Arguing against Turnitin

This week a colleague wrote to ask for strategies in arguing against the use of Turnitin. Although my answer encourages a labor-intensive approach, I’ll post and expand on it here, in case others might find it useful.
I find that the issue of Turnitin adherence derives from the instructor’s a priori model of students. As is evident in so much discourse in places like the Chronicle and IHE, many of our colleagues are entrenched in an agonistic stance toward students in the aggregate: students are lazy, illiterate, anti-intellectual cheaters who must prove their worth to the instructor. Turnitin and its automated assessment of student writing is a tool for that proof that instructors believe is labor-free for them. It’s really hard to argue them down from something so convenient that so neatly reifies their image of students. For these instructors, pointing out how poorly Turnitin performs, how limited its  algorithms are, how much it taints the instructor-student relationship, the extent to which it diverts instructor attention from the more important tasks of teaching students to write from sources, and how much it infringes on students’ right in copy–well, for these instructors, rational arguments against Turnitin fall on fallow ground.
That’s one of the great uses of the Citation Project: no instructors aren’t fascinated by its findings; none of them say the findings don’t matter; and all of them readily grasp that to teach students better requires mentoring, not machines. Recently I presented the research to a faculty group and pointed out that using Turnitin answers none of the problems revealed by the research, and it keeps both instructors and students focused on the avoidance of plagiarism rather than on the larger and more compelling questions of responsible and authentic engagement with sources. As I noted these problems with Turnitin, my audience began shifting in their seats and looking at each other: it was clear that they were Turnitin users who were suddenly uncomfortable with that fact. Will it change their practice? I won’t know, but I’ll hope so.
If you want to point people to the CP research, the links from this page might be helpful. Basically, I think the best anti-Turnitin argument is this indirect one. But it’s labor intensive!

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