Advice to Plagiarists

avoiding plagiarismBack in 2006 I was teaching English at David Lipscomb High School, and my juniors were spending time in a special circle of purgatory known as “Research.”

At eight to ten pages, these papers were the longest that most of them had ever attempted. The smaller assignments and grades leading up to the paper and the paper itself accounted for most of the points during the fourth grading period, which meant that if they bombed the paper, they bombed the final nine weeks.

If they bombed the final nine weeks, they had to take the final exam, and exams were, of course, the final academic bludgeoning before summer vacation. Earning exemption from an exam was like finding a $100 bill.

My job was to provide a step-by-step system for conducting solid academic research. I taught them all the terms and processes that make most people grimace when they remember high school.

For some people, the phrase “MLA format” is like saying the name of a stalker psychopath ex-girlfriend. They shiver. They instinctively look over their shoulders. They scan the room for the nearest exit.

My students’ favorite thing to say during the Research unit was “I hate English class.”

Yeah? Well, your parents hate you. And I can’t blame them.

Just kidding. Of course I never thought that.

I understood where my students were coming from. I’d learned research in that very room. Spring would come, the faintly fishy smell of Bradford Pear trees would fill the air, and I would want to escape outside into the warmth, away to the rope swing, down to my favorite fishing holes in the Little Harpeth River.

Somehow I’d become the teacher in Charlie Brown, droning on about the difference between a “good” source and a “bad” source while my restless charges gazed out the window or tried to sneak text messages on cell phones that were supposed to be off.

They could have cared less about the various online databases to which DLHS had subscriptions, or the additional resources at Lipscomb University’s Beaman Library.

They groaned and grumbled and finally chose topics. They turned in tentative outlines and 3”x5” notecards with citations from their research. With varying levels of punctiliousness, they completed their final outlines, or, with tunnel vision-like faith in the possibility of a good grade with no effort whatsoever, they didn’t.

That always puzzled me—how a handful of underachievers expected to pass my class and avoid summer school without completing a single assignment. A couple of my most dedicated delinquents showed true grit in submitting a half-finished homework and giving me and my expectations a middle finger:

“You want ten source cards, Mr. Church? How about seven written in indecipherable script with grease stains on three of them with articles from, eHow, and Wikipedia?”

Well, I knew it wasn’t me they were flipping off. These feeble acts of rebellion were directed at absent fathers, controlling mothers, alcoholic or druggie siblings, and other sad stories of dysfunction. The debt belonged to the parents, but their kids saw me as the collections agency.


Thankfully, these were the minority, and on occasion, I was able to break through the crust of angst and sarcasm to talk to the scared child inside the smooth-faced cynic.

I watched as some of them discovered for the first time their capacity to do good work in English class, of all places. They realized they weren’t complete screw-ups after all, and that grammatical errors and misspellings weren’t the final word (pun intended) on who they would become as writers. A few stopped believing what other English teachers had said about their abilities and found, to their great delight, that they had sprouted wings.

We weren’t really talking about thesis statements and topic sentences, introductory and closing paragraphs, transitions and citations. We were talking about taking pride in one’s work. We weren’t really delineating the Godfather of Research Gaffes: Plagiarism. We were talking about integrity.

The worst offender was, sadly, a sweet, quiet girl who had either not understood plagiarism and its consequences or got so far behind that she made a choice that was out of character. She had never caused a single problem in class.

Out of over a hundred, her paper about the effects on children of watching television was the very last that I read and grade. I was sitting at Portland Brew, my favorite coffeeshop in Nashville and was relishing the thought of finishing.

No more comma splices. No more red ink. No more trying to find something positive to say. Maybe I would feel happiness again.

I settle in to read Mary’s paper, and on page two, my enthusiasm evaporated. Panicking, I flipped through the rest of the pages. Sure enough, the font kept changing back and forth. When I came across the term “vulgarized Freundianism” without any quotation marks and without a parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence, I knew.

Yean, those weren’t her words. She’d been a C student, and I was 99% sure that she didn’t mean to plagiarize. Plagiarism. Crap. Maybe she hadn’t realized, maybe she had. Regardless, I had to fail the paper. DLHS treated plagiarism like an STD: early detection and treatment prevents embarrassing outbreaks down the road.

This would probably mean summer school for her. I felt like I had failed her. Maybe if I had been a better teacher, this never would have happened. I returned the papers, and she never came to talk to me. Her parents never called or emailed. She has not asked to be my friend on Facebook.

Advice to aspiring and accidental plagiarists:

If you’re going to copy and paste from the Internet, at least change the font. At least use common sense while you’re compromising your integrity. If your teachers or colleagues catch you, they may think you’re unscrupulous, but at least they won’t call you an idiot.

I would argue that cheating takes more effort than playing but the rules, but if you’re one of those sociopaths who cheat, then please do it well, with some creativity and panache.

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