The sadness of plagiarism

`I PROMISE.'' ``I swear to you it'll never happen again.'' ``I give you my word.'' ``Honestly. Believe me.'' Sure, I trust. Why not?

I teach English composition at a private college. With a certain excitement and intensity, I read my students' essays, hoping to find the person behind the pen. As each semester progresses, plagiarism appears. Not only is my intelligence insulted as one assumes I won't detect a polished piece of prose from an otherwise-average writer, but I feel a sadness that a student has resorted to buying a paper from a peer. Writers have styles like fingerprints and, after several assignments, I can match a student's work with his or her name even if it's missing from the upper left-hand corner.

Why is learning less important than a higher grade-point average?

When we're threatened or ailing, we make conditional promises. ``If you let me pass math I will....'' ``Lord, if you get me over this before the big homecoming game I'll....'' Once the situation is behind us, so are the promises. Human nature? Perhaps, but we do use that clich'e to get us out of uncomfortable bargains. Divine interference during distress is asked; gratitude is unpaid. After all, few fulfill the contract, so why should anyone be the exception. Why not?

Six years ago, I took a student before the dean. He had turned in an essay with the vocabulary and sentence structure of a PhD thesis. Up until that time, both out-of-class and in-class work was borderline passing. I questioned the person regarding his essay and he swore it was his own work. I gave him the identical assignment and told him to write it in class, that I'd understand this copy would not have the time and attention an out-of-class paper is given, but he had already a finished piece so he understood what was asked. He sat one hour, then turned in part of a page of unskilled writing and faulty logic. I confronted him with both essays. ``I promise ... I'm not lying. I swear to you that I wrote the essay. I'm just nervous today.''

The head of the English department agreed with my findings, and the meeting with the dean had the boy's parents present. After an hour of discussion, touching on eight of the boy's previous essays and his grade-point average, which indicated he was already on academic probation, the dean agreed that the student had plagiarized. His parents protested, ``He's only a child'' and we instructors are wiser and should be compassionate. College people are not really children and most times would resent being labeled as such ... except in this uncomfortable circumstance.

There's a moral interdependence of parents and children. These did not feel that any consequences should result from cheating or lying, and rules that govern human conduct should not apply to their offspring. How fickle this family! Rules of conduct were for others; then they excused their son's behavior with being a ``child.'' Didn't they expect better of him when he, indeed, was a small boy? Cheating is OK; getting caught is bad.

The problem was that my parents had taught me about truth and honesty, and I followed their advice. So, it seems, I caused this man-child embarrassment and suffering, since I spent energy and hours assembling a portfolio that proved, beyond doubt, plagiarism.

So each school year, teachers see amulets on desks during exams while eyes flirt with someone else's answers. ``Give me another chance'' is granted, occasionally honored, often repeated after a subsequent offense. No person is obligated to promise anything. Think about it. Each new semester, juniors and seniors take my three-hour course on writing. Collectively, I trust them. But there's always one undergrad who slips behind a desk each semester and plays a game called cheating.

Lois Greene Stone is a poet and free-lance writer.

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