Plagiarism Is to English-Teachers What Porn Is to Smut-Police

When you’re on a team, you don’t trash your teammates in front of the press. No specific references here. Let’s just say that I’ve very recently been given to understand that nobody else in my professional vicinity ignores all the software options for ferreting out plagiarism in student papers. I’m the only one, it seems. Now, copying someone else’s work and presenting it as yours is downright theft. I’m no apologist for it. The vast majority of so-called plagiarism incidents, however, might more properly be called accidents. Here are my misgivings.

1) Nullum est iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius, wrote Terence: “There’s nothing being said now that hasn’t been said before.” I’m sure you could run the present post through one of these automated plagiarism-sleuths and catch me snitching a good half-dozen phrases from somewhere or other. Only you would be obtaining a false positive: I’m writing every word of this piece right out of my head (well… except for Terence). No doubt, state-of-the-art scanners distinguish between an appearance of “in the middle of the night” and one of “unique exigencies may cause aberrations in telemetric data”. Still, there’s a no-man’s-land where the banal crosses into the esoteric.  Where is the decisive step taken? When do fading shades of white cease to be classified as gray and shift into black?

I’m sure that the software is not demarcating the spaces clearly, because I’ve had students come to me in tears about being burned in other classes. They plead their case to the professor… but the professor, in the passive-aggressive evasion of a classic tinpot dictator, responds, “It’s not me—it’s the software. The software caught you, and the policy is that you’re guilty if flagged by the scan.” Wonderful.

2) It seems to me that assignments with a high probability of being plagiarized are products of lazy teaching. If you change your syllabus from one semester to the next and introduce unique material into your class discussions, there shouldn’t be any boilerplate essay ready and waiting somewhere online to answer your essay question. Of course, students can always engage the services of some outfit that will generate a passable document once fed the assignment’s parameters in detail… but then, that will always happen, and always has even without the Internet. Boyfriends, girlfriends, roommates, teammates, brothers and sisters—even parents sometimes—have always done and will always do a few take-home assignments for a few struggling students in misguided commiseration. The teacher ought to be familiar enough with the student’s style and special challenges from other assignments that such unfair advantage will leave deep tracks behind it.

And a final point here: if deductions for blunders are sufficient to make the student want to aim higher but do not bury the student beneath a sense of hopelessness, honest work is far more likely to be submitted. I sometimes get the feeling (as I’m sure students do) that certain teachers are just looking for an excuse to blow a paper apart. If said paper tiptoes successfully through the gamut of five or six “never-do-this” taboos, it wins an A; but one misstep is a B, two is a C… and, naturally, getting snared by Plagiar-Hawk earns you a zero and a trip to the Dean’s office. If anything, I think such Gestapo-like policing invites new kinds of cheating rather than diminishes the overall level of dishonesty, just as screening passengers at a certain spot in the airport only makes an inviting terrorist target out of the bottleneck outside the screening point.

3) Could some academics, perhaps, be so paranoid about cheating precisely because they know that the Ivory Tower’s inner corridors are rife with it? I’ve long been very suspicious of the “blind, peer-reviewed” rigamarole surrounding article submissions to scholarly journals. Supposedly, the expert referees who give thumbs up or down to your submission will never see your name nor you theirs; but in most disciplines, any article on any topic would give off a thousand little clues if the keyboard of Professor Loftyschnoz had produced it or if it adhered to the Harvard School of Neo-Revisionism lately become all the rage on elite campuses. They may not know who you are, those referees; but they know whose side you’re on. That’s not exactly impartial anonymity.

Now, what if you were identified (and you easily would be) as a maverick belonging to no influential coterie, yet your submitted idea were an excellent one? Your paper would be rejected, of course… but what’s to keep the anonymous Referee B in the process from integrating your idea into his or her own research? Who would ever know? How could the crime ever possibly be traced back to the culprit?

Diogenes, that granddaddy of the Cynics, was credited with once remarking, “The big thieves are arresting the little one.”

A final thought: could it be that English professors love the “gotcha” moment of plagiarism in the way that traffic cops love a speeder or Puritan censors love a guy who slips out of an illicit strip joint? All “virtue” police love hauling their offenders in for mug shots: it’s a good night’s work. Is the offender actually learning anything in any such case? Of course not… but that’s not the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is to enjoy to the hilt the little bit of power over your fellow beings that circumstances have conferred upon you.

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Author: nilnoviblog

I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (Latin/Greek) but have not navigated academe very successfully for the past thirty years. This is owed partly to my non-PC place of origin (Texas), but probably more to my conviction--along with the ancients--that human nature is immutable, and my further conviction--along with Stoics and true Christians-- that we have a natural calling to surmount our nature. Or maybe I just don't play office politics well. I'm much looking forward to impending retirement, when I can tend to my orchards and perhaps market the secrets of Dead Ball hitting that I've excavated. No, there's nothing new (nil novi) under the sun... but what a huge amount has been forgotten, in baseball and elsewhere!

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