Popular culture sometimes characterizes adolescents as trying on personalities as often as one tries on clothes. Developmental theory offers us insight that this transitional period into adulthood finds adolescents weighing the benefits of their parents’ influences over that of their peers and peer groups (Erickson, 1950). Their shifts in outlooks and perspectives during this developmental stage can present this group as unsettled and without the “wholeness and completeness” (Allen, 2016, p. 160) of old age. In other words, adolescent personalities can be viewed as lacking integrity.
I am thinking about this idea as my institution prepares to launch an initiative to promote academic integrity. “Bring it on!” say I who, as the associate dean in the School of Arts and Sciences, confronts the lion’s share of academic dishonesty cases at the university’s traditional campus site. The cases involve a variety of transgressions from simple teaching moments—an earnest attempt at paraphrasing that more closely mimics plagiarism—to outright contract cheating using one of the thousands of essay mills found online.
I have also had the occasion to serve on a task force investigating the issue across our university. This work has afforded me the opportunity to uncover the breadth and depth of this problem. My participation with the group has guided me towards considering how the average adolescent who is lacking the wholeness and completeness of their future, mature self psychologically encounters the concept of academic integrity.
The work of anthropologist Susan Blum of the University Notre Dame offers theories into this intersection of personality development and institutional expectations of integrity. In her 2009 book My Word!, Blum suggested that our traditional-age students on college campuses are immersed in their performance selves. Blum noted this personality model as changing with contexts; the model takes on multiple selves in order to achieve desired results. This performance character is distinguished from the authentic self, which parallels the wholeness, completeness, and resoluteness that some of us attain with age when keeping up with the newest fashions and fads takes on less importance.
This perspective can help us understand that our students might stumble with academic integrity because they are not able to possess it: they have not reached an age of completeness and wholeness and are experimenting with multiple versions of their selves.
In adjudicating cases of academic honesty, it could be helpful to consider this period of personality development and the multiple versions of self among our traditional-age learners. Alongside trying on different personalities, there is a possibility that students might be experimenting with trying on the role of an expert in their studies. There is an education technique known as the “mantle of the expert” in which the teacher assumes the role of enabler for the student to take on the position of the expert (Heathcote & Herbert, 1985). Though this process utilizes drama techniques for this role transition to occur, it seems to me that this is the essence of what we want to transpire for our learners.
We also might be in the presence of this role transition with incidents of academic dishonesty. It is my experience that we are sometimes witnessing our students taking on the mantle of the expert when we encounter occurrences of “patchwriting.” Rebecca Moore Howard of Syracuse University coined this term in her 1999 Standing in the Shadows of Giants. Howard framed this phenomenon of substituting words and grammatical structures of source texts as a form of taking on the mantle of the expert. She proposed that:
…students’ patchwriting is often a move toward membership in a discourse community, a means of learning unfamiliar language and ideas. Far from indicating a lack of respect for a source text, their patchwriting is a gesture of reverence. The patchwriter recognizes the profundity of the source and strives to join the conversation in which the source participates. To join this conversation, the patchwriter employs the language of the target community (Howard, 1999, p. 7).
It can be argued that in incidents of patchwriting, a student is making an earnest attempt to join the academy. They adopt the language and ideas they encounter in their course readings and try them out in assignments. While the accuracy of citation within patchwriting is not correct, the process does present a teachable moment: we have the opportunity to coach the student’s nascent intellect towards membership in our discourse community.
To distinguish patchwriting from an otherwise lazy attempt at completing an assignment requires instructors to know their students. It requires the time to uncover the process students undertook resulting in improper citation or plagiarism. Evangeline Harris Stefanakis of Lesley University reminded us in Multiple Intelligences and Portfolios (2002) that the “the word assess comes from the Latin assidere, which means to sit beside. Literally then, to assess means to sit beside the learner” (p. 9).
I want my faculty to take the time to sit beside their students to investigate the causes of their students’ apparent cheating. It is imperative for us to know why cheating occurs and to penalize violations of academic honesty when merited. At the same time, we do not want to risk making learning punitive when our students are striving to mimic academic discourse. We must not lose the chance to open the door into membership in the academic community.
Allen, B. P. (2016). Personality theories: Development, growth, and diversity (5th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Blum, Susan D. (2010) My word!: Plagiarism and college culture (1st ed.) Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Growth and crises of the “healthy personality.” In M. J. E. Senn (Ed.), Symposium on the healthy personality (pp. 91-146). Oxford, England: Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation.
Heathcote, D. & Herbert, P. (1985, Summer). A drama of learning: Mantle of the expert. Theory into Practice, 24(3), pp.173-180.
Howard, R. M. (1999). Standing in the shadow of giants: Plagiarists, authors, collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Stefanakis, E. H. (2002). Multiple intelligences and portfolios: A window into the learner’s mind. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.