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?


  1. “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. -- you remind me of the teacher character in the cartoon, Hey Arnold! Si Mr. Robert Simmons.. like Mr. Simmons, ambait nyo sir.. :)

  2. Sir Dom, is there supposed to be an established protocol by the school for dealing with plagiarism?

    1. I've asked my department chair to check. As much as possible, I would like to handle it quietly. If I can find a just and charitable alternative, I would prefer that course of action.

  3. Plagiarism is a grave thing especially when it's a word-for-word, entire-plotline-copied kind of thing. They should fail on the grounds of them not submitting work at all, (what they passed on as their was not), so basically they did not turn anything in :)

    1. I plan on making them submit. And submit again. And submit again.

  4. If there's still that probability to settle it privately, I think that would be better. I'd meet the erring students halfway by requiring them papers, more of it. That is the most charitable way I could think.

  5. I say give them a chance to do one again if they truly are guilty, like they're already pleading for their lives. Although that would be a lot of work, like what those guys are.

  6. First off sir, those innocent students who approached you are adorable: Guilt that it may be them -> Worry that the class will be punished -> concern for the culprits.

    I say you give those culprits their condign punishments, too many lenient teachers won't do them good. But I hope you don't stop teaching CW altogether, I feel sorry for the future generations of English Majors who won't be able to have you as a teacher.

  7. At Ivy League schools, students guilty of plagiarism get a failing grade, a one year suspension, and a note in their permanent records. At the very least-- the very least-- they should fail the course.

  8. Standards are standards. What if it was your work that a student passed as his or her own? And what would it teach other students if you allowed the incident to simply blow over? Would it teach the honest students anything about the value of their own integrity and hard work?

  9. As sad as it is, I think they should fail the course or at least get a suspension. At ADMU, cases of plagiarism are even publicized (with names) in letters/memos posted on the outer wall of the admin building.

  10. Ultimately I'd be looking at motive more than anything else. Was it the time limit that caused them to do this? The lack of confidence? The lack of inspiration? I'd come down hard if the cause was laziness or disinclination. A student isn't worthy of a grade if he/she doesn't put in the work for it - but I think I'd first try to find out why.

    I'm thinking that I would be inclined to 1) give them a zero grade for this particular assignment, and 2) ask them to produce a new work on a larger scale. If the new work is good (and obviously, completely original), then I'd have the option of grading that in place of the "spoiled" assignment. That would give them a good amount of time, I think, and driving them towards a quality result would enforce the fact that they're perfectly capable of doing things on their own.