Caught

 

Le-faux-miroir

The False Mirror, 1928 — Rene Magritte

It was a Friday, not just the end of the term, but the end of the academic year, and the day of the final exam in Intro to English Literature. Final papers were due on Monday. Many of the students decided to give me their papers early, thinking they’d have a nice weekend, and put the papers on my desk before picking up copies of the test.

It wasn’t a problem for me. I never particularly enjoyed reading papers, and was happy for the chance to get through some of them while the students were busy. That’s when I discovered the plagiarism—whole paragraphs lifted from a work I knew well, with only a word here and there either omitted or changed—by one of my best students.

Because the writer was one of those rare people whose best work was extemporaneous (essays written in class were far more insightful, elegant, and beautifully reasoned than those written at home), I couldn’t imagine how he would have found this “writing” acceptable. I read and re-read the paper and simmered.

When he handed in his exam, I looked into his eyes and said, as quietly as I could, “You. Outside. Now.”

My family has told me that my face changes when I’m about to breathe fire. They call it the “Look of Death.” I know the expression. I’ve seen it often enough in my life.

Apparently, so had this young man. And as I pointed out the parts that had been plagiarized, and he kept trying to explain, defend himself, I stopped him short.

“No.” I gave him the paper. “You don’t get to talk. I talk. You listen.”

His eyes widened. He closed his mouth.

And then I launched into the speech my mother would have given me had I tried to get away with such an act: “I can’t believe anyone with your intelligence would be satisfied with work so shoddy and dishonest. Don’t you realize what a disservice it is to your gifts? Moreover, that it’s an insult to me? Did you honestly think you’d get away with it? That I wouldn’t recognize it?”

He tried to answer.

I wouldn’t let him. I said, “Enough. The paper’s not due until Monday,  so, I’m going to pretend that doesn’t exist. If you’re half as smart as I think you are, you’ll do the same, throw it right in the trash, because that’s where it belongs. You have three days. I suggest you think very carefully about what you’re going to write.”

And then I added, “I’ll be around all weekend. You have my number. If you have any questions, call.”

He did call. The next day. And he read a portion of what he’d written. It was thoroughly original and as brilliant as the work he always did in class. I told him to keep going.

On Monday, when he gave me the paper, he apologized. He had told his mother what had happened, and she must have looked at him with either the same “Look of Death,” or that “How could I have had a child so dumb?” face mothers get when their kids do something really bone-headed. He said she told him to thank me, which he did, because, as she said, “That teacher could have given you an ‘F’. Instead she gave you another chance.”

Mothers.


Writing doesn’t come easily to me. Oh, maybe it was easier years ago, but in recent years, with six decades behind me, the words are less accessible, the ideas seem less fresh. Worse, when they do come, the ends appear before the beginnings, the sentences are disordered so that paragraphs are incoherent, and I will frequently over-describe a scene or person. When I finish a draft, editing is a kind of relief, the chance to fix, refine, polish. That is where the art is. And I agonize over it, sometimes for years.

While the work that makes it to the public may seem fluid, hopefully, effortless (after all, that is the goal), I know how hard-won, hard-wrought it was, how many hours, days, weeks, months, years it took to get it that way.

That is why plagiarism will never be trivial to me. It is an insult. It is shoddy. It is theft.

Comments 8

 
Rosy Cole on Wednesday, 20 July 2016 19:32

As Chris, who has worked as a university mentor knows, plagiarism is rife among students. They must be smart enough to realise that only a few suspect (uncharacteristic) phrases have to be Googled to uncover their deceit, but such are the times we live in that it often seems they half-expect to be commended for having the nous to take short cuts. I don't think they know what theft is as a moral concept. But then, when they glance around the world, near and far, what they see is a wholesale disrepect for boundaries, from indvidual to national. Life is lived in subjective mode.

At least the young man you mention had the character to redeem himself with goodwill and your actions were endorsed by his mother.

I've never understood wanting to copy anyone or anything. You're cheating yourself of an authentic life so that all your reactions and decisions will be skewed before ordinary human frailty enters the picture. Wouldn't you prefer to surprise by your originality if you were capable? (Much has been made of the comparison between the speeches of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama.)

Thanks for posting! A difficult one to tackle, this, because it is so widespread and students not always as amenable as yours. I hope he'll go far!

As Chris, who has worked as a university mentor knows, plagiarism is rife among students. They must be smart enough to realise that only a few suspect (uncharacteristic) phrases have to be Googled to uncover their deceit, but such are the times we live in that it often seems they half-expect to be commended for having the nous to take short cuts. I don't think they know what theft is as a moral concept. But then, when they glance around the world, near and far, what they see is a wholesale disrepect for boundaries, from indvidual to national. Life is lived in subjective mode. At least the young man you mention had the character to redeem himself with goodwill and your actions were endorsed by his mother. I've never understood wanting to copy anyone or anything. You're cheating yourself of an authentic life so that all your reactions and decisions will be skewed before ordinary human frailty enters the picture. Wouldn't you prefer to surprise by your originality if you were capable? (Much has been made of the comparison between the speeches of Melania Trump and Michelle Obama.) Thanks for posting! A difficult one to tackle, this, because it is so widespread and students not always as amenable as yours. I hope he'll go far!
Barbara Froman on Wednesday, 20 July 2016 22:54

I agree, Rosy, on all counts. This especially hit home, "Life is lived in subjective mode." It seems that narcissism has become an asset, something to be admired and fostered, as has the belief that one should be rewarded for doing as little as possible. The incident I described happened about 20 years ago, but I suspect if this had happened yesterday, the outcome might have been different. I was quite blunt with the student (teachers tend to avoid this, these days). I spoke to him the way my mother would have spoken to me, as though he had the brains to understand that the only person he was cheating was himself. I'm sure he was upset. But he was, as I said, very bright and gifted, and had been raised to take responsibility for his actions, own up to his mistakes. I also owed a great debt to his mother for supporting me. Some parents wouldn't have, which is sad. I haven't kept up with him, but I'm sure that whatever he's chosen to do, he's been successful. By the way, he wound up getting an "A" on the paper he turned in, and an "A" in the course, both of which he'd earned. Many thanks for your comments, and wisdom! :-)

I agree, Rosy, on all counts. This especially hit home, "Life is lived in subjective mode." It seems that narcissism has become an asset, something to be admired and fostered, as has the belief that one should be rewarded for doing as little as possible. The incident I described happened about 20 years ago, but I suspect if this had happened yesterday, the outcome might have been different. I was quite blunt with the student (teachers tend to avoid this, these days). I spoke to him the way my mother would have spoken to me, as though he had the brains to understand that the only person he was cheating was himself. I'm sure he was upset. But he was, as I said, very bright and gifted, and had been raised to take responsibility for his actions, own up to his mistakes. I also owed a great debt to his mother for supporting me. Some parents wouldn't have, which is sad. I haven't kept up with him, but I'm sure that whatever he's chosen to do, he's been successful. By the way, he wound up getting an "A" on the paper he turned in, and an "A" in the course, both of which he'd earned. Many thanks for your comments, and wisdom! :-)
Katherine Gregor on Thursday, 21 July 2016 13:29

How lucky for your student that you gave him another chance. By that you not only established firm boundaries, but showed him great respect which, I am sure, has helped his view of the world as he's grown up.

Many years ago, when I was a theatrical press agent, I wrote press releases for the shows for which I was doing PR. Part of my job involved inviting critics to opening nights. After a while, I noticed that, increasingly often, whole chunks were being lifted from my press releases and inserted into reviews. So, eager to have positive write-ups for my clients, I learned what kind of catchphrases, words and sentences were most likely to be reproduced. In a way, I learnt to manipulate the situation and, far from feeling guilty about it, I felt proud of my writing... and, inevitably, whatever little respect I had for critics as a trade, plummeted. Not all critics did this, of course.

How lucky for your student that you gave him another chance. By that you not only established firm boundaries, but showed him great respect which, I am sure, has helped his view of the world as he's grown up. Many years ago, when I was a theatrical press agent, I wrote press releases for the shows for which I was doing PR. Part of my job involved inviting critics to opening nights. After a while, I noticed that, increasingly often, whole chunks were being lifted from my press releases and inserted into reviews. So, eager to have positive write-ups for my clients, I learned what kind of catchphrases, words and sentences were most likely to be reproduced. In a way, I learnt to manipulate the situation and, far from feeling guilty about it, I felt proud of my writing... and, inevitably, whatever little respect I had for critics as a trade, plummeted. Not all critics did this, of course.
Barbara Froman on Thursday, 21 July 2016 18:24

But how terrible that some did, Katia. I'm so sorry this happened, but, as you say, it was a compliment about your writing, that those critics felt the praise you wrote was perfect. Unfortunately, because plagiarism seems so victimless, most people feel its okay to copy. Where it really gets troublesome is in the scientific world, where published research is rife with plagiarism and fraud. This occurs internationally and is estimated to cost US taxpayers millions. Here's a link with more information: https://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2015/04/plagiarism-fraud-and-predatory-publishing-are-polluting-science-says-bioethic
Many thanks for your comment, and, as always, your support! It's so appreciated! :-)

But how terrible that some did, Katia. I'm so sorry this happened, but, as you say, it was a compliment about your writing, that those critics felt the praise you wrote was perfect. Unfortunately, because plagiarism seems so victimless, most people feel its okay to copy. Where it really gets troublesome is in the scientific world, where published research is rife with plagiarism and fraud. This occurs internationally and is estimated to cost US taxpayers millions. Here's a link with more information: https://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2015/04/plagiarism-fraud-and-predatory-publishing-are-polluting-science-says-bioethic Many thanks for your comment, and, as always, your support! It's so appreciated! :-)
Sue Martin Glasco on Saturday, 23 July 2016 06:17

What a splendid job you did, Barbara, handling this incident. But then I could tell you had a good model to follow--your mother. I am sure that student and his children are still profiting from your good judgment. I wish all teachers were this ethical and this insightful. And many are. (That came off as being critical of teachers, and I do not feel that way. Yet there are always a few who are outstanding, however, and I am sure you are one of those.)

What a splendid job you did, Barbara, handling this incident. But then I could tell you had a good model to follow--your mother. I am sure that student and his children are still profiting from your good judgment. I wish all teachers were this ethical and this insightful. And many are. (That came off as being critical of teachers, and I do not feel that way. Yet there are always a few who are outstanding, however, and I am sure you are one of those.)
Barbara Froman on Sunday, 24 July 2016 20:29

Thank you, Sue! My mother was a wonderful role model. More often than not, when I'm in tough situations, I always try to imagine what she would say to me if she were still alive. She was a most extraordinary woman. Thank you so much for reading, and for your kind comments. They are truly appreciated! :-)

Thank you, Sue! My mother was a wonderful role model. More often than not, when I'm in tough situations, I always try to imagine what she would say to me if she were still alive. She was a most extraordinary woman. Thank you so much for reading, and for your kind comments. They are truly appreciated! :-)
Nicholas Mackey on Monday, 25 July 2016 11:51

Well said, Barbara. Spot on. I remember my father who was an academic specialising in modern history used to correct the essays of students at the university where he worked, Trinity College Dublin. This was in the 1960s and 70s long before the advent of word processors and the internet, But even then with their typewritten manuscripts, my father would take a very firm line with any plagiarism which thankfully was a very seldom occurrence. For him, any form of cheating was absolutely verboten.

But your article begs another fascinating epistemological question that has arisen in recent times: You refer to the boundary dividing plagiarism and original writing and the attendant morality of this particular situation. But in a much wider context, you could ask 'whither boundaries' in the future?

Well said, Barbara. Spot on. I remember my father who was an academic specialising in modern history used to correct the essays of students at the university where he worked, Trinity College Dublin. This was in the 1960s and 70s long before the advent of word processors and the internet, But even then with their typewritten manuscripts, my father would take a very firm line with any plagiarism which thankfully was a very seldom occurrence. For him, any form of cheating was absolutely verboten. But your article begs another fascinating epistemological question that has arisen in recent times: You refer to the boundary dividing plagiarism and original writing and the attendant morality of this particular situation. But in a much wider context, you could ask 'whither boundaries' in the future?
Barbara Froman on Monday, 25 July 2016 19:04

What a wonderful question, Nicholas. In view of the rise of a certain presidential-candidate-who-shall-be-nameless, your wondering about the state of boundaries feels especially relevant. Believe me, I'm having more than a few sleepless nights pondering this.... Many thanks for your kind comment and delightful story about your father. His students were very lucky! :-)

What a wonderful question, Nicholas. In view of the rise of a certain presidential-candidate-who-shall-be-nameless, your wondering about the state of boundaries feels especially relevant. Believe me, I'm having more than a few sleepless nights pondering this.... Many thanks for your kind comment and delightful story about your father. His students were very lucky! :-)
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