On Plagiarism: The Lion Eats the Slowest

It’s hard to speak on plagiarizing.  It is strange to have an emotional response to a word.  If you teach English, you know the feeling that I speak of.

I’ve caught many plagiarizers.  On average, about two per year.  That doesn’t mean that only two students plagiarize work.  I’m sure more than that do it.  It means I only catch two.  When I grade papers, I think about the students writing ability and I think about what they say in their writing.  If a student seems consistently brilliant throughout the semester, and has proven their brilliance in the classroom during discussions, I trust their work.  But if a study is consistently late, barely does any of the work, and then turns in a paper that makes me question my assumptions, makes me think, and totally impresses me, then I think it’s plagiarized.  You might be thinking, hey, that’s not fair.  You’re judging them based on their personal actions and not their work.  I respond by saying, hey, if it is two in the morning and you see a man walking down the street that looks like he just got out of prison, you’re a fool not to be careful.  We judge each other.  That’s what we do. As a teacher, that’s pretty much all I do.

I have been surprised, though.  A student in a class a few years ago never said a word in class and never seemed engaged.  He wrote an amazing essay. I took a few of his sentences and sent them into the Google, to see if I’d get those sentences back.  I didn’t.  It was all his work.  The student was just an introvert.  Some students just don’t want to talk in class, and I respect that.  I also tell them that, hey, you should let other people know how smart you are.  Your work only goes so far. How you present yourself, how you show people who you are on a daily basis, is going to shine through.

But I’m getting distracted.  Plagiarism happens for two reasons.  1) A student doesn’t understand the rules of using out-side sources.  2) A student doesn’t want to do the work and wants to simply use other people’s words. The first is my fault. Lately I’ve spent an entire class period talking about plagiarism and why it is wrong and how to avoid it and what it does.  This helps, but doesn’t eliminate the problem.  The second is also my fault.  If I were a better teacher, then the student wouldn’t have to be at home at two in the morning, stressed out.  They’d have the knowledge and the tools to write a good paper without resulting in plagiarism.  Yes, I understand that some students are just lazy.  But I don’t allow myself the luxury of blaming students.  Yes, I also understand that it’s a two way street, and that the student has to work just as hard as I do.  But, the one time I decide to just “give up” and accept the fact that I can’t help the student is the same time I should stop teaching.  There are no good guys or bad guys in a class room.  There are no good students and bad students. There are students who need my help and students who need my help more.  I failed the student who plagiarized a paper.  It is my fault.  It is their fault too. You can call me idealistic and a hopeless optimist and any other thing you like.  You’re right if you say I’m too hard on myself.  I’m not going to change.

It hurts when you get a plagiarized paper.  And it’s depressing.  There isn’t a fix, unless you want to destroy the internet and stop students from ever checking a book out of a library or reading each other’s papers, plagiarism will always, always be a problem.  But let me tell you about this guy named James.

James was a guy I worked with a long time ago, back when I worked at K-mart.  I was only 18.  He was old and tired and grumpy.  One day, we had to stock boxes onto a pallet and we noticed that all the other pallets had been stacked completely wrong.

“We’ll have to re-stack them,” he said.  “All of them.”  And we did.

I was young, so I complained.  Why do people do half ass work?  Why can’t people just do the right thing? Blah Blah Blah.  James stopped, stood there and sighed.

“It catches up to you,” he said, looking past me, like he was talking to someone else.  His younger selfs, maybe.  “And people who can’t do the work, people who can’t keep up. They lag behind.  And then they just stay back. And the people who do the work.  The people who can keep up, they move forward.”

He grabbed another box and began stacking again.

“The lion gets the slowest,” he said.

If a student decides to plagiarize, that’s their decision.  I can’t stop all of them, and it breaks my heart.  But I don’t think they are pulling a fast one on me.  I don’t think they are winning. It isn’t a game and there are no score cards.  It catches up to them, eventually.  And, years later, a boss won’t give them a second chance for breaking the rules.  The boss will just fire them.  They’ll be eaten.  And it sucks.  I wish the world wasn’t like this.

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