• April 23, 2014

How Dumb Do They Think We Are?

It happened more times last year than I can even recall, but I clearly remember the first time. I was grading a paper and came across a sentence that surprised me. It just didn't fit in with what I had read up to that point. I was surprised partly because the sentence made proper use of the word "implacable," whereas in the paragraph before, the student had used an abstract noun ending in "-ship" as a verb. Twice.

I read more and found more seismic shifts in the writing style. Magisterial paragraphs were followed by inane ones; syllogisms gave way to circular logic, and back again. I picked one suspect sentence, entered it into an Internet search engine, and in milliseconds, I found it -- word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark. It turned out much of the rest of the paper had been plagiarized from the same document.

I deduced that the student had also performed a "find-and-replace" function on one key word in the document to make paragraphs that were on a different topic seem as if they were on the topic I had assigned.

Did this cheeky twerp think I wouldn't notice? For an hour after I found the paper's origin, I could only sit in my office and stew, comparing the paper to the Internet version again and again and determining that, at most, one paragraph was entirely original to the student.

My anger then turned into self-questioning. What did I do to this student to deserve such an insult? How had I failed as a teacher, to make the student think that stealing someone else's words was acceptable?

Since I was a new assistant professor, I sought my colleagues' advice about the paper. They sympathized, they shared my indignation, but as I calmed down, they also told me that I shouldn't take it personally. Apparently I would be seeing cases like this again. Senior colleagues gave matter-of-fact appraisals of just how many plagiarized papers I could expect in a given class of 25 students.

They were right. Throughout the year, I saw plagiarized papers in nearly every stack I read. At times, I started to think that maybe every paper was plagiarized.

My extreme and irrational reaction to that first plagiarized paper was partly the result of my having been unprepared for it. I had seen a case or two of cheating when I was a teaching assistant, but it didn't seem like a personal affront. After all, it wasn't my class. Cheating was the professor's problem, so I felt no need to look for explanations.

There are probably dozens of reasons why some students plagiarize. They're lazy. They're afraid. They perceive plagiarism to be standard practice at their college. They believe that any means to a good grade are legitimate.

What's most astounding, though -- and most insulting -- is that students plagiarize in ways that are so easy to catch. They cut and paste without thinking to cover their tracks. They copy from the most obvious sources possible. They find and replace words and then do not proofread to ensure clarity.

Do they think we're stupid? If they're going to plagiarize, why can't they at least do it in a way that acknowledges that their audience is intelligent? Don't they know what the big framed diplomas on our walls mean?

I think that student plagiarists are often poor plagiarists because they don't realize that it's even possible to be a savvy reader, that it's possible to read a text that has been cobbled together from multiple sources and determine where one source's contribution ends and another's begins. Those students don't pay attention to diction, syntax, or tone when they read, so they can't possibly imagine that someone else might.

If that is, in fact, what goes on (or, rather, doesn't go on) in our students' minds when they are copying material from the Internet, then we may have run into an example of a broad human tendency to take our individual selves as the standard by which we judge everyone else.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach noticed that tendency, explaining the difference between two bad poets like this: "He who, having written a bad poem, knows it to be bad, is in his intelligence, and therefore in his nature, not so limited as he who, having written a bad poem, admires it and thinks it good."

If Feuerbach is right, then by showing our students what good work is, helping them discover what makes it good work, and explaining how we can very clearly tell the difference between good and bad work, or the relative differences between two authors, we are not only improving their minds, but improving their "natures." That is a lofty word, one that even humanities professors (maybe especially humanities professors) hesitate to utter. But maybe we can agree at least that we can try to broaden students' perspectives and raise their standards, so that they can be better critics -- and better self-critics.

Students can't entirely be blamed for the narrow-mindedness they come to college with, but they absolutely can be blamed for persisting in it in the face of their colleges' best efforts to expand their horizons.

Plagiarism is, therefore, not only dishonest; it is also a sign of students' shamefully entrenched satisfaction with their limitations.

I no longer see cases of blatant plagiarism as personal insults. They are, instead, the pathetic bleats of students who think they know enough -- maybe all there really is to know -- about how to read and think and write.

The paradox of plagiarism is that in order to be really good at it, you need precisely the reading and writing skills that ought to render plagiarism unnecessary. If my students could recognize what differentiates their own writing styles from those of authors whose work they find online, then they should also be able to perform with ease all the tasks I require for their essay assignments: to read texts carefully, to determine the relative importance of textual evidence, to formulate a clear thesis, and to defend it convincingly.

I'll grant that my hypothesis that students plagiarize so obviously because they are unable to imagine someone noticing does not cover all cases. I have caught even students whose other work and class participation exhibit exactly the skills that ought to obviate the perceived need to plagiarize. Maybe I should be insulted by those students: They know better and still try to fool me.

I believe in relentlessly exercising my students' critical abilities, but I also believe in punishing plagiarism. A student who plagiarizes refuses to be educated. There shouldn't be room in my classroom for that kind of student. Indeed, that person is not really a student at all.

Jonathan Malesic is an assistant professor of theology at King's College, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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