One of my students plagiarized this semester. Not once, but twice. I graded both papers in a week’s time, so the severity of the offense seemed even worse. Instructors who have encountered plagiarism will remember that brief moment of hesitation, the slow passing of time as you wait for Google (or Turnitin) to bring up the results, the quick beating of your heart as you see the lifted passages appear on your screen, the determined swish of the cursor to “Print.” Now imagine that twice in one week. It was unnerving but also sad.
We’ve read the numerous articles on plagiarism (like David Callahan’s article  in Huffington Post or Carson Jerema’s post  in Macleans.ca). However, as a new, female, adjunct instructor, other concerns about my identity as an instructor come into my head.
From that first semester as a teaching assistant, I have been trying hard to convey my authority to my students. I was aware of my position as a young, new, female graduate student of color; I had also seen how some students treated other female teaching assistants who seemed less authoritative, less “professorial.” I wanted my students’ respect, maybe even more so than their admiration. Through my dress manner, tone, and the way I addressed them inside and outside of the classroom, I tried to show them I was in control of the classroom. During the semester I opened up and relaxed a little; I became friendly, chatty, sarcastic, and witty. But I always made sure I held command of the classroom. Some thought I was too stern or too serious, but honestly I always worry about being too “nice.”
Over the years, I’ve seen students do respect me. I also feel more confident about my position as their instructor. However, I’ve also noticed a difference in their interactions with me: they open up about their personal lives more often than they do with my male colleagues (whereas they usually have students come to them to talk about books, readings, ideas discussed in class). They question my decisions more than my male colleagues. Conversely, it seems to me male instructors I have worked with seem more confident in their standards than the female instructors. Even with my years of experience I still wonder if I’m too “nice” or too harsh. Is being “nice” wrong? Not really. However, it is when other instructors equate being “too nice” with not being strict enough with your students or with being easily swayed by their appeals. As I confronted the student who plagiarized, the same concerns popped into my head.
I slowly pulled out the plagiarized essays with the internet articles as evidence, and went over my talking points in my head. As I explained what I had found, I repeated to myself “don’t let X try to sway you; this student failed the assignment.” But I also wondered “does this student understand the gravity of the situation? Did the student understand what they did? Am I being too mean? Maybe the student deserves another shot.” The right and left sides of my brain battled it out. On one hand, I wanted to make it clear this was unacceptable, and there would be consequences to this unethical behavior. On the other hand, I wanted to give this student the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, I worry that showing sympathy or emotions of any kind will undermine my authority as a female instructor. This situation probably did not warrant sympathy (after all, this student plagiarized two WHOLE papers), but if I did not wonder so much about my tenuous position as a female adjunct instructor of color at a new school I would probably feel more comfortable talking with the student about their actions.How many of my male counterparts have the same dilemma between being too strict and too lenient?
I asked the student what happened that they felt they had to plagiarize. The student said nothing. I asked if they had plagiarized other papers in the class. Response? No. The student said they only did it one paper. I showed the student both essays, with my evidence. No response. I didn’t know what else to say, so I mentioned how plagiarism was unacceptable in a college writing course. No response. As the student walked out, they asked, “is there anything I can do?” “No.” I went to my office, drank some water to calm down my nerves, then walked to my next class. I was a minute early.
Kansas City, Missouri in the USA
Liana Silva is a PhD candidate in English at Binghamton University in New York, and a writing instructor at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, MO. She is currently working on her dissertation, an interdisciplinary study on the concept of home and urban space in African American and Puerto Rican cultural productions. On top of that, she is busy raising a daughter and settling into their new home in Kansas City. You can follow her short bursts of thought on twitter.com/literarychica  or her longer, better organized ideas at soundingoutblog.com