December is my favorite month of the school year: units are wrapping up, students are more cheerful (and unruly), teachers display a renewed sense of camaraderie, and days of freedom from responsibilities beckon warmly. Although the month is filled with the agony of finalizing and grading heaps of exams, a small part of me rejoices in these stressors; there is light at the end of the long, dark wormhole that has been the fall semester.
This year, I was dismayed to discover plagiarism halfway through the frenzied circle of hell that is Grading Essays. Dismayed isn’t the right word for it. . . . No; I was aggrieved. Discouraged. Infuriated. Insulted. Exasperated.
I was freaking pissed off.
People who aren’t professors, English majors, or lovers of literature and writing often approach the topic of plagiarism with a “So, what?” mindset. Some laugh and say, “Shoot, if I hadn’t plagiarized, I wouldn’t have made my way through college!” Others say, “Well, it’s not a big deal if there’s just a little plagiarism, right?”
Right. Just like it’s not a big deal if I only stab someone with a knife . . . a little bit. Right? And it’s not a big deal if I steal candy from the thrift store . . . if I only take a little bit. Right?
I was raised to believe that cheating of any kind is intolerable. Same goes for theft. So when I learned about plagiarism in grade school, I took the crime very seriously. Plagiarism is both cheating and stealing. It’s the holy grail of intellectual offenses.
In high school and college, I knew several of my classmates plagiarized often and without reserve. Their crimes were distant, though; I viewed these peers as idiots and cheats, and dismissed the issue at that. Now that I’m a teacher, though, the problem has become personal.
When a student plagiarizes, he or she doesn’t just commit the heinous theft of intellectual property. That student plunges a metaphorical dagger into the back of his or her teacher and twists it with a sharp wrench of the wrist. Allow me to provide an example of the 6 Stages of Plagiarism Aftermath teachers may experience:
- Disbelief. First, the teacher blinks at the text a few times. She may rub her eyes for good measure, close the document and open it again, run it through the plagiarism checker one more time, and/or take a swig from a mug of coffee/tea/Pepsi that is nearby — whatever’s handy, of course.
- Fury. Next, she begins to shake. The tremors start in her hands, which are twisted tightly in her lap, and spread throughout her body until even her bowels are quaking with rage. Her skin may also begin to adopt varying shades of red.
- Grief. She’s just realized either these offenders A) are very stupid; or B) believe that she is very stupid. She’s not sure which is accurate; possibly both. This time, she reaches for the coffee and chugs.
- More rage. At this point in time, there is nothing the teacher would like more than to scream at the offending student. Instead, she vents to any and all teachers that will listen. Other victims of these rants may include spouses, family members, non-teacher friends with high moral standards, strangers, and pets.
- Anxiety. By now, the teacher has alerted school administration about the crime. (Let’s call it like it is, shall we?) She would like to bring the full force of the law upon the plagiarist, but now she begins to tremble with apprehension, rather than anger.
- She will be questioned. Did you teach the students about plagiarism? Are you sure this is plagiarism? Are you sure they knew what they were doing was wrong?
- She will be challenged. Why can’t I redo the assignment? This was my first offense. Don’t I get a second chance? What about So-and-So? They told me they copied their essay! Did they get in trouble?
- She will be denigrated by students and parents. This is such bullshit. She didn’t teach the material. She didn’t help me enough. She didn’t do her job.
- Normalcy. Eventually, the teacher will return to a state of mental well-being. This will likely come after a few days of heartburn and anxiety-vomiting, once the students have been dealt with and tempers have subsided a bit.
Plagiarism isn’t simply the trampling of the soul of another writer’s work. No, that is not the only crime committed when a student commits this type of theft. When students plagiarize, they also gut their teachers, who so often feel a certain amount of responsibility, despite their lack of involvement in the decision-making process to cheat/steal.
When a student plagiarizes, I am left wondering: If students knew of the mental turmoil these choices caused their teachers . . . would they think twice?
This public service announcement has been brought to you by a highly disgruntled English teacher.