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IN MY OPINION

Is nothing sacred? Our personal teaching philosophies have been plagiarized

The copyists range from a Grade 4 English teacher to an academic at a highly regarded university.

By MARY ANNE WHITE AND JOAN DAVISON CONROD | JAN 13 2016

We are concerned that there appears to be widespread plagiarism of our personal statements of teaching philosophy. Teaching philosophies are meant to be intensely individual statements. The idea that academics would plagiarize in this area is absurd, especially since we know that plagiarism is a serious issue in academic circles. We are concerned that, having generously allowed our teaching philosophies to be used in resource material, they were then published online by others as unattributed “examples” and also widely plagiarized.

Do you review the teaching philosophy statements of others, perhaps in teaching dossiers contained in tenure, promotion or application files? If any of the following statements seem familiar, you should be uneasy:

  • “By their very nature, people are inquisitive.”
  • “The goal of education should be to encourage seeking answers, as it is in this way that we advance.”
  • “I bring a lot of energy to my class. If I can’t get excited about my subject, why should my students?”

These statements are from our personal written teaching philosophies and we assure you that every phrase was original when we crafted our separate philosophies.

Carol O’Neil and Alan Wright of Dalhousie University’s Centre for Learning and Teaching created a resource in the 1990’s titled Recording Teaching Accomplishment, subsequently revised as far as a fifth edition. It is a widely used resource for those preparing a teaching dossier. Along with several others, we granted permission for our teaching philosophies, or complete dossiers, to be included. In this resource, all the teaching philosophy authors were appropriately attributed. Fast-forward 20 years.

Recently, one of us was advising a young scholar who was applying for her first academic position. The full teaching philosophy statement document, briefly quoted in the first two statements above, was shared with her, along with the comment, “Of course yours will be quite different, but I thought this might help turn some gears for you.” The young scholar replied: “Did you know a version of your teaching statement is online?” and included a link.

Indeed, we then discovered the same link to our teaching philosophies after we Googled “teaching philosophy examples.” These were on the website of a Teaching Support Centre at a major Canadian University, not Dalhousie. The only attribution was “Taken from Dalhousie University’s Guide to Teaching Dossier.” The full documents were not cited and no authorship was acknowledged, although our authorship was specifically acknowledged in the Dalhousie resource. No permission was sought from the authors to use the works on the website.

This led us to further investigation. In fact, when we Google the line “I bring a lot of energy to my class…” quoted above, we find 16 direct hits in the first two pages of Google results, word-for-word from other instructors’ teaching philosophies. The copyists are from around the world and range from a Grade 4 English teacher to an academic at a highly regarded Canadian university. Google is illuminating at times.

Looking deeper, we observed one teaching philosophy that said, “By their very nature, people are inquisitive. The goal of education should be to encourage seeking answers, as it is in this way that we advance.” You might want to compare that to the first two statements above and reflect on whose teaching philosophy it is. We believe that many more paraphrased versions, and many off-line versions, of our teaching philosophies exist.

Having the “example” teaching philosophies so readily available may have eased the path for others to write (or cut-and-paste) “their” teaching philosophies. We also wonder if the fact that these online teaching philosophies were unattributed contributed to the issue.

This situation came to light just days before the start of our fall term, a time of year when we begin our courses with strong admonition to our students that all works quoted must be properly attributed, with dire consequences for any offenders. At Dalhousie University, our policy clearly states that plagiarism includes “failure to attribute authorship when using sources.” We expect that all reputable universities have similar policies.

The Teaching Support Center website from the university that used our work without attribution clearly did not meet these criteria. To their credit, they removed our unattributed material on the same day that we reported it. However, there is a basic level of trust that we feel has been violated.

As academics, we know that our communities value original thought and original research. Through carefully crafted academic integrity guides, we appropriately censor students and peers who are guilty of plagiarism. In our experience, cases in this area have been focused on plagiarism (or falsification) of student work or academic research.

Perhaps as we grow as a teaching community, the intensely personal statements we make in our teaching philosophies will be granted equal respect. In the meantime, we would like our broad academic community to understand that the apparently widespread “appropriation” of our words is not flattering, but in fact is deeply offensive.

Mary Anne White is the Harry Shirreff Professor of Chemical Research, and Joan Davison Conrod is a professor in the Rowe School of Business, both at Dalhousie University.

 

 

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  1. Peter Watson / January 14, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Although I totally agree with the principle that work should never be plagiarized, I think this article hides a deeper problem. As an administrator, I read a large number of “teaching philosophies” in applications for academic positions and came to the conclusion they were almost worthless. Effectively they all repeat the same basic ideas. I realized this when I was forced to write my own teaching philosophy in an application for a teaching award. I read through several as preparation, and found I had nothing new to say. So I simply quoted a student who had written “ I did not enjoy this course at all. Dr….. expected us to think about new ideas in almost every class” on a teaching evaluation. I got the award.

  2. David Fernández / March 3, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    I do think that it’s hard to draw the precise boundary between plagiarism and non-plagiarism. Just because a teaching statement includes the sentence “I bring a lot of energy to my class”, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s intentional plagiarism (maybe the sentence just came to the author’s mind, without the author remembering having read that sentence elsewhere) and maybe not even unintentional plagiarism (this sentence looks generic enough that, given the sheer amount of people that at some point or another have to write a teaching statement, statistically we should expect the sentence to be written every now and then, independently, by different people).

    Of course, in the presence of other similarities to the teaching statement samples in question (but not just for containing that one single sentence), then that would certainly be grounds for considering it plagiarism, something that should be obviously unacceptable but, sadly, isn’t.

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