Last night, the ABC’s Four Corners ran a much anticipated piece on student recruitment and the management of academic standards in Australian universities, particularly as these issues relate to the international students on whom the sector depends. Degrees of Deception can be watched online, if you missed it, and has prompted this response from an experienced casual academic with a work history at several institutions. (This contributor has asked us to post this under our names, so as not to associate these sector-wide issues with one university in particular.)
During the program broadcast, several comments noted on Twitter that casualisation of teaching is key to this issue, and noted in particular the courage of sessional academic staff who agreed to be interviewed. And a cheer from CASA to reporter Linton Besser and producer Peter Cronau for the fact that the program itself made clear that casualisation is a serious factor.
Nevertheless, this morning The Conversation has put out a follow-up piece which does not mention casualisation at all. The ICAC NSW report covered by Four Corners doesn’t address this directly either. Both treat universities as staffed only by “academics” without any consideration of how more than half are paid, or why this is relevant. — Karina & Kate
I have quite a bit to say about sessional/casual academics and student academic misconduct.
First things first. Last night’s piece mentioned text-matching software as an important tool for maintaining standards of academic integrity. Although some providers are better than others, text-matching software will only ever catch some plagiarism—the pretty obvious and lazy cases (direct copy-paste from public, digitised sources, and matches to previous work in the system). Text-matching software isn’t particularly effective at identifying where students have used a thesaurus to swap out a few words, or where they’ve rearranged a sentence/passage. It’s not going to catch shifts in tense, tone, vocabulary, citation style, argument or even formatting that can indicate dodgy work. It’s not going to catch where the student has pulled passages out of books that haven’t been digitised. It’s not going to identify mis/misleading/false attributions, or suspiciously marked changes in quality of argument or written expression.
Identifying those instances of plagiarism and academic misconduct requires a person, and this person is now very likely to be an academic casual paid by the hour.
Detecting plagiarism/academic misconduct is a skill, and like any it takes time and practice to get good at it. Casual academics may or may not have the opportunity to hone that skill. Me? I’ve had a lot of experience, and I’ve always had a slightly disturbing natural aptitude for spotting it. It’s a dubious talent, but a talent nonetheless.
Despite my experience and natural aptitude, I have spent many unpaid hours, days—probably weeks, over the years—investigating and documenting plagiarism and academic misconduct. Like many aspects of sessional employment, getting the job done properly depends on me being willing to donate my labour for free, well beyond the hours that I’m paid.
When a casual academic suspects plagiarism/academic misconduct, they have three options.
1. Ignore it (as we heard from the Four Corners report, this may be tacitly encouraged in some departments/institutions).
2. Painstakingly build a case (work that is very likely to be unpaid, time-consuming, frustrating and difficult) and give the evidence to the course convenor. At many institutions, casual academics do not have the power to file an academic misconduct claim, pursue it, or make decisions about it—only contract/permanent course convenors can. So they hand off the evidence to the course convenor, who may have had little (or no) contact with the student to date.
3. Notify the course convenor without building a case, and just flagging it as a possible problem. The problem here is that the casual worker, by virtue of having had more direct contact with students and with their work, is often in the best position to interrogate potential problems. Course convenors, even with the best of intentions, may not see what a casual saw, and may not pursue it any further or may require the casual to weigh in on the process and advise them, attend meetings with the student, etc. (again, this work is very likely to be unpaid).
As Four Corners explained, pursuing plagiarism/academic misconduct cases can be arduous, unclear, and time-consuming. University level academic standards aren’t treated lightly, and universities have developed labyrinthine processes to defend themselves against risk. So many academics instead choose to give unofficial warnings to students rather than follow official procedure. This means that a student might receive countless, undocumented warnings (even unseen warnings, if they are merely written on an assignment that may never be collected) before their misconduct comes to the attention of someone willing and able to follow procedure.
So, at a typical university in a typical course, it will be casuals who identify and flag/document plagiarism, but the process of formal investigation, reporting, decision making and referral upwards is left to course convenors, who are also trying to manage increasing workloads.
This is despite the fact that the course convenor may not know the student from a blurred face behind a laptop in a packed lecture hall, and that the casual is generally in a much better position to judge whether the plagiarism/academic misconduct was undertaken with the intent to deceive, or accidental due to poor research, writing and referencing skills, or due to a student struggling with their work, panic or personal issues: language issues, family problems, health, work-life balance issues.
Casuals may also be in the best position to get an honest answer from a student about what happened, as they are more likely to have an existing relationship with them, and to make constructive recommendations through the official process about a case. Does the student need foundational skill development? Do they need to consider adjusting their course load? Do they need to seek additional forms of support? Would resubmitting (for no higher than a pass grade) be helpful and appropriate? Are more serious consequences warranted?
In other words, casualisation divides the person who identified the plagiarism/misconduct, who has arguably the most informed perspective on a given case and given student, from the outcome, while at the same time relying on their unpaid time to make the case in the first place. Of course the increased rate of casualisation is going to have an impact on academic integrity.
Finally, and I could write a whole other post on this point alone: rising levels of plagiarism/academic misconduct may indicate a pedagogical, curriculum, or structural problem. Guess which academics are in the best position to identify and address those problems? Casuals. Guess who are typically excluded from those discussions? CASUALS.
Once more with feeling: casualisation divides folk with the best understanding of the teaching needs of a cohort from decision making about teaching. And so we cannot address the problem of academic integrity in Australian universities without talking with the frontline academics we expect to manage it, in their own unpaid time.