Plagiarism, Entitled Students, and Shooting the Messenger

First things first. Go and read this article. If you’re an educator, have some alcohol nearby. You’ll need it.

I am not going to discuss the article itself because, well, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

Why are so many comments out-and-out attacks on Ed Dante, Mr. Essay Mill himself? [insert good, funny metaphor here, that I was completely unable to think up]. This article is doing us a favor. Mr. Dante (not his real name) is telling the academic community about the incredibly successful world of plagiarism and many commentators, though a minority, are more interested in shutting him up than in figuring out what to do about it.

The suggestions in the comments about in-class papers is a good one, but imperfect. Many students take notes on computer. I take in-class notes by hand, myself, but since 95% of my other writing is on the computer my handwriting has deteriorated. My handwriting was never good to begin with; they made me use a special pencil in fourth grade to fix it and it did not work. Imagine being the professor who has to read all of that, for every assignment? Also, some students write best under pressure but others do not. We should not penalize them.

Further, some students have a physical problem writing. I have a major joint condition which, luckily, reacts very well to medicine. Writing by hand for an extended period of time leads to serious pain very quickly. I got into a fight with a highschool journalism teacher who did not believe me that I had to use a computer to write for forty minutes instead of doing it by hand, because that day was particularly bad. I do not want to put students through that.

I am not sure what the proper answer is. While specialty essays that align closely with class material might help prevent buying old papers off the internet, it will not stop people like Ed Dante who write new papers. History might be the most difficult of these because research papers demand giving the students a lot of time. This means more time to find a paper mill and also gives procrastinators more reason to freak out when it is due the next day and they have not started yet.

The problem does not lie with the capitalistic, if immoral or amoral, essay mills. The problem is systemic within the universities. Students should all take a writing class when they get to college. They should be taught by English professors – not graduate students – and begin with a hard, deep instruction of grammar rules. I have a confession to make: I do not know my grammar rules. Well, most of them. I know how to write because I spent a lot of time reading while growing up. The only grammar rules I know well are the ones that haunt me, like passive voice (thanks, German!). There should be lots of short assignments. And no group editing. None. Zilch. It will just turn back to highschool “group” activities when I and you would do all the work, partly because they were lazy. Partly because we did not want our grades in their hands.

There should also be multiple professors. Maybe it should be a required year-long course. With history professors who come in and teach how to do basic citations, plagiarism rules, and setting up an argument. Creative writing professors can give lectures on developing one’s own voice. Bring in all the humanities professors in rotation. Make it heavy on technical knowledge, though. Do not make it fun. We can have it pass/fail if you like, with the chance to write a paper beforehand (in class) to try to graduate out of it. What do you think?

I have already dealt with every category of potential cheater he outlines in my short career. For example:

I have had the Chinese student who does not speak any English. This is the university’s fault. The desire for tuition money means that they will accept students who should not be there. This is a problem. For cases as egregious as this one – in a discussion class, this student only ever said the words “what?” and “I’m so sorry” – I wonder if there is a possibility for legal action. This is playing with a student’s life. Future employers do not look kindly upon transcripts that include failing Western Civ.

I had another who was not stupid at all. He was just incredibly lazy. Let’s not kid ourselves: it is not only the rich kids who feel a sense of entitlement. This was one of those students who does not do the reading but tries to take part in class discussion anyway. When I diplomatically pulled him aside after one particularly hideous example to ask him to do his reading more carefully, he blatantly admitted that he had not done any of it. In fact, he was proud that he faked it so well that I only “caught” him now. Really?

I told him to shape up and reminded him that class participation was an important part of his grade. He said being forced to read Margaret Atwood in highschool English class gave him a major mental block so he could not make himself read anymore. Now, I will admit to not being a huge Atwood fan and I read her work in highschool English class the teacher got tired of my attacks on the book. But again: really?

Then he tells me that he needs a good grade in the class because he has to keep his GPA at a certain level to keep his scholarship. Entitlement is not just for the rich, as I wrote above. His tone and the preceding part of the conversation made it clear that he saw it as my job to ensure he got a good grade in the class. I calmly told him that as of that moment he had a zero in class participation and that he had better get his act together. He is not a stupid student, which I told him. He did fairly well in the in-class tests and while his female friend, probably my best student, almost certainly helped him study I made sure they sat far away enough during tests that he could not cheat from her.

He did pick it up from that point on, and good for him. I know he thinks I am a jerk, because I got very few negative reviews in the class one of those seemed very related to that above conversation. Do I care? Not really.

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