Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Dagger of Plagiarism

It's an unglamorous, gray day in Flint, the atmosphere made all the more oppressive by mountains of grading. This is when being a writing teacher is hardest: I miss the daily sparkle of the students in person now that classes are over, and what I'm left with are their complicated, convoluted struggles to communicate with me on the page. I'm doing a lot of my grading online now: at least, I can settle down with a cup of green tea, in my sweats, and click and comment on my amiable MAC while looking out the window at the leafless black trees -- this time of year, they look arthritic and when a wind comes up from the west, you can almost hear them creak.

So, I swear, the FIRST paper I open doesn't feel right. Doesn't read right. A few clicks on Google later and I realize, yes, it's happened again: A student who would have gotten a B otherwise gave me a paper cut-and-pasted from sources easily accessible on Google. So he flunks the paper and flunks the class.

When I told my colleague about it later, at school, she says, "It feels like a dagger." We both use knife-wound images as we vent. Like my neighbors parking their white van in front of the house, this is an odd crime -- is anyone really hurt? In a world so full of actual bloodshed, how dare we two teachers, leaning against our doorposts on a gloomy Wednesday afternoon, claim injury from a student's awkwardly stolen words? Let's take a moment to breathe: let's acknowledge, with all due respect, a sense of proportion. If my life was at stake, or the student's, probably I wouldn't give a damn.

But why, when my colleague and I are talking about it, do we simultaneously, instinctively, bring our hands to our chests as if to protect our hearts?

It is because we love words and believe in their power beyond all reason. Words are my Word, my lifeblood and my pride.

My colleague tells me she is training herself not to take it personally. I've been teaching far longer than her but I still struggle every time. It feels like a dagger: a dagger of betrayal and disrespect. In my response to my student, after he'd at first denied it, then admitted it and asked for mercy, I wrote in a flood of emotion: " I feel personally offended. I do not see this as a negotiable item, and I am very angry about it at the moment. I'm not in a good place for any sort of compromise, and because this is something I take VERY seriously, I don't think you'll get anywhere with me." I was sorry afterwards that I'd let myself be so raw. The next, and final, message was crisp and cold and governed entirely by the language of rules.

My colleague says it's really NOT personal. I know that. The student's just trying to get by: plagiarism happens out of laziness and the press of deadlines, and, I suspect, our students' understanding that we really, truly love the shining paragraphs, not the bland and mediocre and confusing ones that are the students' messy results much of the time. I think our students want us to love them, and if we haven't taught them enough to pave the way for those golden sentences that will make us love them, maybe they just want to find the ones that will. Maybe I'm crazy because I just got home from the office Christmas party and had a little bit of the de rigueur holiday egg nog -- the heavily frothed brew redolent with secret dollops of whiskey that everyone denies are there. I must have had too much, yes, that's it. Because if there's any truth to my half-baked theory, then plagiarism is about the failure of love. And that's a damned depressing thought on this dark, unredeemable midweek night.

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