What My College Students Don’t Get About Plagiarism

What My College Students Don’t Get About Plagiarism

An Essay by Rickey Pittman

Dr. Plecki: I’m going to switch you and Dominik for the state. You had the lowest scores in the regional competition, so he’s gonna compete at state.
Irwin: That’s not fair. No one told me you couldn’t choose more than one answer. It’s called multiple choice!–(from Cheaters, 2000)

For some years now, I’ve taught college level freshman composition. Since I received my M.A. in English from Abilene Christian University, I’ve seen many changes. I waded my way into the computer age, perhaps a bit slower than others, I’ve seen the Internet go from mail exchanges with limited and inconsistent knowledge in sites to its present status where knowledge can be instant, and one can find virtually any information he or she wants or needs and can find answers to most any question or problem and discover how to do, make, or analyze anything desired.  In the past, finding and obtaining sources or copies of specific valuable information might require two weeks or more, now can be obtained in just a few minutes or days at most. One would think students today would appreciate this quick and easy access to unbelievable knowledge.  Here is their chance to become experts in almost any field of study. Yet, for so many students, that hasn’t happened. Because it so so easy to obtain so much information, every semester I find several students who plagiarize, using the Internet not to increase their knowledge and develop their own creative skills and thinking, but as a quick and easy tool tool to avoid their own work and thought and get a grade. The Internet feeds their laziness and apathy.

Every semester, I catch them, often right after we have just studied plagiarism. Many colleges these days allow students caught plagiarizing to redo the work. I don’t think that would have happened a few years ago. I remember any plagiarizing being ruthlessly punished. I don’t mind them using sources, in fact I encourage it, but I want them to go to the trouble to give proper credit to their sources by quotation, paraphrase and summary and to do so in good form. (One college I work with uses MLA, another APA). Do they really think I won’t catch them?   I once taught a high school theatre class in Dallas that was assigned to write a short one-act play. One student I liked turned in a brilliant short play. I loved it! I took the precaution of googling a few sentences and found he had turned in an award-winning play in its entirety. Because the boy’s parents pitched such a fit, the school would not let me fail him, so he turned in another, but it was poorly written, and since Dallas at that time would not allow you to give a grade lower than 50, he passed the class.

To emphasize the seriousness of plagiarism, I use a case study, perhaps spurred on by the  recent movie version of Roots. Not long after Haley’s book was published, Haley was taken to court. It seems Alex Haley plagiarized his supposed family history from white author Harold Courlander’s novel, The African. Haley admitted his plagiarism and was found guilty of this plagiarism and paid a $600,000 settlement to Courlander. A black journalist, Stanley Crouch, wrote a scathing expose of Haley in this article, The ‘Roots’ of huckster Haley’s Great Fraud, published in the Jewish World Review. I hope you will read it. Here’s the website where you can read Crouch’s thoughts: http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/crouch011802.asp

The reaction of my students to the news and evidence that the Pulitzer Prize winning Roots, the supposed nonfiction book, was plagiarized in large parts from a fictional novel varied from heartbreak, to disgust, to denial. Some students rationalized that the book did so much good in the country that the issue of plagiarism shouldn’t be pushed against Haley and it happened so long ago that it should be dropped. It is this last example of rationalization that both angers and frightens me. This must be an example of the end justifies the means mentality–probably the same mentality they have when they steal words from others that they give to me as their own. Perhaps, they’ve worked all day, are tired, the paper is due soon, so they slop through it, looking for an easy  and quick way to get the assignment done and copy the work of others, often errors and all.  I try to take my students through stages of writing that will help them avoid the temptation to plagiarize. For example,  I instruct them to not use sources at all for their first draft, but I can be sure that Ask.com or Wikipedia will be in some of those first drafts–and without even giving that credit.

What can I do with students who refuse to study, to think on their own, to thoughtfully read something,  to memorize and follow proven steps, patterns and methods I present that will help them be good writers? A line from the Three Stooges comes to mind. Curly once said, “I’m trying to think, but nothing happens.”  Bless their hearts! They have no idea of the good writings they can create if they will only dig deep into themselves, be observant and pay Father Time his dues.

I believe that freshman composition is designed to prepare students to write essays for their future classes, using a varieties of strategies. I do have many students who excel, who are driven to learn, who appreciate the college experience, and who love to read and write. However, they live and work in an apathetic generation who may never know what good original writing is and how it is produced.  Ray Bradbury once said, “Creativity is a continual surprise.”  I truly hope I can help my students experience the joy and surprise of original writing.