of the Honor Code dealing with instructors' obligations:
Instructors (including adjuncts), administrators, and staff share in the responsibility and authority to challenge and make known acts that violate the TAMIU Honor Code.

Instructors are expected to take proactive steps to promote academic integrity including, but not limited to, adding language to their syllabi that describes prohibited academic behavior and the consequences of such activity, and having an open discussion about academic integrity with students in their courses early in the semester. Additionally, instructors are expected to enforce prohibitions against academic dishonesty as required by the TAMIU Faculty Handbook, Section 5.7 (page 81, 2007-2008 edition). Specifically, they are expected to enforce specified grade penalties for cheating or plagiarism, as outlined in their syllabi or as required by their department, college, or the Faculty Handbook(Section 5.7). When the grade penalty for a severe breach of the Honor Code leads to an automatic “F” in the course (as is likely to be the case for extensive or intentional plagiarism, cheating on an exam, etc.), faculty must report such cases to their chairs, deans, and the provost, who will in turn notify the Honors Council so that a record may be kept of the incident. Less severe breaches of the Honor Code may also be reported in the same manner and for the same reason.

Happy Trails,

Loye Young
Isaac & Young Computer Company
Laredo, Texas

At 12:13 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Loye: What I think this shows is either that the policies for academic dishonesty are vague at TAMUI, or that your department did not adequately guide you as to their expectations. Both could be true.

However, I've read the student handbook at TAMUI on academic dishonesty and there it seems that students are to be held to the standards laid out in the handbook and there is no mention there that additional faculty constructed penalties are to be expected.

I might add, that there is a penalty for public sanction--having a grade of F put on the transcript which indicates that the grade was received for academic dishonesty. This would seem to do the job of having their behavior made public, in perhaps a more important setting than a blog. I wonder if this would not have satisfied the criteria you mentioned earlier for posting their names. After all, a transcript follows people to their jobs and further education. A website can be taken down. And quite frankly, we shouldn't trust much of what is put up there. If I was an employer doing a search on a prospective employer, I would take a transcript with an "F for plagiarism" to be more authoritative than someone's website.

Finally, you still don't mention whether you spoke to the students once you found alleged plagiarism before you posted their names. As I said before, this seems to be the most crucial step in the process, demonstrating an instructor's care for the well being of the student rather than attention to the authority of the instructor.

At 12:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

When students have committed plagiarism in my classes, I first speak to them in order to determine if there is confusion as to what has occurred. I also warn them that dishonesty in our conversation will result in more stringent responses on my behalf.

What seems to be lost in the discussion by Prof. Young in Texas is the distinction between an educational response and a punitive one. In that way, he is following the lead of our criminal justice system which no longer even pretends to seek rehabilitation in prison. My university falls heavily on the educational side, even for wrongs greater than plagiarism. I would never maintain that shame of a student is a form of education although Prof. Young just might make that claim.

At 6:42 PM , Blogger Loye Young said...

You write: "policies for academic dishonesty are vague at TAMUI, or that your department did not adequately guide you"
The policies say what they say. I did my homework before I wrote the syllabus, and I followed the policies.
The department chair and I had a lengthy, candid, and heated conversation about the language in the syllabus at the beginning of the semester. Students and the dean were offended by the word "humiliation" in the syllabus. I made it clear that the language would stand or the University should find another teacher. He acquiesced. He made some other suggestions I agreed with, so I released a revised syllabus, retaining the original academic dishonesty language. Both the original and revised syllabi were reviewed by at least two other faculty members.
These students needed no "counseling." All the students were informed (in my inimitably emphatic and direct manner) of the consequences of dishonest, not only in the syllabus but also at the mandatory class orientation meetings.
More to the point of this conversation, "counseling" these grown-ups would have been immoral. Failing to treat them as adults by rehashing the wrongness of deceit and suspending its consequences robs all the students of their dignity as autonomous persons subject to moral law.
Kant's "Critique of Practical Reason" speaks directly to the necessity of humiliation as a precondition to justifiable self-esteem:
But self-conceit reason strikes down altogether, since all claims to self-esteem which precede agreement with the moral law are vain and unjustifiable, for the certainty of a state of mind that coincides with this law is the first condition of personal worth (as we shall presently show more clearly), and prior to this conformity any pretension to worth is false and unlawful. Now the propensity to self-esteem is one of the inclinations which the moral law checks, inasmuch as that esteem rests only on morality. Therefore the moral law breaks down self-conceit. But as this law is something positive in itself, namely, the form of an intellectual causality, that is, of freedom, it must be an object of respect; for, by opposing the subjective antagonism of the inclinations, it weakens self-conceit; and since it even breaks down, that is, humiliates, this conceit, it is an object of the highest respect and, consequently, is the foundation of a positive feeling which is not of empirical origin, but is known a priori. Therefore respect for the moral law is a feeling which is produced by an intellectual cause, and this feeling is the only one that we know quite a priori and the necessity of which we can perceive. . . .
The negative effect on feeling (unpleasantness) is pathological, like every influence on feeling and like every feeling generally. But as an effect of the consciousness of the moral law, and consequently in relation to a supersensible cause, namely, the subject of pure practical reason which is the supreme lawgiver, this feeling of a rational being affected by inclinations is called humiliation (intellectual self-depreciation); but with reference to the positive source of this humiliation, the law, it is respect for it. There is indeed no feeling for this law; but inasmuch as it removes the resistance out of the way, this removal of an obstacle is, in the judgement of reason, esteemed equivalent to a positive help to its
causality. Therefore this feeling may also be called a feeling of respect for the moral law, and for both reasons together a moral feeling.

Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, Chapter 3 (T.K. Abbott, trans.)
You write: "demonstrating an instructor's care for the well being of the student rather than attention to the authority of the instructor."
If by "well being of the student" you mean the student's self-esteem or comfort, I answer that the self-esteem and comfort of the deceitful should be smashed. My authority as instructor was never in question (at least until the Provost decided to intervene). My job as instructor is to assist in the development the students' intellects. When a student decides to hijack the process in an immoral manner, I owe to the institution and other students the duty to call attention to the pathology.

At 11:10 AM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

Mr. Young,

I find your appeal to Kant useful, although I have not read this part of Kant's oeuvre and, for the most part, find his a priori ontology of morality epistemologically suspect (but that's a whole different can of worms).

As I read this passage you quote, it seems like you are conflating different meanings of humiliation. Kant writes, "But as an effect of the consciousness of the moral law, and consequently in relation to a supersensible cause, namely, the subject of pure practical reason which is the supreme lawgiver, this feeling of a rational being affected by inclinations is called humiliation (intellectual self-depreciation)."

So, let's look at this: humiliation is, according to Kant, a feeling toward moral law, a respect for moral law. It is "an effect of the consciousness of the moral law." So, in order to feel humiliation, one must be aware of moral law. Furthermore, it seems to me, Kant is using humiliation in a now somewhat obsolete fashion. I am no Kantian scholar, but I wonder if he isn't using humiliation as self-reflexive humiliation, drawing on the now obsolete definition of "humiliate": To humble or abase oneself, to stoop; sometimes, to prostrate oneself, to bow (OED). My reading of this passage is that one humiliates oneself, that is, makes oneself humble, to the supreme moral law.

Humiliate, in its modern definition, To lower or depress the dignity or self-respect of; to subject to humiliation; to mortify first appears in English in 1796, eight years after the publication of Critique of Practical Reason (OED). The OED also notes that "humiliation" formerly often meant a humble condition or humility.

So, if my reading of Kant is correct (and I am open to other well-reasoned readings), then it seems that the humiliation Kant advocates is one of humility toward moral law — that is, one directed from the self who is conscious of moral law. I can see this humility manifesting itself in two ways, at least (though I am sure more): the admission that one is not above the law (that is, not conceited in oneself), and the feeling of guilt when one breaks moral law.

However, you seem to be using humiliation to mean something differently — not a relation to moral law, but a public shaming.

Shaming works differently from guilt (the latter of which I see arising out of Kantian humiliation). According to Sartre, shame is a feeling that comes from outside oneself, from another person or public, and is a judgment about the personhood of someone. That is, if you are shamed, you are deemed inadequate as a person.

Shaming, to me, is not pedagogically sound. It rests on judgment of personhood (dignity) rather than on judgment of actions. If you truly believe Kant's theory of morality, then it seems you would help students "realize" a prior moral law through reason, addressing their transgressions, not through counseling, but through rational discourse, rather than through public humiliation (of the modern, shaming sense).

I am inclined to agree with Joseph that the semi-public transcripts would serve as public accountability for plagiarism, and that the recourse for a "public accountability" rationale for your choices doesn't carry much weight given that most transcripts qualify F's if they are received for academic dishonesty.

To complicate things further, plagiarism is a social transgression, arising out of certain academic conventions of ownership of ideas and citation. I don't believe there is any a priori moral law regarding plagiarism. If plagiarizing is immoral, then it is only so because a discourse community has deemed it so. Thus, my resistance to Kant's ontology of morality.

And lastly, all of this discussion, while fruitful and useful, I think, ignores the fact that you broke federal law (FERPA).

At 3:38 PM , Blogger Loye Young said...

Although Mr. Faris' semantical distinction between humiliation and shame seems strained to me (I don't think there is a real difference), he is on to something that bears considering.

Mr. Faris correctly puts his finger on two issues, both of which are important. First, humiliation serves the moral law through the inward negative feeling brought about by a candid comparison of one's actions to the moral law. Second, "shaming" (in the sense Mr. Faris appears to use the word) admittedly carries a less clear moral foundation.

I do not agree with Mr. Faris that shaming ipso facto is pedagogically unsound. In this case, shame is morally and pedagogically compelling. The problem here is that students simply do not believe that plagiarism is wrong or even taken seriously by the University, despite continual admonishments in every class and my own inimitably emphatic, repeated, and direct statements. Shame has the salutatory effect of allowing the actor to see him or herself as others do, enabling the actor to learn from the community. Thus, humiliation and shame, in this case at least, are and should be coincident.

In my own personal life, I know this to be true, and I suspect it's true in others' lives as well. All of us, myself included, are guilty of actions that don't conform to morality. Sometimes, I am able to recognize inwardly that I have transgressed and feel the pain of inward humiliation. Unfortunately, there have been other times when I could not or would not face my own wrongs and shame is the only reasonable antidote.

Shame is appropriate, and even morally compelling, when wrongs are committed in public. Without a public condemnation, the entire community's sense of morality suffers. The collective conscience begins to erode, and eventually, even the meaning of morality disappears. Plagiarism in public is just such a case and must be publicly condemned.

I've commented at length in other venues about FERPA. Suffice it to say that it simply doesn't apply to these facts.

At 5:45 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

Mr. Young, a question:

If students don't believe that plagiarism is wrong, as you allege, then how is presenting a list of plagiarists to students who supposedly don't care going to shame anyone? Doesn't shaming require that the plagiarists face social sanction from their peers and other community members? Why would a bunch of other students who don't think it's wrong, as you claim, punish their peers?

That addresses students. If we are talking about receiving social sanction from faculty, then I'd call that a serious lack of professionalism on the part of faculty, who have a method to deal with plagiarism: Grades. If failing a course for plagiarizing isn't enough, then I seriously doubt shaming is going to work either; nor is it appropriate, as there is an appreciable power differential between students and faculty, and I believe using that power to shame students is an abuse of that power.

I understand the desire to try and teach students that plagiarism is completely unacceptable. However, I don't see how students learn why or how plagiarism is wrong through shaming. All they learn is that if they do X, they will be hurt using method Y. Very Pavlovian, but we're talking about the field of education here. Reciprocal pain isn't a very good pedagogical method.

At 10:06 PM , Blogger Loye Young said...

Dennis writes: Doesn't shaming require that the plagiarists face social sanction from their peers and other community members?

Good question. Because the site is available to the entire world, the plagiarists are also subject to sanction from the wider community, not the least of which are their parents, spouses, and others who have a stake in their learning.

Dennis continues: I'd call that a serious lack of professionalism on the part of faculty, who have a method to deal with plagiarism: Grades.

Giving an F to a student doesn't really penalize at all. If the student is unable to complete the assignment without plagiarizing, the student would fail the course anyway. By plagiarizing, the student has some possibility of avoiding detection and passing. If the student gets caught, the student gets an F, which is no worse than where the student started.

That seems to be borne out empirically by the extraordinary number of plagiarists in this class.

Privately recorded grade penalties alone, even if they were effective, do not provide deterrents to others, assurance of fairness to the community, nor predictability of the process.

Most importantly, however, is that publication is singularly effective for correcting and preventing deceit.


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