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.