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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wordy Wednesday

Today, I failed a student for plagiarism. 

I'd discovered that his essay was essentially a conglomeration of copied materials from about 10 different websites, so it wasn't a direct copy of one essay; instead, it was a patchwork of plagiarized material.  So, even though my syllabus is VERY thorough in my definition of plagiarism and its consequences (failure of the course), I still like to conference with students whose work is plagiarized before determining my final verdict.  This helps me more fully understand what happened and to best determine if I should carry out my policy on cheating to the full extent.

So, in the course of speaking with him, he went from claiming complete innocence, to claiming that he'd gotten "some ideas" from online, to fully admitting that the work was not even his -- he'd contracted a "friend" to write it for him and the "friend" had obviously copied and pasted the entire essay from the Internet.  So, plagiarism two times over. 

It's always disheartening to discover students cheating, and I never like to fail them, nor see them cry (which I did choose to fail him and he did cry), but this case has bothered me throughout the afternoon and evening not just because I felt discouraged at seeing a student undermine his chances at success (especially just a few weeks shy of the end of the semester), but because of some of our follow-up conversation.

He asked me: "So, what should I have done?  Just not done the paper?"

"Those were the only 2 choices?"  I asked, "Either have your friend do your work or not do the paper?  There was no option in there to do the paper yourself and give it your best effort?"

"Well, I have to work 40 hours a week and I have 12 credits, and it's just impossible for me to do it all, so I didn't have the time to do the work myself."

I told him, "I think, then, you will need to re-evaluate your schedule.  If you don't have the time to complete your academic work, then maybe you need to work less."

"I have to work.  That's how I pay for school.  I don't qualify for any financial aid."

Aside from the fact that I KNOW there are students who work 40 hours, take a full course load, and care for a family, and still managed to do their own work with dignity and responsibility, I still sympathize with students in this kind of situation, I do -- for many, they feel they're trapped in a Catch-22.  However, what bothers me, and what I tried to convey to this student, without sounding too "preachy," is that paying for an education is worthless if you are unable to spend the time to actually learn the material. 

I'm not so naive as to believe that everyone will appreciate "learning for learning's sake," especially when they're young and many are still immature, but they should be able to comprehend that paying their tuition does not entitle them to passing grades, and thus, a degree.  If that were the case, college would simply be about purchasing a transcript.

Paying the tuition just enables a student the circumstance to pursue and, hopefully, successfully learn the information vital to the degree.  An education is not a product; it's an opportunity.

So, today's case of plagiarism made me feel pretty discouraged both because of this student's particular choices and for larger, more philosophical reasons, I guess.  Probably I feel this way because I'm at the peak of two stressful crossroads: the end of the term (and the never-ending pile of grading) and being 33+ weeks pregnant. 

Hormones + hundreds of papers do not = a happy Jess. 


Adam said...

Wow, that would be TOUGH. Of course, probably not best to post on here, but I'm always interested in how prof's figure out that something is copied. I'm sure it isn't as hard as it would seem.

I'm with you on the balance though. Other people figure it out - so either everyone else in the world is the best planner in the world, ORRRR.....

ajh said...

Bad feelings all around I am sure but you didn't have a choice. It is sad how much he didn't get the bigger picture.

Ryan said...

I never felt bad when they blatantly plagiarized and then admitted it. Those are the students who need to learn the hard way what education is about. Just be glad you didn't cry while counseling/lecturing him.

The catch 22 is tough but never argue that point with you (or I) who have managed tough schedules, carried a full load, and were at the top of our game.

Erin said...

Dangit, Ryan used my computer tonight. Last post was from Erin (which I am sure you gathered).

Jess said...

Oh man that sounds like a messy situation all around. I mean the kid obviously shouldn't have plagiarized and you were right to fail him, which I think is a pretty lenient punishment. At UMD if you were caught plagiarizing you didn't just fail the class, you had to go before the review board and you end up with a big black mark on your transcripts and I think could get booted from the university. He's lucky he's just getting an F.

Krissy said...

You really are a great teacher, honestly I think you just taught your student an invaluable life lesson and taking the time to talk to the student & hear what was going on is much more than lots of profesors/teachers will do in these circumstances. Well done, I know it was not easy but you did the right thing.

Robin said...

Man, that's a tough situation but it sounds like you handled it great. I worked 30 hours a week and took 15 credit hours a semester throughout college and never had to resort to plagiarism or just not turning in an assignment. Perhaps one of the biggest skills that a successful college student learns is time management and how to succeed with many irons in the fire.

Marlene said...

Ugh, tough situation. Obviosuly you feel for the guy and his situation, but you're right - he's not doing any good for himself by trying to cheat his way through school if he can't find the time to do the work. It's a shame and I can see how it would discourage you as a teacher.

Amanda said...

That's a tough situation, but you did the right thing. Happy 33 weeks!!

James said...

You did exactly as you should. Sticking to your guns (syllabus)and failing him will hopefully teach him a lesson. I've struggle with a similar situation myself and the best advise I can give is this:

As an educator you strive to change the lives of your students for the best. There will be some that cheat and slip through. There will be some that hardly put in effort and just smooth through without a care in the world. Then there are those that struggle hard, and with your guidance reach beyond their limits. Strive to reach them all but keep the last group as your motivation when dealing with the others.

It works for me. :)

Alice said...

Don't let this get you down. I know it's hard (I'm a math advisor at a University - with an English degree ironically) to deal with students in situations like this. But you are completely right that if you don't learn the material there is no point in getting the education. This is especially true for certain professions like doctors or engineers. If you don't know your stuff you could kill someone. Just because this is English doesn't make it less important. If someone needs to work that much to take school they could take a year off of school to save up so they can devote themselves to their studies. My husband and I both put ourselves through school (me English and him Computer Science) and I think it has made us better individuals for it. Just remember that you have to take the good with the bad and try to focus on the students who work hard and are managing to do it all.

Alice said...

On a funny note, I have a co-advisor who had a student change an answer on a test and try to claim it was like that. This particular prof scans his tests just in case, and the answer changed now said "the answer did not change" which was right but was not the original answer. We all found this too funny.

Firefly's Running said...

Jess, I worked full time and had a full time. I still made time to finish my homework. I was tired during the week, but I worked hard to get the assignments done.

Have you tried using Turnitin.com in order to prevent students from turning in fraudulent papers. It's easy to use.

N.D. said...

that's so hard. It would be really hard to find the plagiarism too - you have a tough job!