Another perfectly good life ruined.

Hot on the heels of the King of Flakes, I have a new saga.

So, the other day, I am marking essays, as is my wont. And I come to this essay written by a student who attends class but doesn’t talk, except to the girl she sits next to. Her work so far has been fine, so I figure the not-talking in class is just shyness. It happens.

This essay is okay, but there’s something a little off about it, because it is written in this weird directive voice. “You should note 3 things about the theme of the story,” which, we have talked about in class as being not the way to go about writing an interpretation. It kind of sounds like a middle-school teacher explaining the story with a “here is the correct answer” type of approach, rather than a student saying “here is my interpretation”.

Now, the student has previously handed in short assignments which were better written, so now I am confused, and I decide to give the old google a whirl, just to see what happens.

After an intensive search lasting an exhausting 30 seconds, I find that half the essay is the product of an answer (by someone identified as a teacher, oddly enough), on enotes. A further 30 second search finds the second half of the essay in another enotes answer.

The entire essay is 700 words long, 670 words of which are written by these two people on enotes. There’s been absolutely no attempt to disguise this at all; no rewording, no cunning insertion of the student’s own ideas. At least she made sure the font was all the same. Total time the student took to “write” the essay, I would estimate at 10 minutes, including the amount of time it would have taken her to format it, and do the Work Cited (which, I note, contains no reference at all to enotes).

I go home and have a few stiff drinks. I admit it. Where is that WinePal button I keep meaning to install on here?

The following morning before class, just out of curiosity, I google the 2 mini-assignments the student handed in that I have not yet returned, and one she emailed me a couple of weeks ago, that I still have in electronic form. All three of them are plagiarized in the same way – copied and pasted from internet “help” sites; one of which appears to be pay per view only.

Why didn’t I google prior to this? Well, I had no reason to suspect. Who plagiarizes a 200 word mini-assignment worth 1%? How is that a good risk?

Anyway, I go off to class and tell the students matter-of–factly that I am not handing back essays in class because  I have caught a cheater, who needs to come and confess his/her cheaterly crimes (the Sarcastic Bastard gambit). I vary it slightly, telling them they can come get their essays from me in person because I want them to look me in the eye and say they didn’t cheat.

A few of them troop upstairs, including Miss Cheater, who looks me in the eye and says “can I have my essay back?” Fixing her with a steely glare, I ask, “is that all?” “Yes”. I ask her to wait outside until all the others have their work back. She does this, making sure to whisper to her friend about me before she comes back into the room.

“So, let’s start again, did you write this essay?” I ask, and “oh, yes” is the reply. “Oh, really? How is it, then, that all these parts I have helpfully highlighted match these things from the web I have printed out and helpfully highlighted?” This of course, is the preamble to a shitload of rigamarole.

First, it can’t possibly be true. Oh ho. It just so happens that the student has handed in another mini-assignment that day. I ask if I google it, right there in front of her, will I find that it is also plagiarized? She says that it is her own work, and I can google it “if I like”. I do like, and again, after 60 seconds of exhaustive searching, up it pops. She seems surprised. I cannot work out if she is a terrific actress or a terrific idiot.

I ask her if she understands the concept that she has used in the opening sentence of the assignment. She stumbles around, clearly unable to explain the idea. I ask again, “did you write this yourself, or did you copy it from the internet?”

At this point, which is the 5th time of asking, the student finally admits that she did use enotes for “some” of the essay. She also tells me she is an Engineering student, and better at math than English. “Okay, so, as someone who is good at math, can you tell me what percentage 30 words is out of 700?” She declines to do so, and instead goes to gambit #2 repeated apologies and promises not to do it again.

I indicate that we have gone beyond the point where apologies are a remedy. Her next move is the “it was an mistake,” which really pushes me over the edge, and so I then submit to her exhibits B, C, D and E. (This, along with the piece I just googled does indeed make FIVE, instances of plagiarism). Once is a mistake; 5 times is a concerted pattern of behaviour. This triggers approach #4: tears. Yes, yes, it is very sad. She “didn’t mean to do it” and “will never do it again.”

She then offers to redo all the work. Good God, no. I point out that that isn’t really an appropriate remedy. “Did you know this was wrong when you did it?” I ask. Okay, so this next bit is pretty unbelievable, but I SWARE it is true. She says “Oh, yes, you talked about it in class on the first day.” Got that? She knew it was wrong, but she did it. FIVE TIMES.

I boggle, and then recover enough to ask the obvious question. “If you knew it was wrong, why did you do it, so many times?” She says it is because she is taking a lot of classes and is pressed for time. That’s it. Needed to cut a corner, and mine was the one she picked. This is because, she says, she never wanted to do this class with all of its reading, but at least it wasn’t a History class. O-kay.

All of the conversation up to this point has been devised in order to help me decide the size of the book I am going to throw at her. Immediate, voluntary confession would have helped her, as would any kind of statement indicating confusion about what she did or her reasons for it; failure to insult my discipline might also have been helpful. So at this point my decision about the book is, we are going the full OED.

I explain my position, and then we go round and around and around on the subject. Let me give you some flavour, and you have to imagine that all of the student’s utterances are punctuated by tears and mutterings of “Oh, my god, oh my god.”

Me: I am going to give you zero for all these assignments, and on the report I am about to send to the Plagiarism Police, I am recommending that you get an F for the course.
(This, of course opens the floodgates.)
Cheater: No, no, no! You will ruin my GPA.
Me: How am I ruining your GPA? By catching you cheating?
Cheater: You will ruin my life! You have to understand that!
Me: I hope you are not trying to make me feel guilty over something you did wrong.
Cheater: It was a mistake!
Me: I agree it was an error in judgment, but if by mistake you mean “accident”, then I don’t think that is true.
Cheater: Yes! It was an accident!
Me: Once is an accident. Five times is a seriously bad idea.
Cheater: Let me do the assignments over! You should have warned me! You didn’t warn me!
Me: You just admitted I did warn you on the first day of class not to cheat. Plus, it is in your course outline: “All work submitted must be your own”. How many warnings do you need?
Cheater: You don’t have to report me. Let’s just keep it to ourselves. I promise not to cheat any more.
Me: So, having been dishonest, you are now trying to get me to collude in being dishonest? I am obliged to report you if I catch you.
Cheater: You will ruin my GPA!
Me: Well, you did a bad thing. You need to realize that there are consequences.
Cheater: What do I do now? What if I did the assignments over?
Me: That’s not an option.
Cheater: But I need a good GPA to get into the Engineering Program.
Me: Yeah, about that. I don’t think they want students who plagiarize.
Cheater: They don’t care about that! You don’t have to do good in writing to be an Engineer! You are ruining my life!

And so on. I filled out the report, got her to sign it, explained her options, and went over the issue at least half a dozen times. It took an hour to make it clear to her there wasn’t any way out, and I really do think this was the very first time she had ever been in that situation. It does, on one level, make me deeply sorry for Generation Snow: no one ever says no, or makes sure actions have consequences, until it’s too late, and the poor little flake is in Ruined My Life territory.

Eventually I got her to leave, still sobbing and OMGing.

Professor Birkenstock, who had been shamelessly eavesdropping from across the hall came over to tell me that it had been a masterful conversation. “The thing is,” he said, “is that you just did something really good for her. Not that she will ever thank you for it.”

18 thoughts on “Another perfectly good life ruined.

  1. Lacey

    Oh, that is rich. I love stories about plagiarists; they fill me with a terrible glee.

    I caught a plagiarist last semester and during the whole “here’s what I think you did, is this what you did?” conversation, she ran out of my office crying. RAN OUT. CRYING. And then I never saw her again! She was only getting an F on that assignment, not for the whole class — she might have been able to pass, but not after missing a third of the course.

    I do not envy your having to get the student to sign anything about the plagiarism. I just submit my materials to the Student Conduct office, talk to the student (or attempt to), and grade as I see fit. I hope you don’t have any more this semester, but that is probably unlikely, unfortunately. :/

    1. whatladder Post author

      I suspect I have knocked it on the head in that class, but I have other classes…

      If students refuse to sign, we just submit the paperwork anyway – the Plagiarism Police will review cases if students dispute them.

    1. ooartemisoo

      I’m a big fan of the full OED. It’s very good. Have you seen their new thesaurus?

      Oh, and I can think of very few things less enjoyable than having to deal with students who tell you you are ruining their life. My condolences.

  2. Susan B.

    You don’t have to do “good” in writing to be an engineer? Um, yes, yes you do. Perhaps she’ll learn that if she ever manages to dig herself out of this hole she’s gotten herself into.

  3. Alexis

    Good for you! And my thanks. I bust my dyslexic arse over papers, essays, exams etc… and it just ticks me the F-off when people manage to get away with it. So I’m very, very grateful you didn’t let her slide. Keep up the great work!

  4. MelindaKnits

    I had deja vu while reading your story–I failed four students last semester for plagiarizing more than once in the same course. One of them was like your student–she handed in three plagiarized mini-assignments at once, plus she had already gotten a zero for sneaking in her Blackberry into the midterm exam and copying a paragraph from Wikipedia. Did she think I wouldn’t notice? And there were a bunch more who got zeroes for first offenses. By the end of the semester I was a bundle of rage at all the time I was wasting dealing with the plagiarists.

    This semester I gave my classes an extra DON’T EVEN THINK of plagiarizing speech during the first class, in which I told them exactly how many students I had failed for plagiarism last semester. I think I may have frothed at the mouth a little.

    GOOD FOR YOU for throwing the book at her.

  5. fillyjonk

    Oh, oh good Lord. The “You have ruined my life” parry.


    I refrain, though, because I value my job and don’t want to lose it. Yet.

    I’ll also share a little story I know I’ve shared on ITFF, about my dad and the cheaters: My dad is a geologist. He was teaching one of the 200+ person “rocks for jocks” lectures. During one of the exams, one of the TAs who was helping monitor said she thought a pair of people were copying off each other, but she didn’t have enough proof to yank the tests out of their hands. My dad said he’d handle it.

    Next lecture, he didn’t hand the exams back, said, “We have evidence that a couple people cheated on this test. If you come and turn yourselves in, we will not report you but you will take a 0 for this test. If you do not turn yourselves in, we will report you to the Cheating Police.” (That last bit being a total bluff).

    The next day? Twelve people showed up to his office hours. Of course, this was 20+ years ago, when people (apparently) still had some shards of honesty and also figured their moms and dads couldn’t stop the Cheating Police from kicking them out of school.

    1. whatladder Post author

      “You ruined my life” is like a hot button for silent rage from me. As far as I am concerned, it is a form of student misconduct, and I always go for a harsher penalty when students try it. I wonder if snowflakes who get arrested try it on the police.

  6. SJ

    “Okay, so, as someone who is good at math, can you tell me what percentage 30 words is out of 700?” She declines to do so, and instead goes to gambit #2 repeated apologies and promises not to do it again.

    PERFECT. And I completely agree with Prof. Birkenstock. Very well-played, and a great post.

  7. Pingback: Monday Mayhem « What Ladder?

  8. shauna

    Well played indeed! And you killed me with this line on the Monday Mayhem post, “She sits for a minute or so, trying to get some tears going”… bwahahhaaaaaaaaa 🙂

  9. Nullifidian

    The idea that engineers don’t have to write is laughable. Maybe there’s some miserable, dark corner desk with her name on it somewhere where she doesn’t have to write, but in the real world the engineers have to write a variety of proposals to government agencies, nonprofits, prospective clients, etc. depending on the type of work they do. Engineers who cannot write clearly and concisely ON THEIR OWN are going to find their employment options extremely limited.

    So Prof. Birkenstock is right. You did do her a favor. And, though they don’t know it, you did all your other students a favor. Speaking as a student, I want my degree to reflect my learning and my capacity to learn, not my capacity to fog a mirror. These small battles over standards are the stuff from which great victories against commercialization and complacency are made.

  10. ThePurpleOwl

    I’m coming to this post a little late, but I just *have* to share (now that I’ve stopped gasping hysterically in shock/rolling on the floor laughing/reading this post out to my friend):

    I work as an editor for the Australian Army. All sorts or strange things come across my desk, but the one book this post brought to mind was a survival manual, written by an ex-Army, at that point civilian and still working, engineer who’d been contracted and paid multiple tens off thousands of dollars to produce it. He was given the government style manual, our own department style manual, and all sorts of other forms of information and support to get the thing written to the expected standard.

    Halfway through chapter one, I start noticing a lot of font-switching, and some words that have links attached to them. Some page-flicking confirmed that this happened throughout the entire manual. 30 seconds on Google … and whaddaya know? This *qualified*, *well-paid*, supposed *expert* of an engineer has plagiarised almost the entire manual from Wikipedia, some notes on historical US military encounters on an enthusiasts’ site, and an article for writers about creating a realistic setting for Russian spy novels.

    I shit you not.

    I would have loved to talk to him and/or find out what happened after I took the manual back to my superior with the evidence and a firm ‘I will not edit this’ … but it disappeared into the ether of military efficiency and I never heard about it again.

    Scary, no? I applaud your efforts to help stop your flakes becoming the expert plagiarists of tomorrow … but I’m afraid they’re already among us!


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