Academic Papers


My cyber-friend, fellow blogger and educator, Clay Morgan, recently wrote a very funny blog about how we teachers notice when our students cheat. And I laughed because it was true: There are “peekers” and “sneakers” and “giraffers” and folks who try to write everything they can on their pencils and their shoes and their arms.

And then yesterday, I busted one of my students for some crazy, overt plagiarism, and suddenly it isn’t so very funny anymore. Well, it’s a little funny because the person copied from Wikipedia and left in the hyperlinks. But still, when you get down to it, it’s not that funny.

I hate this part. I hate this part. I hate this part. I hate this part of being an educator.

Let’s assume for the sake of ease that the cheater is male. Then I can avoid all the he/she stuff.

My thought is to have The Despicable One take a look at his paper along with a copy of the Plagiarism Contract which he signed earlier in the semester and ask him to respond in writing to three questions: 1) Why did he choose to copy directly from the source rather than paraphrase or summarize it? 2) Why didn’t he use in-text citation and include a Works Cited page at the end of his paper? 3) What does he think the most appropriate course of action would be in this situation?

When he is done writing (read: documenting the offense in his own handwriting), I will listen to what he has to say, explain to him how serious an offense this is, (because it is serious), and then I will think about it for a while.

So today I’m feeling a little snarky. A little annoyed, even.

Why? I guess because I feel plagiarism is just so dang silly. It is the laziest of all academic infractions. I can predict The Plagiarizer will say something like: “I didn’t know how do to it the right way, so I just didn’t do it.” That is what lazy people say. I guess I’m noting something of a character flaw in plagiarizers (as if other flaws aren’t obvious enough). I keep thinking, if I didn’t know how to do something, I would do my damndest to figure it out.

In this specific instance, for example, if I didn’t know how to cite properly, I would have called a classmate for assistance. I would have stopped playing BeJewelled on Facebook and looked online for tips of how to cite a paper. (There are a zillion free websites offering advice.) I might have looked in the style book which I was assigned to purchase at the beginning of the semester. If all that failed, I would have tried to indicate that I knew I was taking information from an outside source. I could have written:

Dear Professor-In-Charge-Of-My-Grade:

I am getting this information from, but I’m not sure how to cite it properly. (*hangs head in shame*)

When you get a chance, can you show me? I hope you won’t deduct too many points. (*lame attempt at humor*)

So so so sincerely,

Ashamed One

If I knew in advance that I were going to be in trouble with citation, I would have made at least one appointment with the folks at the college’s Writing Center (where one can schedule a free 30-minute tutoring session to really get some help on a paper). I might have even asked my teacher to meet with me. Because teachers want to help their students. Some will even skip lunch or blow off grocery shopping to help their students.

So I can tell this student started really, really late on this paper.

Like eleven o’clock at night: too late for phone calls or in-person tutoring sessions.

And, frankly, because of his procrastination and poor decision-making, I now have to make difficult moral decisions. And now, depending on how far I want to go with this, I will have a boatload of extra paperwork to handle. And copies to be made in triplicate. Because my Department Chair will need a copy. And so will Student Services. And I’ll probably have to hold on to this paper for the rest of my life. (Hubby, I have another important document for the fire safe…)

I guess you can tell that I have strong beliefs about integrity and honor and honesty. Basic values which everyone agrees seem to be on the decline. Interestingly enough, judging from the reaction that I’m getting from some of my students, they don’t see plagiarism as a big deal. I’ve tried to explain that it is a big deal. A very big deal. Because when you turn in something with your name on it, you are claiming to have authored those words and, when you haven’t, it is a lie.

In my eyes, The Despicable One is a liar and a cheater. Does he understand that I think of him as a person who steals ideas? That I can’t trust him or anything that he says? Ever? That I would never vouch for him for anything? How could I? He signed a banana-yellow piece of paper promising not to plagiarize, but he did.

I’m worried about this generation. So maybe my tone is annoyance with a side order of panic.

There have to be consequences for this transgression. This is not kindergarten, folks. I teach at the college level. This is where people learn life lessons. And sometimes people have to learn the hard way; after all, you don’t always get a second chance when you screw up.

So I have options.

Put on your thinking caps for a moment and consider this.

If you were me, would you:

a) Allow the aforementioned student to write a new paper with proper citation by a certain date for a maximum grade of D. (If the paper doesn’t come in, or there is evidence of future plagiarism, the student would be failed.)

b) Not allow the student to rewrite the paper. Give him a zero, but allow him to stay in the class with the warning that if this happens again, he will be failed.

c) Tell the student that he has done irreparable damage to the student-teacher relationship and fail him from the course as well as report him to Student Services. (This could impact his entire financial aid package, but he might learn a lesson.)

d) Make him babysit my child every Saturday for free from now until the end of the semester.

e) Ask him what he thinks should happen.

I’m definitely leaning in a particular direction, but I’m open to suggestions.

What would you do if you were in my shoes? Can anyone think of other options?

10/17/2010: ***Note: Read the  interesting, varied and intelligent comments to learn the difficult decision that I had to make, and the thought processes that teachers have to have to consider every day above and beyond our course material!***

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