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Plagiarism: A Love Affair

posted: 6.5.07 by Barclay Barrios

Never have I seen a teacher more emotional, never have I been more emotional, than when dealing with a case of plagiarism. What’s up with that?

What I find so interesting, you see, is that the emotion (which can be at times almost overwhelming) seems to resonate not from some virtuous commitment to academic honor nor even from some deep sense of crime and punishment but, more often than not, from what I can only describe as love betrayed, as though you’ve not only found out your partner is having an affair but you learned it by catching her or him in flagrante delicto. There’s the same sense of injured trust. There’s the anger. There’s the thirst for revenge. When someone plagiarizes in my classroom–and the classrooms of many teachers I have worked with–it feels like, well, being cheated on.

That’s why there are two basic rules for plagiarism in my program. First, never confront a student before getting a second opinion. Taking the time to find that impartial observer–either me in my capacity as Director of Writing Programs or any other teacher you can find–allows time for the rush of emotions to subside. Plagiarism is serious, yes, but because of that very seriousness it is not something for rash action. In fact there’s been more than one occasion when I’ve taken a look at a suspected case and said “Well, I’m not really sure this is plagiarism, and here’s why.” That’s why getting that second opinion turns out to be so handy, all emotions aside.

The second rule is perhaps more controversial: never cut a deal with a plagiarist … you will only get burned in the end. Invariably, every time I’ve seen a teacher work out some compromise (“I’ll fail you for this assignment, but not the class” or “OK, I can see how you misunderstood our class discussion, but as long as you understand plagiarism fully now”) there’s some second act of academic dishonesty and hence some second act of betrayal, all the more painful. It may not always be a second case of plagiarism but always it comes back in some way to bite them on the a**. If your lover cheats on you, get a new lover ’cause cheaters don’t change. We have a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism in our program not because the crime is so heinous (though, clearly, it is) but only because nothing else seems to work.

You know there’s this god awful show called Cheaters. Suspicious partners have the show track their lovers and, invariably, they are shown video evidence of the cheating which leads directly into an emotional, sometimes violent, direct on-air confrontation. It’s not the kind of thing I want to see happening in a writing program.

And plagiarism is, I think, inevitable. For me, it’s an irresolvable remainder in the educational system–something that somehow the system itself produces by its very structure. To be sure, we do all we can in our program to prevent plagiarism. We have a detailed FAQ about academic dishonesty that’s discussed in class. After this discussion, students sign a statement acknowledging that they understand what plagiarism is. We avoid using assignments that are in our reader, since they’re being used at schools around the country. We create original standard sequences for new teachers each semester and all teachers are encouraged to write their own assignments. A monoculture, after all, presents the greatest risk.

Plagiarism? A love affair? Attack me, please. Tell me I’m way off base. Tell me I’m Jane Gallop reborn. Tell me I am wrong, wrong, wrong. But also tell me what to do. Tell me how you deal with the emotional charge of plagiarism. Tell me what you do to make sure that emotional trigger isn’t even there. And, if you’ve found the holy grail that diminishes (eliminates?) plagiarism, tell me that too.

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Categories: Citing Sources, Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Plagiarism, Readers, Teaching Advice
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5 Responses to “Plagiarism: A Love Affair”

  1. dr. b. Says:

    What has been most difficult for new teachers (and getting across to new teachers) is to figure out when plagiarism is unintentional and a teachable moment. Sometimes it just looks like plagiarism so a cool down period is a really good idea.

    It’s also a good idea to try to figure out how to avoid plagiarism from the instructor’s side. You know, stuff like specialized assignments, timing in the semester, etc.

    Nice tip, Barclay.

  2. RWL Says:

    I like the idea of the signed statement. For similar effect, I give a quiz about common plagiarism issues (following readings and class discussions). The quiz grade isn’t what’s important; I want everyone to get full credit, and I allow them to re-take the quiz until they do. I simply find it helpful in plagiarism confrontations to have documentation that each student understood the policy!

    Of course, I also want to question my institution’s stance towards plagiarism, which disallows even productive, thoughtful remixing. I find that students are more engaged in discussions about plagiarism when I don’t try to scare them into obedience but encourage them to examine the policy that they’re asked to conform to. I don’t *only* want to teach “the rules”; I also want to help students question them and see why the rules are in place, rhetorically and institutionally!

  3. Barclay Barrios Says:

    I like that both of you are pointing to comprehension versus just the rule of law. It does seem crucial to help *both* students and instructors understand what is and isn’t plagiarism and what to do about it. I wish we had more tools to make that happen. But, still, it feels like (across a program) there will always be plagiarism. Am I just being cynical and jaded here… I dunno…

  4. Jessica Fordham Kidd Says:

    In my English department, plagiarism cases are turned over to the dean’s office for review. While the red tape, time, and process can be frustrating to instructors, the policy does keep teachers out of legal trouble. Teachers are not allowed to say “plagiarism” or discuss with the student the paper in question.

    The department also has a academic misconduct form for students to sign, and I believe most students sign a similar form when they attend the university’s freshman orientation.

    In my classroom, I’ve had positive results from talking extensively to my students about what plagiarism is, discussing the ways I see their individual writing voices develop, and by instituting a policy that gives students one late paper with no penalty. I tell them to come talk to me and get some extra help instead of downloading a paper.

  5. Derek Says:

    I’m with Dr. B (re: teachable moment) in my interest in moving away from discussions of plagiarism that deal only with the most heinous kind: deliberate, full-text copying. Such cases are unfortunately easy to deal with, and institutional protocols are ordinarily most explicit with regard to this clear-cut variety of plagiarism. When I’m teaching a writing course that focuses on text-based research, I see it as inevitable that students will make mistakes, that they will sometimes get wrong their decisions to cite when paraphrasing, for instance, or when to document a source that is mentioned in the text but not quoted. So I feel disappointment (a disappointment in knowing that the scenario cannot be made right without adhering to program/department/institution policies on academic dishonesty) when students perform full-text plagiarism, but I am much less affected when students patch-write, especially when it happens early enough in the semester that we can address it, work through what is happening both in the text and in the research-writer’s decision-making.