Plagiarism: A Love Affair

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Never have I seen a teacher more emotional, never have I been more emotional, than when dealing with a case of plagiarism. What's up with that? What I find so interesting, you see, is that the emotion (which can be at times almost overwhelming) seems to resonate not from some virtuous commitment to academic honor nor even from some deep sense of crime and punishment but, more often than not, from what I can only describe as love betrayed, as though you've not only found out your partner is having an affair but you learned it by catching her or him in flagrante delicto. There's the same sense of injured trust. There's the anger. There's the thirst for revenge. When someone plagiarizes in my classroom--and the classrooms of many teachers I have worked with--it feels like, well, being cheated on. That's why there are two basic rules for plagiarism in my program. First, never confront a student before getting a second opinion. Taking the time to find that impartial observer--either me in my capacity as Director of Writing Programs or any other teacher you can find--allows time for the rush of emotions to subside. Plagiarism is serious, yes, but because of that very seriousness it is not something for rash action. In fact there's been more than one occasion when I've taken a look at a suspected case and said "Well, I'm not really sure this is plagiarism, and here's why." That's why getting that second opinion turns out to be so handy, all emotions aside. The second rule is perhaps more controversial: never cut a deal with a plagiarist ... you will only get burned in the end. Invariably, every time I've seen a teacher work out some compromise ("I'll fail you for this assignment, but not the class" or "OK, I can see how you misunderstood our class discussion, but as long as you understand plagiarism fully now") there's some second act of academic dishonesty and hence some second act of betrayal, all the more painful. It may not always be a second case of plagiarism but always it comes back in some way to bite them on the a**. If your lover cheats on you, get a new lover 'cause cheaters don't change. We have a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism in our program not because the crime is so heinous (though, clearly, it is) but only because nothing else seems to work. You know there's this god awful show called Cheaters. Suspicious partners have the show track their lovers and, invariably, they are shown video evidence of the cheating which leads directly into an emotional, sometimes violent, direct on-air confrontation. It's not the kind of thing I want to see happening in a writing program. And plagiarism is, I think, inevitable. For me, it's an irresolvable remainder in the educational system--something that somehow the system itself produces by its very structure. To be sure, we do all we can in our program to prevent plagiarism. We have a detailed FAQ about academic dishonesty that's discussed in class. After this discussion, students sign a statement acknowledging that they understand what plagiarism is. We avoid using assignments that are in our reader, since they're being used at schools around the country. We create original standard sequences for new teachers each semester and all teachers are encouraged to write their own assignments. A monoculture, after all, presents the greatest risk. Plagiarism? A love affair? Attack me, please. Tell me I'm way off base. Tell me I'm Jane Gallop reborn. Tell me I am wrong, wrong, wrong. But also tell me what to do. Tell me how you deal with the emotional charge of plagiarism. Tell me what you do to make sure that emotional trigger isn't even there. And, if you've found the holy grail that diminishes (eliminates?) plagiarism, tell me that too.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.