An Open Letter to a Plagiarist, With Extra Thoughts On The Side

I’m home today, working through the monumental task of marking the essays and journal work of my students in my writing class. Of course, this is all the evaluation that they’re getting all term—while I provided feedback in class during writing exercises, I simply wasn’t provided with enough time to mark assignments along the way.

Still, I noticed who among the students dug in and tried during in-class assignments, and who usually wasted an hour staring at a blank page, embarrassedly writing nothing and saying only, “It’s very hard” to me when I asked why he wasn’t trying.

Well, the essays that were written out of effort, by students who have very little English (why are they in a writing class, I have to wonder?) will not be given failing grades. But there was one essay, by a fellow of the type who sat and stared at the blank page, which was quite outstanding.

Too outstanding, which is something I was nervous about. After all, this guy is well-known at the University, and has lots of connections among professors. He’s gotten himself in good with the right people, and unfortunately I’m the one who has to show up with the evidence he tried to cheat his way through my class; and that, in addition, he was the only one who did so.

I’m giving written feedback to the students and his letter will run something like this.

Dear _______,

I know how to use the Internet too.

Please find enclosed the original version of the essay that you altered slightly when you handed it in with your name on it. I expect you to email an apology to both the author (whose email address is ____) and to me.

Copying someone else’s work is grounds for failure in my class, as I warned our class several times. In many universities, it is even grounds for expulsion from the university.

In our class I explicitly taught you how to quote material from other writers, and how to paraphrase it. The very least you could have done, to avoid being caught cheating, and perhaps improve your writing a little bit, was to paraphrase the essay instead of copying it, making minor alterations, and submitting it.

I told the class that plagiarism has serious consequences. I also warned the whole class that anyone who plagiarises their essay will get an F in the course. I was not joking.

I am giving you an F in this course because you cheated on the final essay.

I hope you learn a lesson through this. I recommend next time, you work hard and produce your own work in a class. Cheating is not only bad for you as a student—not only in terms of lost opportunity to learn; I further doubt that any professor who knows about this situation will ever trust you again—but in addition I believe it is unhealthy for you as a person. An important part of education and growth as an adult is trying to do things that are difficult, and working through them despite the difficulty. In doing so, you find your strengths as well as areas where you can improve.

Cheating is not a shortcut. It is an insult to your teacher and university—yes, I do feel insulted—and a disservice to yourself. I suggest you consider this carefully and change your approach to assigned work.

I further suggest you not enroll in again in a course taught by me, as I will probably be biased against you.

However, I will not pursue any official academic action against you if you email an apology, written in English, to both me and the author you stole from. I highly encourage you to do this, and to think seriously about what you did.

Gord Sellar

I know, it’s a little harsh, and too long. I’ll probably pare it down some. But right now I am fuming. I told the class, explicitly, that handing in a copied essay is wrong, is lazy, is a disservice to oneself, and that it’s about as respectful as flipping the bird at your professor.

I know the course was difficult, and my expectations were a little high, but they weren’t so high that any other student resorted to cheating. Students with far worse English than this guy’s worked extremely hard (and for several weeks at a time) to produce informative, interesting essays which, though far from perfect, were pretty impressive (while believable) given the English ability of the students who produced them.

One of the guys in the class started with very little ability to write in English. I’ve taught that guy for two terms now, and his writing has, in fact, really improved: not because of me, I believe, but because he busted his ass trying to improve it. And what do you know, he did exactly that! He got his writing to the level where I actually salute him for his achievement.

And all of that is also in mind when I look upon this copied essay. What this student tried to do is so painfully obvious to me. He was at least clever enough to plagiarize someone with imperfect English, a Korean author whose work was up on the internet. But one simple phrase search revealed it all; and worse, the source website (though not the subpage) was listed in his “Bibliography”.

I mean, kid, what do you think I am, an idiot?

That said, I suspect other profs (I mean Korean profs) are less severe about plagiarism than I expect professors to be from my experiences in Canada. Since arriving here I’ve even heard cases where local (now ex-)professors have been busted for the same kind of blatant, transparent, and therefore idiotic cheating. Academic corruption might be more common here, I’m not sure though what I’ve read suggests it probably is (although of course there are many upstanding, serious, earnest, and intelligent teachers in the country, I think academic corruption is inevitable, the more privatised education becomes. And it’s pretty heavily privatised here).

Regardless, of the academic climate here, which I don’t know that much about after all, it doesn’t mean I will tolerate it in any way. If a student feels the work is hard, he or she should either talk to he professor about it, and/or (probably and) work harder. After all, time and time again I told the class I was looking for effort, not perfection.

Arrrrgh, I’m so annoyed.

8 thoughts on “An Open Letter to a Plagiarist, With Extra Thoughts On The Side

  1. You were much kinder to your cheater than I was to the 3 cheaters I have had in the past. I asked them to stay after class and told them they cheated and handed them the proof. I then told them I was disappointed in them and felt that they had cheated not only themselves but me as well. I gave them an F and told them I did not want to talk to them again.

    Cheating is wrong.

    However that was when I was teaching a writing class, this past semester I had written homework that was bablefished and I just told them not to do it as I hadn’t gone over the evilness that is cheating. Such babies we teach..

  2. Blinger, if I’d marked the work in time to stop them after class, I’d have done the same thing. As it was, I ran across this four days after the last meeting of the class.

    I suspect what will happen is that, despite his cheating, he’ll pull some sympathy strings with his connections and the F in the course that I give him will be overturned, and made into a C or something. I could be wrong, but he does have the general sympathy and trust of some people who’d be in a position to do that.

    Anyway, I’m not going to mark his journal up, just glance through it and assign a flat grade. I doubt he’ll dare wonder why. Personally, I’d rather help out a student who gives a damn.

  3. By the way, am I being too kind? He’s going to receive this whole package in the mail, with a letter attached informing him that he’s getting an F in the overall course for cheating on the essay.

    I will have to remember to photocopy the essay and attach a copy of the original, found online, for my own safekeeping, in case it gets contested.

    Or perhaps I should send him the photocopy and keep the original so that if I get questioned, I can just pull it out and show the questioners? Yeah, that sounds safer.

  4. I get this all the time. Brazilian teens are notoriously lazy, so are some of the adults as well (the males anyway). I get them copying from the internet (its never difficult to suss that out) and using eletronic translators (which they are stupid enough to think I am stupid enough to not recognise something thats gone through a delta translator or something!). Normally I keep copies of all this in case of accusations of unfairness. And normally I dont accept typed manuscripts (spellcheckers are the worst).

  5. Gord,

    I think it is important to cover your ass, so get the copies of the original and the the source materail.

    Alistair, I insist on typed papers – I won’t accept a handwritten one. I do provide enough time even for students who cannot type well and also direct them to a typing tutorial that they can use to learn. Spelling mistakes will result in a lower grade because it is just laziness when you have a spell checker at hand. Homynyms however do not result in lower grades as they will not be caught by spell check.

  6. Guys,

    I insist on typed submissions because, for one thing, it saves my poor eye a lot of strain. Seeing as I’ve only got one that works, I wanna treat it as nicely as I can. Sure, I end up having slog through pages and pages of journals written by hand, but at least with the essay I can sit down and get through it without squinting or wondering, “What’s THAT word?”

    In fact, I’m thinking of switching to a private group blog format for my next class so that the students get a lot of practice typing. There will a lot of sustain the writing that way: no student will exist in a vaccuum, they’ll be able to compete for attention from the teacher as well as to draw inspiration or new writing ideas from one another, and to give feedback to one another.

    The other beauty about this is that I can reward students for raw effort. A word/post count is a useful thing, since for journals what I take most seriously is an effort to stick with the damned project through thick and thin. Some students produced two notebooks’ worth of journal entries in my three-credit one semester course. I was seriously impressed with some of them. Others produced five pages, or half a notebook of scrawl full of complaints about how hard it is to write (the cheater was one, and he produced absolutely none of the exercises or drafting work for the final essay).

    Also, it will make it impossible for students to cheat, because they won’t be able to get away without producing outlines; there’ll be a category for it, and they’ll all have to have their outlines online by a certain time. The guy who cheated in this case produced neither outline nor rough drafts of his essay, which was one of the things that set off my alarm bells despite the grammatical and idiomatic errors in his essay. (Which it finally turned out were present because another Korean for whom English is a foreign language.)

    In the groupblog mode, I’d just post a link to it in the comments section with a couple of comments about the result of cheating in my class. Knowing that is a possibility,`I think shame would be enough to deter most students. Most…

  7. Blinger: I insist on written and not typed for two reasons really. One is that the use of a spellchecker may or may not help them, and also that the end objective of all my students is to take one (or all) of the Cambridge exams; IELTS etc. Unfortunately up until now they dont accept typed written papers, so writing/calligraphy practice is essential.

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