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Got plagiarism? Try the guillotine. (point of view).

Plagiarism--what's a professor to do? To judge by the recent spate of articles--from The Atlantic to Newsweek to my local newspaper to the pages of Community College Week ("Whatever Happened to Academic Integrity?" July 8)--the issue (or sin or crime or whatever you'd like to label it) is now on the educational front burner. Academics and teachers of all stripes seem to be totally bumming about all the kids who (allegedly) ain't writing their own stuff.

Of course, part of this furor is just "modern times, man." For one thing, the (sort of) rich and famous seem to be getting caught right and left lately. And it does kind of suck when it isn't just politicians who're exposed fudging on long-ago exams and papers Oust practicing, after all, for those speeches that they won't write themselves), but also respected professional writers and scholars who seem to be forgetting stuff that we expect lowly comp. students to know. Indeed, when a highfalutin historian (or historiographer) like Richard Jensen claims, as he does in a recent opinion piece in The Organization of American Historian Newsletter, that it "is a canard" to hold Stephen Ambrose to the same standards as college students when it comes to using quotation marks, we lowly community college teachers might be forgiven our confusion and concern. (This sort of Clintonesque hair-splitting might, however, explain the lack of respect for authority that Professor Straw, in a "Point of View" piece in the same issue of CCW, intuits as the cause of the "Why Not" generation's tendency to go the store-bought route rather than rolling their own.)

Throw in the spectacle of major corporations and the CEOs of same cooking the books, Martha Stewart suspected of insider trading, etc, and you've got a climate right? Like El Nino and global warming and the Arctic ice cap melting, it's just the season. And then there's the damn technology, the dreaded Internet, the temptation, blah, blah, blah.

So what's a poor professor to do?

Let me give you a list. It'll make your life easier. Maybe it'll even deter plagiarism, but at least it will definitely make trolling for the dreadful beastie less stressful.

First, let's get our mind right. Your attitude toward plagiarism is much more important--to your mental health and stress level at leas t--than penalties and crime-fighting methodology. In brief, as your kids might say, "Chill out, prof."

I mean, it's not like we invented the problem. Plagiarism's been around so long that half the stuff that burned in the library at Alexandria was probably cribbed by those famous ancients from those other ancients who never got credit--or who sold same to keep body and soul together. (For that matter, if we take "your name on someone else's stuff" as a basic definition of plagiarism, what does that make most ghost-written celebrity "autobiographies" but consensual plagiarism?)

More importantly, from the students' point of view, it's simply not a deep ethical question at all; nor is the rise and fall of Western Civ. as they know it riding on whose term paper has whose name on it. For those who do it, and for those who are tempted to do it (almost everyone at one point or another), it's a game.

Yes, professor, I'm sorry, but I said "Game." And the name of the students' game (which perforce is yours, however unwilling or unwitting a player you may be) is Don't Get Caught. Maybe that's not the way it should be, but that's the way it is. A plagiarist is not troubled with nightmares over that unearned A in Comp. II. Neither will he rush to turn himself in, full of guilt over the purchased research paper that saved his 4.0 GPA last semester. If a cheater suffers any anxiety at all, when does it occur, and why? Between turning in the paper in and getting the grade, of course. Because that's when he's at risk.

By the way, I may know a little bit more about the game than the average teacher because, as I candidly admit to my students during my initial presentation on the subject, I was once a sinner myself. I bought my first wife's engagement ring with the ill-gotten gains from my own little cottage industry of writing for hire; and I quit not out of moral revulsion, but because I feared getting caught. I might add that none of the dozens of students (at a Jesuit college no less) who availed themselves of my service ever suffered any moral queasiness that I noticed. In fact, my retirement was troubled only with the importunings of (formerly) satisfied customers who felt that I'd deserted them.

So play the game. If you want to minimize, reduce or at least control this "epidemic," and you want to do so with minimum inconvenience for yourself, forget all the grandiose hypothesizing as to the whys and wherefores. Ignore the ethical ins and outs, and, not by the way, forego any sentimentalism about your opponents and the problems and temptations they face. To win you need to maximize the plagiarist's risk and minimize your work. My method does both.

The next key to victory is expectations. You have to have high ones that your students won't cheat on you, and to raise yours you'll need to lower theirs--that is, their expectations of getting away with the writer's version of kidnapping (of another's stuff) and murder (of their own skills). And the first step to that end is zero tolerance for plagiarism. Yeah, I hate the phrase too, at least when it's applied by brain-dead idiots to nail clippers going onto airplanes or into schools. But it has its place in the comp. classroom. In more old-fashioned terms, plagiarism is a mortal sin, and the wages of sin are death.

So to start, on the very first day when I hand out the syllabus, I point out the obvious, in obvious language: "Plagiarism is turning in stuff that other people wrote--no matter who those others were--and putting your name on it as if you wrote it. Plagiarism is therefore a capital offense in a writing class, since you can't be getting any better as a writer if you aren't doing the writing. And all of this being true, the penalty is death to your grade. Anyone I catch plagiarizing gets an automatic F for the course. Not for the paper, but the class. The first time. Every time. No appeals (at least to me-see below), no excuses, nada. If I catch you, it's an F and you're out."

"If I catch you ..." This step is crucial to both deterrence and to your mental health. It's also, as I explain to my students, quite simple, and involves a free civics lesson to boot. (I'm fond of claiming that my comp. classes provide free tidbits of a liberal education to those who attend carefully, and here's an example on the very first day.) When I charge a student with plagiarism, I do so as a judge using the French system of justice, not the English. Their puzzlement about both their heritage and what's going to happen to them if their professor even suspects they're dirty are both alleviated when I explain the practical ramifications of "guilty until proven innocent" as opposed to the reverse.

Put simply, when I think someone has plagiarized I simply flunk the paper, flunk the student for the course and write a polite little note on the paper informing the student of same. In addition, the note adds tat if the student disputes my judgement, he is free to bring me the sources he used in writing the paper. If he does, I will compare those sources to the paper, and if they prove that the student in fact did not plagiarize, I will rescind the judgement and the F, award the grade the paper would have received had it not been mistakenly condemned, and apologize profusely for any pain and suffering inflicted by my mistake.

In the 26 years I've been using "guilty until proven innocent," my judgement has been challenged less than a half dozen times; only four times has the student actually produced the sources for comparison--and only once have I had to take back an F.

The exception that proves the rule.

But of course no lunch is free. If this method saves the professor work in the plagiarism endgame it's because I'm assuming that, like me, you've done your homework as the semester's progressed. In particular, as simple as it sounds, you will have to edit, read, correct, and grade your students' papers in detail. I have no idea what those teachers who moan and groan about how tough it is to catch plagiarists in this age of high-tech everything are doing all semester, but I'm quite confident--and so are most of my students--that my familiarity with their work--all their work--removes much of the occasion of sin. (In other words you can forget about such things as "holistic grading," "peer editing" and all the other shoddy substitutes for the master's hands-on and over-the-shoulder supervision of his apprentices' work.)

In practice, this means three things: first, I make sure to assign one or two in-class writing samples early in the semester. Besides serving as a handy diagnostic tool, such samples provide a useful baseline for comparison if you do suspect fraud. Such insurance, in fact, is also why I favor the so-called "portfolio" in my writing classes, which in my case simply involves distributing folders at the beginning of the semester and ordering the students to keep all their writing--including all drafts of all papers--therein.

Finally, I strenuously encourage--but do not demand--the use of conferences to go over drafts of papers before they're due. As I tell my students, "If I can function as your editor before I morph into your reader, your grade will benefit--because the final product will be better." But a corollary benefit to the editor, of course, is intimate familiarity with the writer's capabilities, work habits and problems. On the flip side, of course, I know (and keep track of in my grade book) who's not working with me.

Take all of this together, and you have a system allowing you to herd the goats separately from the sheep, in effect penning the former in with their own laziness. The very students most tempted to cheat are the ones who've been producing half-baked work, and who've not been using their "editor" and those are precisely the easiest to catch, since any quantum leap in performance will stand out like Seabiscuit in a herd headed for the glue factory.

Does all of this smack of harsh authoritarianism, with whiffs of entrapment and violations of due process lingering in the air as well?

One more point, then. Earlier I said there was no appeal of my judgement. Practically speaking (since it's so rarely used) that's true enough, but, as I also explain to my students, they do have recourse to a grievance procedure, which I take some pains to outline for them, in case any previous exegesis they're endured hasn't taken. I even sweeten the pot by agreeing to arbitration: any student who disputes a plagiarism grade (or any grade for that matter), and who's not satisfied with the normal judicial review may have the paper judged by a panel of my departmental colleagues. If the panel's judgement contradicts mine, I'm more than willing to acknowledge error and retract same with appropriate mea culpas.

So far only two students have ever carried it that far--and without providing any exception that proves the rule.

And that rule, once more with feeling: relax, be candid, lay down the law, do your homework, trust your judgement and pull the trigger when you have to.

Sure, maybe I am being fooled more than I think I am (and I admit as much to the students). But if I am, I console myself that, as ever, it's for the same motives, and for the same rewards. As the Preacher sayeth, "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." The times don't change human nature. Technology doesn't change ethics.

Anyway, I figure anyone who's got the smarts to fool me has got a great future ahead of him. Maybe he'll be the next Stephen Ambrose.
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Author:Mahon, Robert Lee
Publication:Community College Week
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 9, 2002
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