Teaching Cheating

While I have two posts chock-a-block full of stunning insights and thoughtful interventions into modern theory (not to mention the controversy — oh, the controversy!) simmering on my mental back burner, until they reach maturity I thought I’d pass on Alex Halavais’ instructive epistle to students everywhere, How to Cheat Good (via BoingBoing), a list of 8 rules students looking to cheat successfully really ought to follow. I’ve had students break a good number of these rules, much to their dismay and my entertainment, and I agree with Halavais that if students would just get smarter about how they cheat, the world would be a better place: they’d pass, our egos would be stroked (’cause we’d think we taught something), and the college community would turn into a decent semblance of a functioning society rather than something out of John Adair’s picture of the post-War pueblos.*

I hate it when I catch a student cheating. I mean, I kinda relish it, but I hate it, too, becuase it means I have to be a dick. I resent cheaters for making me have to be a dick. That said, I am not one to shirk my responsibilities: when being a dick is called for, a dick I shall be. And when the dick-being-ness is all over, I’ve got a solid little nugget of amusement to cradle to my metaphorical chest, to nourish me and help me grow as a teacher.

I’ve had some great cheater-catching moments. The student athlete who had just received a sports scholarship at some big sports school, pending his performance that semester, who confronted with his caughtness, exclaimed “Dammit, my roommate swore he’d written that himself!” I gave him all the sympathy I could muster for his situation — I mean, he’d clearly been swindled! Or the look on the face of the student who copied her paper from her home country’s cultural attache’s website, a printout of which I handed her, as she flailed about for some way out of the situation she’d put herself into. I should mention that this student had called me the night before the paper was due to ask me what the assignment was, and then handed me a stunning 700-year historical survey easily 3 times the assigned length — if it had had anything to do with the class, I might have been impressed! So here’s what she said (more or less):

STUDENT: I swear I didn’t copy it. I have all the books I used at home, and my notes — I can bring them into class next week and show you!
ME: Um, are you saying that you researched this paper carefully and just happened to use the exact same words and phrases that this website, which you hold in your hand, used?
STUDENT: Oh, I guess not.

A couple years ago a student handed me a paper that just seemed too good. It turned out to have been compiled from 6 different Internet sources. I printed them out, and went through and highlighted every plagiarized passage with a different color highlighter for each source. Bits and pieces of each were scattered throughout the paper, seamlessly, with not a single original word added by the student — truly a masterpiece of collage worthy of Burroughs or Tzara. My first plagiarist was not nearly so creative: incapable of writing a coherent English sentence (he may well have done fine in his native language) his Big Paper read like something straight out of the Times. OK, so it was straight out of the Times. Another student answered a question along the lines of “What is anthropology?” with a selection of facts culled from New Zealand’s government’s careers website — including the average salary, in NZ$, an anthropologist could be expected to make. I suppose we should add a rule to Halavais’ list: Don’t make your professor experience feelings of inadequacy about his salary. Makes us surly.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy tweaking my assignments to make plagiarism as unlikely as possible, so incidents are getting rarer and rarer. But last semester I had my crowning glory as a catcher of plagiarism. I’m reading this paper, and it’s so good, I’m stunned. I feel so proud; I’m actually thinking “wow, this student gets me!” At the risk of sounding immodest, the paper was so good and so spot-on about what anthropology is all about that it was like I had written it myself.

Of course I had written it myself — it came straight off of my Intro website. Not only was it plagiarism, but a violation of my Creative Commons “Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share-Alike” license — no attribution!

Now, most students, caught plagiarising, disappear never to be seen or heard from again. After a couple of unsuccessful efforts at getting the school to take disciplinary action against my plagiarists (apparently having both a photocopy of the student’s paper and a printout of the site they’d copied it from does not constitute sufficent evidence in my neck of the woods), I’ve had to rely on the awesome power of the “zero for the assignment”, which usually works. But I actually have had a couple of students weather their zeros and finish the class, and pass. I admire them, a little — and examine their further assignments with incredible diligence. I could just fail them — that’s an option I have, regardless of whether the administration will take further action — but I figure, it’s just possible that an odd student here and there might actually learn something from getting caught, and as a teacher, I encourage that sort of thing.

Now, some of you wags out there are going to defend plagiarism. It’s silly and you know you’re wrong, but you’ll chime in here to say something like “why punish students for using the resources available to them?” or “you’re upholding an ancient copyright regime — information wants to be free!” or “Sheesh, Dustin, you’re a postmodernist, surely you don’t buy into all this ‘author’ bullshit?!” What you’re forgetting is that I’m trying to teach my students something! You think I make them write more than I would have thought humanly possible because I enjoy reading, at this point, some 300 introductory-level disquisitions on kinship and its role in structuring human societies? Writing is fundamental (just ask Derrida) — writing is learning. Cutting-and-pasting isn’t learning — at least, not college learning. It’s like Legos™ — yes, you can build a semblance (a simulacrum, if you will) of a castle or a spaceship or a taxi, but knowing how to put Legos™ together does not teach you architecture or aerospace engineering or industrial design. It does teach motor skills, which is great — but a) I assume basic motor skills are already learned at the college level (most of my students can juggle stoned without dropping their beer) and b) motor skills aren’t particularly relevant to my class. If I wanted to test motor skills, there’d be a performance section on the exam.

No, see, what I want to test is a student’s ability to use the material we’ve covered in class. Just like your shop teacher gave you that lecture on bandsaw safety and then made you build a bird feeder. The bandsaw is scary. But even your 8th-grade shop teacher knew that him telling you how to use the bandsaw wasn’t quite the same as you knowing how to use the bandsaw. If you had to lose a finger or two on the road to achievement, so be it. Writing papers is like that — it’s scary to dive in and use the material covered in a class, but the lectures and readings aren’t nearly enough to instill real proficiency. And if you have to lose a finger or two along the way…

Anyway, this post isn’t really about why plagiarism is bad, I just wanted to forestall the inevitable cranks who feel compelled to defend it. I know, in my heart of hearts, I haven’t done that successfully, but I thought I’d give it a try, for appearance’s sake. This post is really about bagging on your students. It’s a time-honored tradition (and we anthros are all about tradition). So, at the count of three, feel free to share your favorite plagiarism stories. Or, if you must, your Theory of Why Plagiarism Isn’t Really All That Bad™. Just try to keep the hand-wringing about how we teachers all really suck or students would learn something and they wouldn’t have to plagiarise to a minimum, ok buddy?

One… Two… THREE!

* – We had returned to the atmosphere of anxiety that pervades life in the pueblo and touches all within its reach. [This basic Pueblo characteristic is] communicated in many ways — by rumors, whisperings, suspicion, envy, secretiveness, and in silent watchful demeanor… (1960. “A Pueblo GI”. In In the Company of Man. Joseph B Casagrande, ed. New York: Harper Torchbooks. P. 503.)

11 thoughts on “Teaching Cheating

  1. A student’s comment: My one and only plagiarism story was when I was accused to have copied my own text which I had put on the internet a few days after having delivered my homework.

  2. I forgot to add (the perils of mid-night blogging!) that if you’re a student, bag on yourself! Or, if that’s too self-hating Coupland-era ironic for you, bag on your teachers.

    Here’s my “been caught plagiarizing, once, when I was 25” story (spoiler alert: don’t worry, kids, I was innocent). I was taking art history at community college and received an F on the Big Paper, which I thought’d been an A for sure. I asked the professor about it, and she pointed to a long section in the middle where I didn’t have any references, saying that I’d obviously stolen those ideas from someone else. When I explained that there were no references becuase I’d thought that stuff all by myself, she agreed to re-grade the paper and I got the A I so deserved.

    The irony is that I was actually one of the rare dream cases where a student takes a class and is profoundly changed by it. I’d had virtually no interest in art before taking her class, and came out of it with a very deep interest — and have since worked in art museums, written about art, and even proposed an art-based project in my grad school applications. The project she gave me an F on was a big part of this “awakening”, when I realized that there was some pretty deep stuff going on in even the apparently whimsical.

    Of course, that was back before Google, when profs had to guess whether or not their students were plagiarizing.

  3. I once got a phone call from a prof at another university saying that a student had turned in one my blog entries as a paper. This in itself was sort of flattering, although I was amazed to find that the entry they stole was a reflection on the difference between by BA and MA graduation ceremonies. How a student could try to turn in a paper to earn credit for a degree the paper claimed that student had earned years before is quite beyond me.

  4. This isn’t anthro, but it’s funny. I took a fiction/poetry writing class in college. The format was discussion of classmates’ work for an hour or an hour and a half. Two kids in the class, a boyfriend-girlfriend couple, were turning in poems and stories off the internet. I suspected it, and googled the poems, and there they were, each by different authors. Well, there is nothing worse than being forced to discuss student poems in the first place, but to have to discuss randomly downloaded student poems about love and deaths-in-the-family is even worse. So, I decided this would be a fun time to really dig into the work – after all, they couldn’t get offended at my criticisms, could they? The professor was upset with me for being disrespectful to the “authors.” In the end, another student dropped the dime and I was exonerated… They dropped the class, no further problems for them.

    I told that story recently because a friend in grad school knew that one of her classmates took her paper straight from a foreign language source – down to the footnotes – and just translated it to English. (Add that to the how-to-get-away-with-it list). Now, sure “being a dick” is the moral obligation from the professor prospective. What about fellow students? Is “ratting” on another student ratting? Is cheating an infraction not only against self and professor, but also against the community of learning? – and what do you professors think of students who rat? Are you happy to get the anonymous typed note slipped under the door or not?

  5. It is mostly happening in IT classes, but the latest trend is wholesale outsourcing of homework. Not just copying articles from the web, but paying someone in India to write an assignment for your class in the US. This makes it much harder to catch cheaters, since the work is original work. On the other hand, one might think of it as a way of subsidizing the education of people in the developing world. If only the sub-contracted student could get college credit for their work…

  6. Shortly after finishing my BA, and quickly tiring of call-centre work, I came across academic knowledge, a company that promised generous rates doing ‘research’ for other students; a sort of institutionalised class swot, as it were.

    The company covers itself by making you sign a contract saying you understand that all your work will only be research for students writing their assignments. You know that type of research… The type which you write with an essay title, word count, and expected grade (if your research failed to get the desired grade – as assessed by the student rather than the professor – you would lose up to 50% of your fee).

    What astonished me was the range of assignments. The pick of the anthropology had to be writing an ethnography of a homeless hostel – an assignment which had so many references to the fiction that is ethnographic writing that any professor worth his salt would have picked up on it.

    But it was not just BA students – most of the well paying work was writing MA theses, and there was even the rare doctoral student who wanted a part of their PhD writing for them.

    It seems it is not just the students who are cheating.

  7. Kerim, lately I’ve been seeing ads on Craigslist offering pretty good money to write students’ essays for them — just last weekend there was a student wanting something by the next day for her/his anthropology class. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted…

    And here’s a random irony that came to me while reading Morally Deficient’s comment: almost all of the free essay websites have copyright notices! E.g. Freeessays.com says “Copyright © 2006 freeessays.com. All rights reserved.” I wonder who among their target audience they think really cares?

  8. In my Urban Anthropology class at a college in Chicago, I send my students out to do ethnography. It might not be good ethnography, but it gets them out to explore the city. As most of the students are artists (fiction, music, visual arts, film and media), I hope to at least give them experience in observation and inspiration for their art. It does take a lot of work for all of us. I work with them individually throughout the semester to address all of the issues that come up. (Have you ever noticed how hard it is to come up with general hard-and-fast rules for doing ethnography? It sure requires thinking on the fly.)

    I also have some basic rules for acceptable projects, have to be submitted and approved early in the semester, such as: it’s urban anthropology, not the suburbs; you can’t write about your job; you can’t write about other college students; it has to be an enduring community (not shoppers on the Magnificent Mile/north Michigan Ave., for instance). I also help them massage their topics so that they are not about “a” social problem, but about a community.

    Plagiarism is a big problem, despite all my warnings, the writing of mini-reports throughout the semester, etc.

    Sadly, the highest proportion of plagiarists have been writers, either journalists or fiction writers.

    The most egregious, however, was a male returning student who wanted to do ‘illiteracy,’ based on his observations of troubled children on the school bus he drove in the suburbs each morning. He had big conflicts with these kids, and that in itself made it an inappropriate project. And he just would not accept that I would not accept his project. I refused his project, again and again and again throughout the semester. Finally, 2 weeks before the final report was due, he told me he’d met a man at his church who was willing to talk to him about his illiteracy. Not great, but something.

    Then I got his paper — a lovely piece of work with his extended interviews with this one man. The man lived in Cabrini Green. He was illiterate. He spoke eloquently about how illiteracy affected him; he talked about what adaptations he made to survive; poignantly described the pains and beauties of life in Cabrini Green.

    And there were no references at all to what we had read in class — a requirement of the papers (relate your experience to what we studied in class!).

    So I googled several phrases and found all of his ‘ethnography’ online. Evocative writing, poignant memories — all in a web site entitled “Getto Gurl,” the memoirs of a woman who had grown up in Cabrini Green (http://www.gettogurl.com/). My male student had taken her writing, changed the gender, and bracketed it with his ‘questions,’ as if all of this was in response to his questions.

    The man was highly dismissive of women — I rarely dealt with this in class, as the young women who were my students were quite willing to argue with him — so his appropriation of a woman’s voice really irked me.

    I flunked the paper, which meant he flunked the class. Never got a response from him.

    My favorite response was from a student who did the classic cut-and-paste from a web site (including different type face, references to writings by a Swedish Lutheran theologist, etc.). I emailed her to say I knew she had plagiarized major sections of her paper and giving her the option to re-write within a few days. Nothing. Paper flunked, course flunked. Then I get a plaintive email from her — why did she fail? Did she do really, really bad on the final for some reason?

  9. What is the feeling on multiple submissions – that is, student submitting the *same paper* for 2 classes? The four I caught had responses of the “well, it IS my work and I didn’t mean to be malicious” variety. Missing the point com.plete.ly.

  10. AnthroBabe: I agree — missing the point completely (pardon my 1.0 spelling). That’s pretty hard to track down, though, unless you happen to be teaching both classes.

    The first year I was teaching, I had a student ask if they could use a paper for my class (Intro) that they were writing for their Anth of Religion class (taught by my chair). I told them that they could use the same *research*, but needed to write separate papers — and that the paper for my class needed to take into account the range of topics we’d covered.

    When the time came, they handed in a paper that had nothing to do with religion, so I guessed at first that it was too much trouble. Then I realized the paper was plagiarized — a quick Google, print the paper out, staple it together, and head to the chair’s office. My chair wasn’t inclined to take very strong action, which was a little disappointing. He wasn’t inclined, that is, until I mentioned that the student was also in his class and had probably handed in a plagiarized paper there, too.

    *Then* it was a serious matter!

  11. @AnthroBabe: I consider it a no-no for undergrad papers unless the student is working toward some sort of culminating project or undergrad thesis. For grad students, it makes sense that they are re-working their research, doing different drafts of earlier works in subsequent classes, re-using chunks and recycling key passages and interviews because they ultimately should be writing something they can incorporate into their dissertations. However, wholesale repetition with no changes means they can’t demonstrate that the coursework has had any impact on their development. Consequently, it is a failure in that sense, even though it isn’t quite plagiarism.

Comments are closed.