Academic Integrity?

The ChatGPT handwringing of late has bothered me, not least because it is cloaked in a kind of shock, like the domain of higher education has suddenly been sullied by this profane technology. But babes, it was always already here.

—Brenna Clarke Gray

I tried to ask ChatGPT to write something about academic integrity, but it said it was “at capacity right now”, and for once I was convinced it was human. I know how you feel, ChatGPT. I know how you feel.

Of course, ChatGPT doesn’t feel. ChatGPT is a program and feelings are a neurochemical process. But ChatGPT is a neat little wingdiddy of a thing that might, in fact, be accelerating all of the worst features of contemporary digitized life: fraud, spam, malware, mistrust, mass manipulation by wealthy and/or sociopathic people. According to Time magazine, it was built through the exploitation and traumatization of Kenyan workers. So worth keeping eyes on. 

As Brenna Clarke Gray says in the piece I got the epigraph to this post from, it is hardly the only technological intervention in education that we ought to be paying attention to. I think this is actually a point in its favor, or at least in favor of the attention it’s been getting. Academic technologists may lament the recent focus on ChatGPT, but if it gets people concerned and talking about — maybe even doing something about — the infestation of our lives by quietly insidious pieces of technology, then I’m all for the conversation. And if ChatGPT can write things like program evaluations, learning objectives, etc. — the boilerplate of academia that buries us all in constant, repetitive, often meaningless writing — then I might even become a big fan.

Opportunities to Chat

In publications I read and social media I follow, there has been quite a lot of anxiety about ChatGPT and plagiarism, often under the label of academic integrity. I am currently chair of my university’s committee that oversees our (I think quite progressive, all things considered) academic integrity policy, so this is of interest to me. I have sat on academic integrity panels, though we have not had many since instituting our current policy about 5 years ago, because that policy works hard to encourage students and instructors to have conversations and to work through their issues together — the idea is that since we’re an educational institution, then we should strive to make such difficult moments into learning opportunities more than opportunities for teachers to exercise their most sadistic and juridical impulses. (When teachers and students can’t come to any sort of agreement, we have an academic integrity hearing to try to work through it. The last one I sat on involved surveillance software and a group of students whom the software flagged as cheating; I don’t think the instructor was pleased with the committee’s decision, but I think the students felt heard and taken seriously, and that’s important.)

Even within the discussion of plagiarism, ChatGPT isn’t completely new. Ask any language teacher about Google Translate, for instance. Creative teachers of languages have found all sorts of ways to deal with Google Translate (and its ilk) over the years, and there’s plenty of scholarship on the good, bad, and ugly of the tool at this point that could, perhaps, inform conversations about ChatGPT.

Some of the best responses to the panic about ChatGPT and education have emphasized the learning opportunity idea. (This is to ignore for now the necessary question of whether any engagement, positive or negative, with ChatGPT feeds into its creators’ purposes, providing them with free labor, beta-testing, and data to exploit for their own capitalist ventures. That’s an important question, but hardly unique to ChatGPT.)

It’s possible that teachers are especially panicked about ChatGPT and plagiarism because there is a lingering fantasy that student writing is the last pure form of assessment. Of course, that’s not remotely true, not only because plenty of smart people are terrible writers, but also because using other people’s words has never been all that difficult for students. The panic over it has led to the commodification of it: writers can make money by writing stuff for people less skilled with language, tech companies like Turnitin can then exploit teachers’ fears. Since some rich clod paid a smart peasant to write something for him at a medieval university, academia has been rife with people getting other people to do their work for them. It might even be considered one of the basic principals of academic institutions. How many university presidents write their own books … speeches … emails?

In that — admittedly cynical — sense, ChatGPT is just democratizing what has always been available to the rich and powerful. I am not here to argue it is a good thing, but I do think we ought not be too starry-eyed about the purity of our profession. Instead, we should seek opportunities for learning and teaching as well as opportunities to strengthen our scholarly communities.

Susan Blum explored the hows and whys of plagiarism and college culture well back in 2009, and the most interesting pedagogy around plagiarism has always emphasized the need to explore motives, which can be many. Plagiarism tends to push teachers toward knee-jerk reactions and the worst sorts of carceral thinking — instead of asking “How can we understand this multifaceted phenomenon?”, which is the usual academic approach to all sorts of things, we instead jump to, “How can I punish this student so severely that they will never in their life ever do anything remotely like this again?!?”

Yet, as much as I think a moment of plagiarism is a moment for us to have a conversation with a student to see what’s going on with them — most often, it’s either an issue of time or confusion (so we have to talk about how they’re using their time and what their priorities are; or we have to talk about why they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do, or didn’t understand the idea of originality we venerate) — and as much as I think a moment of plagiarism is a moment for us to consider what it is within our pedagogy that made plagiarism seem a viable option … still, I hold onto the idea of academic integrity as meaningful and even, dare I say it, sacred.

Scholarship and Integrity

When it comes to scholarship, academic integrity is the bedrock. Academic integrity enables the systems of scholarship to proceed openly and effectively because it creates a mutualistic system of trust. However, I think we conceive of both scholarship and academic integrity too narrowly.

One of the things that most concerns me about academia in the United States is the way we are pushing so many of our systems away from integrity. Think about the meaning of the word itself. Yes, the meaning I am most concerned with here is integrity as honesty and trust. But another meaning is unity, wholeness. The two meanings fit together when we consider academia.

The adjunctification of higher education diminishes academic integrity. Faculty who can’t make a decent wage, who are barely allowed any connection with the institution, who are treated as if they are disposable — this is a problem for academic integrity. Why should those faculty trust the institution? Why should they be honest with it themselves? How can students develop the mentorship relationships essential to scholarly work if they can’t trust that, barring emergencies, a faculty member will be around from one semester to the next?

The diminishment and active destruction of tenure is an attack on academic integrity. We usually talk about tenure as a tool for ensuring academic freedom, but there are a bunch of problems with that, a big one being that it makes academic freedom a privilege of the tenured few. A healthy educational institution is one that seeks to make academic freedom and academic integrity bedrock concepts shared by every member of the scholarly community: faculty, students, staff, guests. Tenure helps preserve academic integrity by providing a base level of both job security and scholarly expectations, but it must be seen as only one feature in a broad landscape of freedom and integrity or else it becomes a tool of hierarchy and oppression. Tenure at its best ought to strengthen, encourage, and make visible the institution’s commitment to its scholars and each tenured scholar’s commitment to the institution. (Sadly, these days tenure is often little more than a weak guarantee of due process when the administration wants to fire someone. Not only has it been weakened, but its purpose, meaning, and value to the institution have been chiseled away.) A school that prioritizes hiring faculty in whatever way it is easiest to fire them is not a school that supports academic integrity — it is a school that is actively working against academic integrity.

The perpetual understaffing that creates burnout is a problem of academic integrity because it grinds people down and pushes them away from a sense of meaning, forcing them to do exactly what a plagiarizing student does: triage their way through deadlines and bureaucracy.

In utterly concrete ways the push to increase class sizes, cut majors, emphasize standardized tests, and gut higher education destroys academic integrity. In a brief but meaningful post about ChatGPT and plagiarism, Douglas Rushkoff writes:

I understand why we might want to give competency exams to paramedics and cab drivers before entrusting them with our lives, but a liberal arts education is not a license to practice; it is an invitation to engage with ideas, culture, and society.

That’s a hard culture to engender with 50 or more students in a “seminar”, or several hundred in a lecture, particularly when many colleges can no longer afford Teaching Assistants or graduate students to help read papers. It’s even harder when students are showing up more for the credit than the learning.

There’s our problem. Not any one particular tool or technology. Our institutions are being hollowed out, desiccated, all their structural and academic integrity weakened.

Austerity Is Not Integrity

The ideology of austerity is an ideology directly at odds with academic integrity.

The fault is not entirely at the feet of academic administrators. The work and structures of administration tempt even good, idealistic people to become bean counters, grumps, and dreamkillers beholden to the draconian pragmatics of the day’s most immediate crisis. It is a rare administrator who can nurture a vision greater than that of the culture they are stuck in, which for us in the US today is a materialistic, consumerist, individualistic one antagonistic toward any idea of the public good. Wealthy private colleges are still able to talk idealistically about learning; public schools have to slash everything except whatever happens to be most vocationally in vogue at the moment (thus moving the burden of paying for training away from employers to public education, another way of making our society subservient to business). American society seems content to leave real education to the rich and to give the rest of us scraps of job training for plebes.

Still, even in a time of crass and empty social visions, administrators could conceive their role as not to enforce academic hunger games but rather to protect and serve the integrity of the academic mission. The academic mission is, after all, the whole reason we have colleges in the first place.

This does happen, and it happens in unexpected places. Sometimes the administrators who are best at achieving such a public vision are ones in the most difficult circumstances. I recently heard a community college president in a rural New England place (one of the most economically destitute areas of the state and a school without many resources) say that the school’s Education major was not doing well in terms of enrollment (none are right now), but they’re continuing to support it vigorously because that major is central to their mission as a school.

That’s academic integrity.

Magical Ethics

Beyond a sense of mission, purpose, and vision, perhaps we could also help communicate the idea of academic integrity as an ethic.

I think here of magicians. There is an unspoken code of ethics between performers of magic. In his book How Magicians Think, Joshua Jay explains well how it works. Most magicians are hugely generous with each other. They guard their secrets from the public, because their performances depend on that secrecy, but most magicians also love teaching their effects to serious students and colleagues. There are long lineages of effects and techniques passed down through generations of magicians, almost like how dharma is passed through generations of Buddhist teachers and students. But there is also an unspoken, absolute rule that the only person who can reveal a trick is the person who invented it, and another unspoken, absolute rule that you do not perform anyone else’s effects or techniques without permission. Violating these rules once will likely spark a conversation — a cease and desist request — while violating them repeatedly will lead to exile. As Joshua Jay says, the magic community is small, and known offenders get shunned, which can mean the end of a career.

We’re talking about professional magicians there, not students. Students of magic have to learn both the techniques and the ethics. Most importantly, they need to learn the purpose of the ethics. Magicians have kept their code for centuries because everyone who enters the magic community learns the logic, understands how it supports the community, and knows that ultimately it helps them as individuals.

Academia may not need to be so severe when dealing with people of bad intentions, but there are real reasons why we are aghast at fraud. Beyond the core reasons for not supporting fraud, there are also lots of interesting and complex conversations to be had about all this — conversations that could help us better communicate about the work we do and help students and the public better understand the strange world of academia. Bringing students into those conversations can both increase engagement with academic ideas and help students understand themselves as part of a scholarly community.

When I was an English teacher, I moved away from teaching a particular citation system (MLA in my case) and toward teaching the ideas behind citation: why do we do it, how is it different between different disciplines and formats, and how students might think of citation as a communication tool rather than a set of rules to memorize (and often violate). Plagiarism of course came up in those conversations, but what I discovered is that students had been taught that citation exists to avoid plagiarism, which is a bass-ackwards way of thinking of it. Yes, citation helps us avoid plagiarism. But its purpose is far more important, interesting, and useful: to make knowledge available to other scholars, help the body of our writing stay clear, and pay acknowledgement where it is due.

By approaching citation in this way, and helping students see it as a tool they could and should make choices with, I both reduced plagiarism and, more importantly, saw students making rational, thoughtful, and creative choices about citation and their own writing. It quickly became one of my favorite lessons in classes because it became a lesson about empowerment.

Integrity as Empowerment

How, I wonder, might questions of academic integrity become lessons about empowerment?

Let’s consider a prominent recent — and negative — example: #ReceptioGate. As well explained in this article by Charlotte Gauthier, the massive fraud apparently committed by a few people who created a European “research institute” called Receptio is an impressively eggregious example of how academia has made bad behavior attractive and unavoidable:

Reducing research to a numbers game incentivises gaming the numbers, not scholarship.

Unsurprisingly, the all-importance of numbers on both the individual university and higher education sector level has led in some instances to academic fraud. People set up spurious “research institutes” to capture grants, and they focus their efforts on producing derivative (if not actually plagiarised) work that can be published quickly, artificially boosting their publication metrics. This appears to have been the modus operandi of the Receptio Institute. Those who are the most skilled at playing the system are often not the ones who do the best and most important research, simply because historical research and system-gaming are two difficult-to-master and usually non-overlapping skill sets. Even in the normal, non-fraudulent course of events, applying for competitive grants takes huge amounts of time and effort that could be much better spent on innovative scholarship than on form-filling.

Or think back to The Wire, which taught us all about juking the stats — and even explained it within the context of education.

What we first need to see is how discussion of academic integrity, fraud, technology, scholarship, austerity, and the public good are all interrelated. Separating one from the other may lead to tolerable immediate solutions, but it does not get to the the core of any of the problems or opportunities.

There’s a growing body of research that suggests one of the key determiners of student success at an institution is a sense of belonging. (I myself wrote in 2018, passing on the wisdom of a mentor: “a successful institution is one where everybody in the community feels known, needed, and cared for.”) Rarely have I seen this sense of belonging identified as a sense of belonging to the scholarly community, but that must be part of it, because the only justification for a school to exist is for it to create, enhance, and strengthen scholarly communities. Everything else can be done at least as well and probably cheaper by other institutions. What distinguishes a school, and particularly a college or university, from every other type of institution and community on the planet is scholarship: the pursuit of knowledge.

That’s the belonging that we ought to celebrate in schools. It’s the belonging we ought to work to open up, to expand, to give strength to. A strong and vital scholarly community is a community with academic integrity. 

Let that be our mission and vision. 

Let it inspire and empower us.

image by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

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