Friday, September 13, 2013

Plagiarism in Writing Class

My Creative Writing class is only supposed to meet Tuesdays and Thursdays, but we ended up with an impromptu session last Wednesday. I was finishing up a laboratory class when I spied one of my writing students through the door.  When I stepped out of the room, I saw half the class waiting for me.  The nervous faces gave me an idea why, and to some extent, it was my fault.

The night before, I caught two students from the class submitting patently plagiarized work.  In my disappointment I gave vent the modern way: I tweeted about it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with plagiarism, but never before of this magnitude.  The two students each copied an entire story from the web, only changing a character name here and there.  These they turned in for their second major writing project.

In my line of work, you learn to recognize writing styles.  Actually, this isn’t really difficult; we all do it to some extent.  And I’ve been working with these guys for the better part of the semester, so I know how they write.  One look at the opening paragraph and I knew the work wasn’t theirs.

I’m not content to just point out suspicions, though.  I prefer to search out the original source material. Using my Google-,Fu, I soon found the sites from which they had copied their work.

Anger. Frustration. Disappointment. A smidgen of disbelief.  We discuss their works in class.  Each individual work. In small groups. How did they think they were going to get away with this?

In hindsight, I should have been more discreet and taken up the matter privately.  Then again, my emotions were boiling over. (I seriously considered declining future offers to teach Creative Writing in Ateneo.)

As expected, the rest of the class read the tweets.  I hadn’t counted on how they would take it.  Remember when Jesus announced to His disciples: “One of you is going to betray me?” My students responded the same way:

“Is it I?”

“I couldn’t sleep the entire night,” one student confided in our tete-a-tete.  “I was thinking about it the whole time I was giving my teaching demo this morning,” another said.  So my rash action caused not a little bit of anxiety among the innocent.

I had thought those with clear consciences would remain unaffected.  But plagiarism is a tricky thing, and unless I identified the cuplrits, there remained the chance some other would feel accused.

Because there are different levels of plagiarism.  On the one extreme, there is the wholesale theft that my two students committed, claiming others’ work as their own.  On the other end, there are inadvertent violations, for instance, when a turn of phrase that sticks to the mind.  And there are gradations in between: sentences and paragraphs copied with attributions innocently forgotten or deliberately omitted.  

“It’s not any of you,” I told the dozen who had come to me.  I gave the names of the culprits, flashed their submitted work on the projection screen, and showed the web sites with the originals.  Still, they didn’t look assuaged.  

“Are you going to punish the class?”

“Heavens, no! Why would I do that? You had nothing to do with this.  It’s their fault, not yours.”

Relief washed over their faces, then followed by concern.

“What will happen to those two?” they asked.  “Will you fail them?”

Ah, the question at the heart of the matter.  No doubt the two had committed the most egregious of academic sins.  By rights, their fate should have been sealed.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I really don’t want to fail anyone.” That’s been my mantra all along.  No one should have to fail a class like mine.  The writing can get pretty bad, but I take into account the background the students all come from.  Many of then don’t write to begin with, so I’ve made it my mission to make the class enjoyable, to draw them out of their shells, even for just That One Good Story that they will write.  And we have made progress, too.

Ateneo de Davao talks about cura personalis, the personal care and guidance to the students. As individuals.  It’s a lofty ideal, not made easy by the number of students they give us in a class. (I have 28 in my writing class; think about the time it takes to read and comment on each one’s writing project.)

“Have a chat with them, will you?” I told the class.  “I want them to know from you the gravity of what they’ve done.” At the very least, I wanted us all to learn from this experience.  Social pressure from their peers would reinforce help reinforce the lessons.

I’ve charted my course of action in this matter.  But I post the question to you, dear reader: what should I do?