Is this the promised end?

Ah, yes, the perfect end to an imperfect semester: a case of plagiarism.  It's my least favorite part of this job.  Fortunately, it's rare because my assignments tend to be a bit idiosyncratic (e.g., write a letter in the guise of Machiavelli to Hamlet), or I have students analyze tightly specified portions of a text.  As a result, it's hard to find something ready made on the Internet for a neat cut and paste job.  That doesn't mean students don't try.  It just means it's often the crudest and most desperate kind of plagiarism when they do.

And that's what happened.  In an effort to earn some much-needed and last-minute extra credit, a student cut and pasted some on-line articles about films we watched this semester.  It was garden-variety academic dishonesty, more laziness than venality.  I seldom get angry when this happens.  Rather, I just  get annoyed that now I have to play the cop and endure an unpleasant conversation.  

This one didn't even deny it.  (Couldn't really.  I had the copies of the purloined articles stapled to the turned in assignments.)  What irks me the most is being forced out of my role as a teacher and into the role of judge and jury.  I know some would say this is a teachable moment, but I doubt you can teach moral character to people in their early 20s. That's already been determined. 

And I'm never entirely happy with my decision about how to handle it.  Each case seems so different. During my first semester at the college a kid plagiarized a paper and I busted him on it.  Later, after he graduated, he wrote a threatening letter to the governor of our state and signed my name to it.  I had a visit from a criminal investigator and a postal inspector shortly afterwards. 

I once had a kid plagiarize a paper on, of all things, copyright law.  And once I caught a young woman plagiarizing in the first-year honors seminar. I really liked her, too.  Nevertheless, for three years until she graduated she could not make eye contact with me whenever we passed in hallways, which was rather awkward if we were the only ones present.  

Another time, when I was a TA, I suspected a young woman of plagiarizing a paper.  This was before the widespread use of the Internet.  In those days you had to go to the library and find the original journal article.  I struck out on that front, so I hit upon the idea of making a little speech about academic dishonesty in front of the class.  You know, "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."  So, using my gravest voice, I read the pertinent sections of the student handbook and watched her face for signs of guilt.

Nothing.  Complete impassivity.

Discouraged, I walked back to my office.  By the end of the day, three students had come in to confess.  Some were in tears.  One was terrified I was going to have him thrown out of the university.  None was my original suspect.

Sometimes it's best not to know.


Professor Quest said…
Coda: We have to fill out a plagiarism documentation form, and I'm required to contact the student to see if he or she wants his or her version to be on the form alongside mine.

I asked and the student responded that he was so sorry, ashamed, and wanted to retake the course to pass it honestly.

I emailed back to say "I would be honored to have you in my class again. Even if my section is full, come see me. I'll sign you into it."

Maybe there are teachable moments.

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