Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Home Stretch

We're in finals week now at CU. I'm still grading the last set of papers from my Major Social Theories class, which I received last week, planning to hand them back to the students at the exam on Wednesday evening, and then I'll have their exams to grade, but I'm going to turn in all my grades on Friday, by hook or by crook (no, by dint of sustained, patient, plodding toil), and then on Friday I'll don my regalia and attend the festive fun of commencement. And then on Saturday, I'm heading off to Cabo with two writer friends for my first-ever sojourn in Mexico (well, the part of Mexico that has Walmart, Costco, and Sam's Club) and my first-ever stay at a posh resort. The plan for how to spend our time in Cabo? What do you think it is? Yes, write! We're going to look out at the sun sparkling on the water and write.

But first there is all that grading. And yesterday I found the SECOND plagiarized paper this semester from this same class, despite an explicit statement in writing on every paper assignment that "all sources consulted in the writing of this paper must be fully acknowledged," on pain of receiving a failing grade not only on the paper, but for the entire course. A lesser penalty - failing the student only on the plagiarized assignment - would be tantamount to treating a plagiarized paper on a par with a missing paper, and surely it is worse to steal a paper than simply to fail to turn one in.

Whenever I find a plagiarized paper, the process is always the same. First I see a sentence, or two, or three, that simply could not be the work on an undergraduate student, even a brilliant undergraduate student: the sentence is simply too intellectually confident, making claims beyond anything we discussed together in class. I Google the sentence, or key phrases in it: it comes right up. Now I'm hot on the trail, making sentence-for-sentence matches with other sources. Sometimes the student takes the pains to paraphrase a bit, but the similarity, sentence by sentence, is too marked to be a coincidence. There is a certain exhilaration at this stage in the process.

Then I email the student with a stern, blunt message that the paper has been found to be plagiarized, and the student will now fail the course.

Then I wait for the student's response. And now, it all turns from weirdly exhilarating to just plain sickening: oh, the waste, the tragic stupid waste, of all this student's work for the semester! I feel like relenting, giving a second chance somehow. And yet - this wasn't just a clumsy error in knowing the difference between word-for-word quotations and paraphrasing. This was wholesale intellectual dishonesty.

The previous student who plagiarized this semester responded in a way that I've never had a student respond in my almost twenty years of teaching. He wrote that all he asked was to meet with me one last time, not to beg me to change my sanction, but to apologize to me in person for what he had done, so that my last impression of him wouldn't be his wrongdoing but his attempt to take responsibility for what he had done. Wow. He sure did change my impression of him. I think that young man has a hopeful future ahead of him.

This one emailed me that he thinks he should be allowed to add the missing citations now, retroactively, the citations he COULD have added in the first place if he hadn't been trying to pass off someone else's ideas as his own. He claims that this is common practice at the university. Is it? I've just emailed my colleagues to see what they think. Maybe I'm just too old, too much of a fuddy-duddy. And, oh, I do believe in second chances and getting to salvage a situation and turn wrong to right. But I think the way to do this is the way of that first student, not in this way.

Boy, Cabo is looking SO good right now.


  1. How apropos. Lest you think me a slime when you read my comment, I think you should fail the bugger. He lied and cheated. His paper would have been better had he given credit.

    Now to fiction: I recently picked up a "quick-pool-side-read" by Jude Devereaux. Chapter 1: In the inciting incident the MC fell in love with the character she was currently writing. (this could be fun, I thought.) But the description of Jamie (even the name was the same) was Jamie from Gabaldon's OUTLANDER. (except his hair was not red.) This bugged. A Lot. The description went on and off for a few paragraphs. Was this plagarism?

    Another: What of the descriptive phrase. A marvelous, and infectious phrase zings me and becomes my own. Even vocally. i.e: I say "pin-headed-fiddle-brain." I do not know where I stole it. Is using a magnificient, epicurean masterpiece which is also a stolen descriptive phrase also plagarism ?

  2. Great questions, Denece! While I wouldn't call it plagiarism, it definitely bothers me when a book is too derivative on another, better-known (and all around better!) published work. And re phrases that stick in our heads: I always wonder, when I write poetry and come up with some splendid line from the Muse, whether it's really just a line I read somewhere once that has lodged itself in my brain waiting just for this moment to reappear.

  3. Thanks. Have fun in Cabo. I'd like to escape as long as I can bring my lap-top...what a great plan.

  4. Have fun in Cabo! I'm so happy that you've got a little retreat time for writing once the semester is over!