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Plagiarism Update

Let’s see.

There’s the student who thought that an assignment I gave the class, in which I said, “Write a recipe,” meant “Go and copy a recipe from the internet, alter it slightly, don’t append any indication of the source, and hand it in with your name on it.” Yeah, because, you know, having people write up a list of ingredients and cooking method in-class, using classtime, is really just a warmup to the much more difficult task of select-all, control-c, control-v. This student also has been frantic to contact me and make sure that there’s not been any serious misunderstanding. I replied that I would try not to hold it against the student, but that the explanation given was flimsy and that the F for the (essentially, in the grand scheme, irrelevant) assignment was non-negotiable.

There’s the student who managed to score a second F in a week, and to really piss me off by claiming he hadn’t ever plagiarised before, and that he hadn’t done it in any other class at the University. This, after he’d handed in two completely plagiarised assignments from two completely different classes.

There’s the other guy who left his cheat sheet on the floor of the class, at the back of the room. I just happened to stumble upon it, and noticed that the text on it was almost exactly the same as what he’d written in his exam. I asked him to be honest, and not be scared. He admitted that he had kept his practice-essays in his dictionary case, and when he took out his dictionary to check spellings, he saw the sheet and gave in to his self-doubt and cheated. I thanked him for his honesty, gave him and F, and told him that if he did it again he’d be out of the class. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that — I feel like I should have found out whether I could eject him from class summarily, on the basis of exam-cheating. (I kind of doubt it’s common practice, though, and I am not sure I want to start doing it if nobody else does it.)

And finally, there’s the student who for some reason decided to plagiarise several lines on skin care in the season of the Yellow Dust from China and stick them, word-for-word, into an in-class exam. Bang! F. That’s 20 minutes work you’ve spared me; thanks, kiddo. Cheaters don’t get comments on their writing: they get printed webpage sources and a red F on the front.

Now: how to deal with cheating in general? I’ve been thinking, and this thinking has, interestingly, been fueled by the comments many students chose to make about cheating on exams. The topic was one of the choices available in my best writing class, and about half of the students actually wrote railing exposes on department-mates or the student population in general: cheating methods, addiction to cheating, the bad effects of cheating, and instructional how-to essays on how to wean yourself off a cheat-sheet dependency. (One student went in the opposite direction and wrote a mournful lament on his own foolishness and guilt for having cheated on an exam just the day before he wrote my exam. His plea was temporary insanity.) My students’ most interesting observation was on the “economics” of cheating. They pointed out that the commonness of cheating among their classmates is what convinces so many otherwise good, trustworthy, and sincere students to stoop to cheating.

I think, finally, that next semester I’m going to warn students at the beginning of semester, and before the first major project, that any plagiarism will be publicly disclosed to the class. I want them to recognize that they’re screwing over not just themselves, and the system, and insulting the teacher, but actively trying to screw over their classmates when they do this crap. If the risk of embarrassment isn’t enough to scare them off cheating, then maybe the real embarrassment from getting caught once and having the whole class know about it will turn them off cheating. But I would never do something like that if it weren’t announced form the beginning of semester, as part of the “contract” of the course.

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