It never fails to happen. It also never fails to make me mad. I have, once again, caught a student plagiarizing. This happens so frequently (comprising anywhere from 5-15% of my students each semester) that maybe I should be over it, but I get furious every time. What is wrong with our society that so many of our young people don’t give a damn about cheating? And why is it that so few teachers care?
I remember when I was in college at New Mexico State University, a student turned in a plagiarized paper to one of my English classes. He disappeared from that class with an F and there was a rumor that he might be expelled. I was amazed more than shocked. Who in the world would even have the idea of turning in someone else’s work as their own? The concept had never occurred to me. I didn’t know it was even possible to do such a thing. Once I realized it was possible, I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to do that. I liked writing. I liked learning things.
But I was also naive about plagiarism in other ways. A fellow student in one of my classes, an older gentleman in his thirties, told me he’d had a great idea for a paper until he went to the library and found out that somebody had already written that argument. “I had to toss that paper,” he said, “because turning it in would be plagiarism.” I assumed that if the idea was original to you–meaning, nobody had suggested the idea, and you hadn’t read it elsewhere first–you could write about it. Maybe part of the problem was that I didn’t spend much time in the library as an undergraduate.
As a teacher, I see egregious versions of plagiarism every single semester. Usually, the students have simply bought one of those free essays online, all too easy for me to find. Also frequent, but less common, a student will cut and paste sentences from several different sources, cobbling together a paper of sorts. I usually have my students write an honesty pledge but it doesn’t stop them. Once, my students signed an honesty pledge that included a sentence reminding them that “cutting and pasting” sentences from other sources without proper attribution was plagiarism. An older student, in his forties, turned in a paper that I found word for word on the internet.
“But I didn’t cut and paste,” he protested. “I printed it out and then re-typed it!!!”
I was dumbfounded. “And you really can’t see that typing somebody else’s essay and turning it in as your own is cheating, just as if you’d cut and pasted it into a document?” I asked. Several times, I admit. I was really shocked that he couldn’t see the difference.
“No,” he kept saying, and finally, “You’re making me feel really dumb.”
“I don’t think you belong in a college level writing class yet,” I said, and directed him to drop the class and enroll in a remedial writing class.
I still don’t understand why so many students cheat. But the truth is, they get away with it a lot. I still care, and I still do what I can, but there is nowhere I have taught–including Stanford–that makes it simple and easy to deal adequately with a clear case of plagiarism. Most community colleges limit what punishments you can mete out. Most of them allow you to flunk that paper or assignment, but you cannot flunk the student for the entire class. And expelling a student? Forget about it!
The most demoralizing experience I had as a professor was how one community college dealt with a case of plagiarism I discovered late in the semester a few years ago. The student in question–female and Asian (an important fact, as you’ll see in a minute)–had completely and totally plagiarized her research paper, which was worth 50% of the class grade. There was no question about the fact that she had plagiarized it. I was so mad that I went back and checked her other assignments and sure enough, she’d plagiarized every single assignment she’d turned in, all semester long.
When I informed her that I would be failing her and recommending that she be expelled (this was still an option at that point), she accused me of being racist and sexist. “I’ve had problems with other professors who don’t like that I’m female or Asian,” she said. She demanded that, in order to prove that I was fair-minded, I must go back and check all the other assignments turned in by every other student.
“None of them plagiarized their research paper,” I told her, “so no, I’m not going to do that.”
She decided to protest the findings. Regardless of the fact that the case of plagiarism was clear and uncontestable, a student has the right to a hearing by a board consisting of students, professors, and administrators. I believe students absolutely have the right to appeal, but I couldn’t believe what happened in this particular case. She demanded the restitution of an A grade and, while the board didn’t go quite that far (they couldn’t, because the evidence of her plagiarism was so overwhelming), they did decide to give her a W. She faced absolutely no repercussions for her clear and flagrant disregard for academic honesty.
For those of us who are adjunct professors anywhere, our employment is tenuous enough that I understand why so many of us choose not to rock the boat and why so many of us just ignore plagiarism when it’s staring us in the face. When the administration doesn’t care, and the penalty for cheating is laughable, and we need to both retain students and not fail very many students, why should we do anything at all?
With the student I just discovered plagiarizing, I gave him a zero for the assignment. I told him he cannot revise the essay and turn it back in again. Like my other students who cheat, he signed an honesty pledge at the beginning of the semester, promising not to plagiarize. Will he flunk the class? It all depends on how he does with the rest of his assignments. The essay is worth 10% of his grade. If he averages a B- for the other assignments he turns in, he’ll be fine.
Makes me mad. But there’s very little I can do about it.