Yesterday, I listened to a professor unspooling and laying out her despair over a plagiarism scandal in her 300-level history course. I mention this because there has been a lot of talk about plagiarism lately, and one of the tired arguments that gets trotted out year after year is something like: "Students cheat because the courses are so flimsy. If we returned to traditional academic standards, and inspired them, they wouldn't cheat." It's a strange argument in that it often made by conservatives, whose reasons for wanting more traditional academic standards are easy to fathom, and whose willingness to excuse lying, cheating, and stealing is baffling.
It's important in this case too, because I've been a visiting student in the class in question and it has been anything but flimsy. The history that has been assigned is top-notch, the literature that has been used to enrich that history is of world classic status, and the lectures have been witty, informative, and fascinating. I've literally found a dozen things that this Professor does that I plan to borrow in my own lectures. And yet, a quarter of the students plagiarised on their last essay.
It wasn't exactly a hard assignment: just one book was necessary to complete it, and the students could choose that book from a list. Previously, the Professor had required three books and extensive research to complete the assignment. This time she wanted close reading. Not to mention the fact that this was a 300-level course. And yet, a quarter of the students plagiarised on their essays.
When your students cheat, it hits you right in the gut. It's like an assault- the first thing I ever think is 'What did I do to deserve this?' Even though it's become so endemic that many of us expect it, I think we still go through the stages of grief.
1. DENIAL: They couldn't have really copied this from somewhere else. It reads as a bit overly professional; but I can't just assume that my student isn't smart enough to write at this level. What kind of cynic am I?
(This usually lasts until you get a second identical essay.)
2. ANGER: Goddammit! I didn't ask that much of them and they still lied to me! Don't they have the slightest shred of honesty? What is the matter with these fucking kids?!
3. BARGAINING: Okay, maybe they had a good reason here to copy this. Maybe they really didn't know that it was plagiarism. Let me read to the end, and maybe they'll start writing their own ideas. I'll call them to my office and have them explain it to me.
4. DEPRESSION: They did it because they just don't care about academics. They just don't care about being honest in an academic course because education means nothing to them. I might as well be a habberdasher for all my relevance in this world. Why do I care so much about these kids, and this culture, and education, when they look at me with contempt?
5. ACCEPTANCE: Okay, they cheated. But, not all of the kids cheated, and the ones that did cheat did so because of a failing on their part. It's not my fault that they're dishonest. It's not personal. They cheated. I'll flunk them. End of story.