This time of year, when the approaching holidays are accompanied by approaching final exams, grades, and sudden despair on the part of students (and occasionally teachers), one does well to take a lighter stance about student dishonesty. I’m saying this although it was my custom (preference) to fail a student who not only cheated but lied about it. In every case, though, unless my memory is playing tricks to my advantage, the student always explained that the cheating had nothing to do with me or with the class or the other students. It was totally impersonal.
Some of the incidents I recall almost fondly now, admiring the audacity or innocence of the students. For a how-to essay assignment, a young sophomore composition student submitted a succinct, detailed guide to preparing for safe woodland hiking. It was quite perfect—dry, yes, and terse, but clear. It was much like a brochure typed into essay format. While the class went on to other assignments, I did a little research here and there, and found the very brochure that had been transformed into his essay. When we were discussing this calmly, he asked if he could write another how-to essay. We were then near the end of the semester and that was a double load, since his final documented essay was due. We struck a deal. He would write an honest paper, submit it before the end of the class, and accept a grade one step lower than the paper earned. When I held the replacement in hand, I fairly quaked with disbelief and then anger—he had cheated again. The topic was a medical procedure, esoteric knowledge gracefully expressed. He was asking to be found out. After a short talk with him, during which he showed no familiarity with the contents of the paper, he admitted it was his girlfriend’s paper. I’m not sure he had a girlfriend or that she wrote the paper, only that he didn’t. He told me not to take it personally. I asked why would you plagiarize again? His answer: he didn’t believe I would check twice.
Another time, a lovely young freshman girl who had submitted meandering drafts for all papers and was near to slipping from C status in spite of both our efforts appeared with a documented essay on Freud’s dream theory, well and correctly cited, though in an old format. Attached were the requisite rough drafts and research cards. These were actually to have been submitted in steps, so I could verify research as the students explored their topic. She had made a major leap from scant draft to full-body paper. She, too, could not discuss the topic. She left knowing she would be repeating the course. And did so. The next semester, I was in my graduate teaching assistant cubicle—approximately 15 of us shared a large room with moveable partitions allowing a little privacy. We could hear one another. I heard a familiar young voice insisting that the paper was hers. She had not cheated. The teacher began to query her about the contents—Freud’s dream theory. I stood, peeked around the partition, and there she was: Miss If At First You Don’t Succeed.
There were others, all interesting, though not for lengthy detail.
Two instances have really touched me, and changed my attitude about cheating and cheaters and about being a hardliner on plagiarism. Both occurred in creative writing classes. In a packet of semester work by a young girl in beginning Creative Writing, I found a sonnet. The first line caught me up, the second held me, and so on. It was beautiful. And it was by William Shakespeare, though his name didn’t appear on it. I called her in, and such indignation I had never seen. She insisted that it was original, absolutely! Finally, she confessed and attacked with the same information: Her boyfriend had written the poem to her. He had given his permission for her to use it as she would. So it wasn’t plagiarism. No way, as they say. It was his original work. She divulged that she hadn’t yet met him, theirs was an on-line relationship, but he would vouch that the work was his. He confirmed her story. He blew his own image, salvaged a bit of her pride. I felt sorry for all three of us.
The hardest lesson for everyone involved also occurred in a beginning creative writing class. One of the most articulate and pleasant students delayed submitting work. Students usually sign up for two or three submissions during the semester, spaced so that groups of three are discussed each week. This young man missed his first submission, but for his second turned in a lengthy, polished piece. The first two paragraphs were a bit stumbly, but after that the story sped along. And it became increasingly familiar. Hemingway. “The Boxer.” I was astonished—and insulted. Did he think I wouldn’t recognize a Hemingway story? Students began calling me at home, voicing the same indignant reaction. How dare he? To cheat was insult enough, compounded by the intimation that his classmates wouldn’t recognize Hemingway. When the next class met, the students had that restrained energy that precedes a confrontation. I waited in the hall. I was going to deal with the problem neatly, clean shot, all that. I’d send him home. We certainly wouldn’t discuss the work. When he came, I took him aside. Others filed on in.
He was fair skinned, and as I talked his cheeks flushed a painful red. He explained that he had intended to copy Hemingway’s style. I had, after all, taught them that imitation had once been a dominant method of teaching writing, and a writer could learn much from really attending to another’s style, schemes, tropes. He had planned to imitate “The Boxer.” But it was so difficult and his peers were so talented. He couldn’t compete, couldn’t finish. So he copied the story. He thought that if we recognized it, imitation would be his excuse, a good one. He meant no insult to anyone. He wanted to remain in the class, to apologize in person, to redeem himself. His exact words: “to redeem myself.” So we entered the room, sat down in the circle—always the format of the workshop. I said he would like to speak to them, and then he did so. He was direct, looked a few of them in the face. He wasn’t flippant or casual. His statement was heartfelt, trembly, made through quivering lips. His hands shook. When he finished, we began the class. That should have been the only truly awkward time, but it wasn’t.
For the next few weeks, when he spoke, which was seldom, the other students would not respond to his remarks. He didn’t ask questions, but his comments were excellent—he had a sharp analytical mind and a gracious way of giving a story its best reading—and usually the others would have picked up on his analysis. They ignored him, even when I tried to loop him in. I had allowed an ugly situation to form and couldn’t end it. Then, he submitted a story, not too good at all, and I worried the entire class would sit stone silent. Instead, when his story came to the table, they addressed it as they should have—the good points, what it was attempting to do, what it had done, what might improve it. His cheeks were still red. Maybe we all had red cheeks.
It was a tough semester. I think we all learned what not to do again.