I make my living as a university professor—a teacher who also writes books. This semester I’m teaching US History Since 1929, an upper-division course, one of my favorite classes. I like it in part because US History Since 1932 was the one class I took in college that made me want to go to grad school and become a history professor. (Perhaps more to the point, I decided that the professor who taught it, William E. Leuchtenburg, was who I wanted to be when I grew up. More about him in a moment.) I think I like teaching this course because it’s easier for me to imagine that there’s a student like the young me whom I need to inspire in this class than in my other classes.
I put a lot of time into thinking about the books I will assign, the writing assignments, what I’ll do in a given day’s class to stimulate discussion, etc. There is no relationship that I can decipher between the amount of time I put into a given task and how well the students react to it. Some things just work and some things don’t. I slave over some ideas that land with a thud, and I pull some out of my rear end that soar. If enough things work, we’re all happy. When they don’t work, everything can go downhill very, very fast.
Earlier this semester I assigned a book about the 1932 presidential election between Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s a good book and I thought the students might engage it because in retrospect the 1932 contest has so many parallels to the 2008 election. They found it a little dry, but I thought it would provide enough fodder for good discussions that even if they didn’t particularly care for it, everything would be OK. That’s what ended up happening. They all wrote their reaction papers and moved on.
Except for one student. I only made it through the first three sentences of her paper. The third sentence just sounded weird, so I typed it into google. Sure enough, she had lifted that sentence and 2 others from her introduction straight from an essay she found on the internet. That’s as cut-and-dry a case of plagiarism as you’ll ever see (when I looked closely at it, I even noticed that the parts she copied and pasted were in 11-point font, and the rest of the paragraph was in 12), so I gave her a 0 and didn’t bother to read the rest. But then that was the last thing I thought about that night, and it was the first thing I thought about the next morning. I was so mad about it I threw up while brushing my teeth.
I emailed the whole class and told them they had to upload their papers to turnitin.com, the site that uses plagiarism-detection software to bust cheaters. Meanwhile, I started having all these thoughts about what a failure I must be that someone would try to pull this on me. Why didn’t I explicitly tell the students that they couldn’t copy and paste their essays from internet sites that aren’t even any good in the first place? What kind of idiot must this person think I am that she thought she could get away with this? I can guarantee you that I spent 100 times as many thinking and worrying about this than the cheater did.
When the student finally ran her paper through turnitin, the software determined that she had plagiarized seven sections of her essay from two sources, which together comprised more than half of her paper. The second source, from which she pilfered an entire paragraph, was an online chapter of The FDR Years, a terrific collection of essays that I’ve assigned in previous iterations of this class. The FDR Years was written by William E. Leuchtenburg, the man who encouraged me to go to grad school and wrote my letters of recommendation.
I had to go to my class the next day and read them the fucking riot act about plagiarism. What I didn’t tell them was that if you plagiarize, I will fail you (and I will take it personally and I will take it 100 times more seriously than you will), but if you plagiarize my mentor, I will hate you. That day the atmosphere in class was as toxic as it could possibly have been. But the student realized soon thereafter that she could withdraw from the class without penalty from the university (because this was the first time she had been caught cheating, even though she’s a senior and I know damn well this is not the first time she’s done it), so she did so. Without her the class has been great. For whatever reason, I feel like I’m doing the best teaching I’ve ever done. It’s funny how quickly the dynamics of a class can turn on a dime.
I’ve reflected a lot over the past couple of weeks about who this student cheated and how. Herself and her family, obviously: her parents paid a lot of money for her to sit in this class for a month and a half and learn exactly nothing and receive zero credit for it. Her classmates, too, including one who timed the delivery of her third child for spring break so she could get her assignments in on schedule and get back to class with as little time lost as possible, and another who told me last week that he’s an Iraq War vet dealing with PTSD. They, of course, managed to turn in papers that they had written. She cheated me, but I guess I get paid in part to deal with that kind of disappointment. She cheated Professor Leuchtenburg; even though she didn’t exactly harm him materially, she stole from him the currency of his profession, his ideas and the way he expresses them.
I’ve thought about what it would feel like to have someone plagiarize from one of the books I’ve written. I’m strangely neutral about it (at least in the abstract; talk to me again if it happens in real life). It won’t be like they’re stealing from me, unless they’re publishing my words in another book without attribution, and even then, there’s so little money to be stolen from authors of academic books that “stealing” doesn’t seem like the right word to use. No, the plagiarizer steals the expectation we have as readers that what we’re reading is real, no matter the context of what we’re reading. The plagiarizer steals from us.