I've taught this course a number of times before, but I never noticed anything that made me suspicious of plagiarism, so I never bothered bothered to check for it very carefully. I have, of course, gotten essays from students that looked better than I expected. But I told myself these were students who did better work on paper than in class. I know different students express themselves in different ways, and discovering where their strengths are is one of the pleasures of teaching. So I didn't let my doubts get the better of me. Until now.

Perhaps I was naive. As a matter of form, I have serious warnings about it in my syllabuses, and I discuss it early in every course where written assignments are required. And the University requires all students to take basic English courses in which plagiarism and correct citation are discussed and practiced. But I never imagined I would have to face and play policeman.

By the middle of the semester, two of my colleagues were complaining about plagiarists they had found in their classes - one apiece. They are teaching modern literature and film. I was smug. Such popular topics, so well represented on the Internet, so easy for undergraduates to get through with minimal work - I knew my subject area would make it much harder for students to cheat. I bragged to one of my colleagues that I didn’t think I would find a single plagiarist among "my kids". She dared me to try anyway. I turned to the powerful Internet search engines and other databases that faculty have available for such purposes, and started by typing in a phrase from a student paper, chosen at random. That was at 4:45 pm. I left the office close to nine that night.

When the dust finally settled some weeks later, I had found enough evidence to charge more than a quarter of the students in the class with plagiarism. All of them were found guilty by their peers in Honor Council hearings. I have noded a few of their excuses, in case you are interested.

Documenting the plagiarism was tedious. For me, it takes the same kind of thinking and the same kind of time as writing a scholarly paper. And as I did it I grew angry, so angry I could hardly drive myself to keep going.

Why? Oh, I knew this went on - I knew; of course I knew. It goes on at all universities, in every single ream of student papers, and not only in student papers, either. But I was shocked and dismayed all the same. A quarter of the class!

I can adjust myself to the knowledge that a large percentage of my students are taking my class solely to satisfy a requirement that they see as a form of intellectual red tape on the way to a degree. I know many of them have no actual interest in the subject matter, and are not inclined to read the assignments carefully no matter how I try to entice them. (It is clear from the in-class quizzes I sometimes give that roughly half of my students do not do the reading for any given assignment.) But I can live with all that. I rarely did the reading when I was in college, although I never plagiarized. I know how undergraduates feel in required classes. No, what I can’t live with is that most of my plagiarists are juniors and seniors. That means it is almost certain that they have been plagiarizing before now, and simply haven’t been caught. Many of my colleagues say they don’t turn in suspected plagiarists - they just give them a warning, sometimes fail them on the one suspect paper, and let them continue. That goes against University policy, and I think it fails to impress the student in any significant way. So I am spending my own precious research time to turn in people who my colleagues have declined to turn in. The necessary lessons aren't being learned because my colleagues are too lazy to take the time to deliver those lessons in a convincing way. That is what makes me angry.

Those colleagues say it isn't a serious issue. Well, I think it's an extremely serious issue. It's about honesty, the same thing that keeps marriages together and enables you to rely on your friends. Maybe it is the fundamental issue of society. Professors who are caught plagiarizing generally have to leave the teaching profession. Who would hire them after that? Pharmacists who get caught substituting drugs for what they've been asked to provide simply lose their licenses. An engineer who cheats in the construction of a building can kill people. I saw this in Taiwan during the 1999 earthquake - thousands of buildings collapsed because they had been shoddily built. In some cases, builders had used empty oil cans in place of cement in structural parts of buildings - oil cans are cheaper than cement, of course. One of my friends at Cheng-Chi University in Taiwan said, "What I fear is that our economy is no sounder than those buildings, and that our whole 'economic miracle' has been based on cutting corners." Yes, I think cheating is a serious issue. Students who are caught once should be turned in and made to take responsibility for what they have done. Students who will not learn the lesson should take a year off, or several years off, and come back when they're ready.

And I think the real reason my colleagues don't want to turn students in is that the paperwork is a heavy burden. Those colleagues who never turn in the students they catch are lazy. I'm not. So I got no research done last semester, because what energies I had were expent on this. Aside from the time spent preparing the evidence, I attended the hearings and presented my case. The hearings were stressful and exhausting.

After extensive discussions with colleagues and University officials, I made the decision that I did not want to talk to the accused students about this myself. I didn't want them to plead with me, to threaten me, to offer me gifts and favors. To those who wrote to me directly, I answered that I wanted all our conversation on the subject to take place through the Honor Council. The University's administrative response toward first offenders is what I would call reasonably lenient if time-consuming for the student, though second offenders are booted out of school. I tell the kids that the Honor Council is there to help us resolve the issue with fairness and dispassion. I really believe that. I believe in due process.

The University's way of dealing with a first-offence plagiarist is to put a mark on the student's transcript and require him or her to take a seminar about plagiarism. The mark looks bad (it says "failed for academic dishonesty") but it can be removed about 6 months after the seminar has been completed, sooner if the student has a pressing reason. Contrast this with schools where students are expelled or suspended after a single infraction!

Apart from the "legal" issue of plagiarism, what really bothers me is the feeling of being betrayed by these students. Now, it's true that most of them and I don't have an actual personal relationship. But in the Confucian empathetic sense I do treat each distant student in a big classroom in a way modeled on the way I treat the few students who are closest to me. The relationship is fundamentally the same, regardless of the distance. And so I feel a big part of my enthusiasm for sharing what I have has been torn out. I try to shore up the hole by reminding myself about the many others who surely don't steal - some of them really superb minds who awe me with their superior aptitude for literature. Superior to mine, certainly. But even shored up, there is a big hole in me now.

One problem is that these kids don't even realize that I would be hurt by their cheating. I'm unsure how to express that without going overboard, and making myself an easy target for one of the selfish students who occasionally turns up and would try to manipulate my feelings. Even so, it's clear that it's an important message. My ordinary way has been to let students figure it out, which they usually do by the end of the term. So I've got learn how to let them start figuring this out sooner in the term than they do now, but without losing the all-important subtlety.

About two thirds of the students I caught decided to challenge the accusation and had formal hearings. All were found to have plagiarized and received some form of "sanction" (punishment). Some of them are, I believe, sincerely chastened and will come out of this experience with more understanding of how to live in the world. Others, including one of the most flagrant cheaters, are angry and think they have been wronged. But I don't think any of them understand how I feel.

More material related to this subject may be found at my write-up on the Avoiding accusations of plagiarism node.

last day-log entry: April 26, 2002 | next: May 8, 2002