I caught my first purchased paper this past fall in my composition class. When I did a Google search of the paper’s suspicious first sentence, the first hit I got was a “Buy this paper now!” website. Sigh.
I’ve only been teaching for two years and had thought that going over the plagiarism policy on the syllabus the first day of class was sufficient. Plagiarism is not fun to talk about, but that purchased paper made me reconsider how I talk about plagiarism with my students.
This coincided with the online explosion over “The Shadow Scholar,” an essay on The Chronicle’s website written by “Ed Dante,” a pseudonymous writer of papers for hire. I read Dante’s piece, online reactions to it and even got sucked into a lively debate on Facebook about plagiarism, cheating, and whether it’s even our business where our students’ work comes from.
Spring semester, I decided to tackle the issue head on. I realized that students pay very little attention to anything on the syllabus or even the first day of class. This semester, I assigned three essays for first week of class: Ed Dante’s “The Shadow Scholar,” Nick Mamatas’ “The Term Paper Artist,” and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s “Plagiarism and the Mechanics of Privilege.” The first two are first-person accounts by those who write papers for hire. They address who their customers are, their interactions with these students, their own processes for writing on demand, as well as the ethics of their work. Hayden, a successful science fiction editor, writes about the socioeconomic implications of such services.
I had no other plans for the class period—in the first week of class, everyone is still deciding what the class is going to be like and what role they’re going to play in it. My primary intentions in assigning this reading were to let my students know that I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck and to start a conversation about plagiarism. I don’t know if it’s true that students today “don’t know” what counts as plagiarism, that they think cutting and pasting does not require citation. My own first research project in high school was pre-internet, pre-online database research. Do students now even know about using index cards for research?
Class was great. The “Making Light” blog post seemed to have the biggest impact, as the unfair implications of the paper mill system struck a nerve with the students. Students have a strong sense of fairness, and the idea that rich students could buy better grades than students who have to bus tables at the Melting Pot after class got them pretty riled up. Plus, they were appalled at the poorly written sample student emails the authors quoted.
“Ed Dante” said that a common customer was the student flailing about in a course she has no interest in, such as an engineering student forced to take a poetry course. I intended to use this to address head-on any resistance that, say, accounting majors might have to taking a writing class. It worked—the raucous conversation continued, as one student said defiantly, “Hey, I’m an engineer, why should I have to read something like The Great Gatsby?”—which was immediately followed by a student on the other side of the class shouting, “I’ll tell you why you should read The Great Gatsby!”
Finally, I steered the conversation to what “Ed Dante” had to say about his writing process. I commented on his choice of sources (Wikipedia being a primary one—and I surprised my students by encouraging them to use the website as a starting place, while also explaining what Wikipedia is, how it works, and why this makes it a poor source for citing in academic papers). I then pointed out Dante’s reference to “stock academic phrases,” and the discussion turned to writing.
I have only been in the classroom as an instructor for two years. This experience reinforced what I’m quickly coming to learn is a key (and tough!) element of teaching: spontaneity. For this class, I assigned the readings and started class with, “So, what did you think?” I had very little prepared beyond that. I feel safer over-preparing but keep finding that some of my best teaching experiences have been the ones for which I’ve had the fewest expectations. The bottom-line, it seems, is trust: if I will just trust my students to perform, they usually will live up to that trust.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, US
Monica Miller received her MA in English literature from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2010, and has just completed my first year in the Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University. Her main interests are Southern and Appalachian literature and gender theory. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.