Wednesday, July 14, 2010

a lightbulb for plagiarism?

Motivated Mindy writes an excellent response paper every week and answers my questions with engaging thoughts in class. She comprehends the material in spite of the confusing prose and racist undertones (I can't change the text yet -- it was written by Professor Silverback).

And then, for the final takehome exam, her essays were all over the place. Poorly written, suddenly misspelled. And 1/3 was identical to Cheaty McStinky. Cheaty I can understand: he's a slacker. But Mindy should have known that as the best student in my class, I would notice that her work suddenly took a dive. Why risk the A, even if I didn't catch her?

[When confronted, she explained it wasn't cheating -- it was just research that hadn't yet been put into her own words. Oh Mindy.]

I was familiar with Mindy's style because I had been excited by her work earlier in the semester. She was engaging, one of those few students who caught my attention and gave me pleasure in my job (you know, as opposed to signing off those low Bs and Cs from regurgitating dullards). So I took my time, gave her real feedback to improve her already exciting ideas, reflected on advice I would want if our roles were reversed.

But for the vast majority? Hold my breath for 5 minutes, scribble a few notes to justify a grade, and slap on a number between 75 and 90 (except for clear fails). Because of the tedium that is grading mediocre papers, I don't become familiar enough with my students' writing. But this NYTimes article tells of a prof who begins each course with an in-class writing sample, a thought piece. This piece goes into a file to compare against future papers.

I thought it was a splendid idea. Without being familiar with Mindy's prose, McStinky would have totes gotten away with the ol' cheating. Oh, but wait... now that I've caught him, I'm going to have to stand near him in the department conference room. And McStinky isn't a randomly chosen sobriquet.



  1. Ok, I'm confused. On the take-home, *Mindy's* prose took a dive. Mindy had to explain to you that she "hadn't yet ... put [the research] into her own words." Fantastic, you caught a cheater -- Mindy. Why does McStinky end up getting the reprimand? Is there something missing from this story? I mean, it'd be poor judgment for the smartest student in the class to start cribbing from the stinkiest / less well spoken/written, but that's what your story seems to imply.


  2. Ah, yes, let me explain: they had both used another unknown student's paper as a base. I have yet to find the source but it isn't one of my students. Could be years past (although I changed the wording of the questions) or from an essay mill, I suppose.

    Sorry for the confusion. Deleted too much from my longer story.

  3. If you want to have a little fun tweaking the plagiarists and you have a little free time (insert morbid laughter here), you could always write up a transparently ridiculous essay and submit it to one of these cheating sites. Most of the snowflakes who plagiarize lack the knowledge to recognize why it's absurd in the first place. You might even have one of your own essays come back to you.


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