SCENE AND HEARD
Plagiarists' Words of Woe Fall Flat
We once were accused of plagiarism by a college professor who admitted that she didn't know from where we had "copied" our paper but that it was "obviously far, far too good" to be our own work. When we made a thoroughly convincing case that we wrote the paper, she relented and gave us a B. "Far too good" deserves a B? Go figure.
I caught my first plagiarist just a few months after I started teaching. I was a new teaching assistant, and he was a college freshman in my writing course. When I realized what he had done, I found myself feeling surprisingly sympathetic, perhaps even a little responsible. I had just told this student he was on the verge of failing this writing class and needed to work a lot harder on his last few assignments. Maybe I had been too discouraging and made him feel like there was no other option.
These days, however -- after four years of hearing every excuse under the sun for copied, late and nonexistent papers -- those days of sympathy seem far away. Now my feelings tend more toward outrage.
Every time I catch a student cheating, I find myself becoming more deeply entangled in questions of morality. What would drive a person into such an act? Desperation? Apathy? Perhaps even self-satisfaction for having cheated and gotten away with it?
In my never-ending battle against plagiarism, I've come across entire online businesses trying to profit from students' dishonesty. They ask customers for sample writing styles and typical grades. Sometimes, a few grammatical errors are even added to feign authenticity. "Plagiarism free!" the Web sites boast. The nonchalance of the culprits and their accomplices continues to perplex and disturb me.
Then, one day, looking through the classifieds section of Craigslist, I saw it. The ad laid it all out in the clearest terms possible -- no qualms, no caveats or euphemistic language to cover up the deed:
I have three papers to write for an english course but I don't have the time to write them. If you are a good writer and could use some spare cash, reply to this message. I am offering $30 per paper or $100 for all three.
Finally, I had come face to face with my longtime adversary. I felt no sympathy, no doubt. Only disgust. And to think that he had the gall to offer $30 a paper. I had met the enemy, and he was cheap.
Elaborate plans came to mind. A sting operation. Perhaps I would contact the person, draw him out, elicit a school name and course description and rat him out.
The fantasies grew greater. Perhaps I would write back offering to take the job, and then on the night before the papers were due, I would send him a frantic e-mail with a list of all the excuses I had become familiar with: "Oh, I'm so sorry! I had to go out of town for [insert name of relative who had died earlier in semester]'s funeral and my flight back got canceled due to [insert your choice of inclement weather], and I'm actually e-mailing you from the airport right now, but I don't have the essay with me because my computer crashed (again)! Could I actually turn this in next week, because I think I'm coming down with [insert life-threatening illness or debilitating injury]?"
In the end, I decided against sending him anything. I worried he might copy my excuses.
-- Julie Wan, Washington