During my sabbatical from high school teaching during the 2009-2010 school year, our family moved to China. There, my wife and I worked at a university as English instructors.
My main course was a survey of English literature. It covered English literary history, but also explored scores of accessible modern American short stories, poetry, and a few novels.
A Pleasant Surprise
When I began the course, I was curious whether Chinese students would be able to understand the nuances of literature. I also secretly wondered even whether they would read the works. Had the cancer of Sparknotes spread across the Pacific from my American high school students?
I found most of my students could comprehend the literature and speak intelligently about it in class discussion. It proved a pleasant surprise! If they were only reading Sparknotes, they were reading carefully!
I decided I would assess the class with two five-page papers related to the literature we were reading. I'd have one due at midterm and one at the end of the semester. This is where I hit my first cross-cultural roadblock.
A Series of Unexpected Shocks
I collected the papers through an online process. It allowed me to check for plagiarism, a common practice in my American high school. The results shocked me. There was only one of my 200 students who hadn’t significantly plagiarized their midterm paper. Some of them had borrowed their papers wholesale from the internet. Meanwhile, others had patched together sentences and paragraphs from a variety of sources without citation.
What to do? As a foreign teacher, I was a refreshing change for students studying English from mostly native Chinese-speaking professors. Those instructors tended to use lecture as their only pedagogical tool. Many foreign teachers’ only credential for teaching was that they were native English speakers. So many Chinese students viewed their classes with foreign teachers as fun, but not particularly rigorous. Was the “fun” foreign teacher going to flunk all of his students on the first paper of the term?
At about the same time, several members of the English Department faculty had asked for my help with a book-editing project. The book I was proofing was a textbook written in collaboration among four of the professors at the university. I had been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing. I found myself mainly just contributing understanding of differences between English and American vocabulary and punctuation practices.
After seeing the amount of plagiarism in my student papers, on a whim, I submitted some of the text of the professors’ book to check their work. To my surprise, significant portions of the book, especially sentence exercises, were plagiarized from a variety of textbooks from England!
In my indignation, I thought about writing a big expose of the corruption of the Chinese university. But then I cooled down and began to think.
Gathering My Thoughts
First of all, both Chinese instructors and students were operating in a second language. This in a country where they had very little access to native English speakers to learn the nuances of the language.
Secondly, the internet has opened up a whole new resource for people who are studying language to access correct examples of language for study. The professors, for example, had mostly written their own English explanations of grammar in their textbook. But they had borrowed a lot of the exercises from other sources, perhaps so the examples would be in real native English.
As for the students, the classes from foreigners were the whipped cream on the top of the sundae of their formal English education. The typical English major took a class from a foreigner to learn slang and gain a window into another place. It also gave students an opportunity to hang out with someone who could potentially offer contacts in America or the UK. This could help facilitate a visit to an English-speaking country. You didn’t take one of these classes to do in-depth original research on literary ideas.
In addition, China is a group culture. The radical individualism of American culture inform our ideas about plagiarism. We value individuality above almost all else. The idea of "stealing" someone else’s idea then becomes a greater transgression. This is because we value the originality of the individual so much. For a member of a group culture, accuracy in writing English may be more important than saying something unique.
Glad I Didn’t Act Without Thinking
As I thought about these things, I decided to give “B’s” to everyone. Then we had a discussion about plagiarism and what American universities expect. I did this in case any of my students ended up studying there.
As expected, my students expressed shock I would even check their papers for plagiarism. I also discovered they treated borrowing as a much more serious offense in the papers they wrote in Chinese. After this discussion, I asked them to cite any borrowed material in their end-of-term paper. Overall, they did a much better job on the second paper.
As for the professors, I quietly asked a few people about who was publishing the book. I suggested it might be best to cite the sources of the exercises. Again, it surprised the professors I thought of this as plagiarism. But they agreed to cite their sources. So I felt I had helped them understand the way Americans view intellectual property a little better .
Different cultures have different attitudes toward the borrowing of words and ideas. When we educate each other about our practices before getting frustrated and defensive, we can moderate our actions to meet the other culture’s requirements. And achieve greater mutual understanding.
What experiences have you had with plagiarism and culture?