Three students plagiarized papers I graded this weekend, and it reminded me of what has become a classic story around the college from some years ago.
I gave an assignment in October of 2005 asking for students to dig into their memory and write five hundred words about September 11th, 2001. I wanted them to reflect on what will remain one of the most significant days in our lives. When the attacks occurred, these students for the most part were about fifteen, so as early teens they had very guttural, organic reactions. How, I wondered, do they remember that day? I thought it was a good assignment—a specific event but a vague enough request for them to wander where they wished. One student wrote of her aunt who never made it out of the South Tower. Another wrote about her sense of horror and disbelief, which, she wrote, she could never correctly capture on paper. Several actually commented they didn’t think it affected their lives at all while others spit out what they kind of paid attention to with one ear from local television reports—about heightened security, conspiracy factors, the indescribable loss of life that spontaneously erupted on TV that morning. But one student’s piece caught my attention. He wrote, in part:
In a way, September 11 demonstrated, more than any one phrase can contain, the strength of our Constitution. The day became the beginning of a new era of the democratic process, and the definition of how we will defend our liberty, maintain our principles and remember our purpose—to stand as an example of humanity’s potential. It was Memorial Day. It was Victory Day.
I read this with amazement. No student, I thought, could possibly be that stupid. While I admired his choice, I remained baffled by his idiocy. I asked for the rough draft and received exactly what I knew I would: A similar, hand written version with some words written differently and others crossed out.
“You plagiarized this,” I said, which, understand, is rare for teachers to say. We receive copied material all the time, but nearly never have enough proof to say, directly, “You didn’t write this.”
“I didn’t plagiarize that!”
“Yeah, you did.” My small laugh, I think, pissed him off.
He continued to challenge me. Normally, plagiarized papers frustrate faculty members when they know an assignment was plagiarized—either from another student or from one of the many web sites offering papers for sale— but can’t prove it.
“Yes, you did. Tell me why I shouldn’t kick you out right now.”
“Because I didn’t plagiarize it.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you what. Go do some homework. I want you to bring me a copy of the original. If you do, I’ll let you redo the assignment without penalty.” I figured the embarrassment enough would be sufficient.
Once a student turned in a paragraph she plagiarized from our own text. Another time a student turned in a paper right out of the psychology textbook assuming I wouldn’t recognize that his in-class writing had the ability of a seventh grader and the essay he turned in was written by Freud.
I Googled the term “college papers” and found the top ten of about 4,750,000 sites including essaytown.com, papercamp.com, duenow.com, term-paper-college.com, schoolsucks.com, chuckiii.com and, my favorite, smarttermpapers.com, where on the home page they offer “custom papers” with the following guarantee: “A 100% original document based on exact requirements given by you!” What is bothersome is their promise that “all writers hold at least a master’s degree.” But my favorite highlighted guarantee is that “all papers are plagiarism free—we use a plagiarism detection program to ensure that all texts are original.” When I tell my students that the papers are plagiarized the minute their name is placed at the top, they don’t really get it.
When students plagiarize and I know it but I can’t really prove it, I have to decide if I am to bluff and call them on it, spend time doing research to try and find the original source, or, since all writing is subjective and can be criticized, rip it to pieces anyway giving a C or D to the student who worked so hard at finding a professional piece that met my requirements. I did that once and the student, without thinking, exclaimed, “But this was in Time Magazine!”
I had a student once complain I didn’t accuse her of plagiarizing. She said she thought the work was brilliantly written and that she was convinced I would demand of her the origin of the information. Some are that good. Some papers are so moronic I pray they were plagiarized just so I don’t have to believe one of my students wrote that shit. A paper I received once had the same page printed three times. When I pointed out the mistake, he said he couldn’t think of anything else to write but knew the paper had to be 800 words so he just copied it a few times. I started to tell him that was not a good idea and he interrupted complaining of the requirements and how I am being unreasonable.
The student with the plagiarized paper returned. “Ah, did you find it?” I asked when he came in and tried to sit down without looking at me.
“No,” he said, as I knew he would.
“It’s okay. I brought a copy. Shall I read it to you?”
“Great! Here goes:”
“Hey, it’s from the Virginian Pilot! Well, let’s see:
“’There are still no words for September 11’ by…”
“Oh my god, Dude, should I go on?” He laughed a little at my sarcasm because he knew what came next and because, really, it’s so laughable.
“’There are still no words for September 11’ by…” I stopped and looked at him.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
He spoke quietly: “I didn’t know you wrote it.”