The Seeds of Ossian

I don't know if student plagiarism and cheating are worse now than they have ever been. You always have to be wary of the "shark attack effect," which occurs when a few high profile incidents lead people to believe that attacks are on the rise.  In reality, shark attacks are fairly uncommon and occur at about the same steady rate year after year.  So just because there's a spate of hand-wringing in the news about academic dishonesty (I mean, what's up with the Air Force Academy?), it doesn't necessarily mean today's students have hit new heights of immorality.  My hunch is that academic dishonesty is about what it's always been.

Yes, the internet made plagiarism easier, but it also made it easier to detect.  Perhaps 95 percent of the cases I deal with are crude cut-and-paste jobs that can be exposed in a few clicks.  Of course that leaves open the possibility that I'm just missing the more sophisticated cheats, but I don't think so.  The aim of cheating is to do less work, not more.  Procrastination, laziness and anxiety over a looming deadline are the reasons most of my students cop to when confronted with their misdeeds. Seldom do they try to brazen it out.  I show them the assignment, the source they filched and the blubbering commences.

At my institution, too, academic dishonesty may seem to be on the rise, but perhaps this is due to a recently implemented mandatory reporting rule.  Prior to this rule each professor handled it in his or her own way. Consequently we had no way of knowing if this was a student's first or fifteenth offence.  Now we know.

I'm never entirely happy with how I handle these cases, either.  Last fall I felt that I had done it better than ever.  I met with my student and told her she was just smarter and better than this. She didn't need to plagiarize.  I even gave her the choice of re-doing the assignment and taking an F on it or not re-doing it and failing the course.  She chose the former (they always do).

There was tearful remorse as she signed the report form and I urged her to get back to being the bright, capable, wonderful student I knew her to be.  I felt pretty good about how it all went -- right up until I received a notification from the provost's office of her second offence the following semester. So there you go. Maybe there is no surefire way to make repentance stick.

Just this past week, however, I came across an interesting approach. On Sunday I received an email from a professor in Pennsylvania whose student had lifted a few paragraphs about Romanticism from some lecture notes posted on my faculty web page. He asked me to write his student a letter telling her how I felt about having my words and ideas stolen, which I did.

I like this idea a lot.  Indeed, we tend to premise our anti-plagiarism speeches to students on rational arguments about legality, respecting property rights or maybe the cost/benefit downside of getting caught. But human beings don't behave morally because of rational arguments or accurate risk assessment. David Hume was right.  Our moral choices are derived from our sentiments.  We are more likely to be moral to those who know us and can see us because we emotionally desire their praise and approval.

So maybe a personal letter from the person whose words and ideas she plagiarized will prove more effective than any stern moralizing or warnings of future punishment.

Well, maybe.  In any event, I sure like this idea.


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