G. Thomas Couser explains to a student why excuses for academic dishonesty won't fly with him.
When you got your paper back with a grade of F for plagiarism, you reacted in predictable fashion -- with indignant denial of any wrongdoing. You claimed “you cited everything” and denied that you had committed intentional plagiarism, or ever would.
This response is all too familiar to an experienced professor. Only once in my three decades of teaching has a student I caught plagiarizing owned up to it right away. And in that case, I believe (perhaps cynically) that she (a graduate student) thought a forthright confession might lead me to lighten the penalty. It didn’t; I failed her for the course and wrote her up. Indeed, I found out later that she had been caught plagiarizing by a colleague the previous term and let off lightly. I suspect that, because too many professors (many of them adjuncts fearful of student backlash) overlook or are unwilling to pursue plagiarism -- the process can be labor intensive, and it is always unpleasant -- cheating has become a way of life for many students, and they are genuinely surprised at being held responsible for it. So I don’t doubt that your shock is real.
When I declined to believe your initial denial, you reiterated it less strongly (“OK, I used SparkNotes, but I reworded everything”) and appealed to me for leniency on various grounds: first, that you didn’t know that paraphrase required documentation; second, that you had in fact read the book you were supposed to be analyzing (Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and, third, that the low term grade resulting from your F on the paper would cost you your scholarship.
With regard to your first claim, I have to admit that your paraphrase was very thorough, so much so that Turnitin.com, to which you were required to submit your paper for screening, did not lead me to SparkNotes. There were other clues, however: the potted nature of your off-topic observations and, more obviously, your paper’s entire lack of specific page references to your primary source. Also, earlier, less skillful plagiarists had alerted me to the SparkNotes on Girl, Interrupted, so I knew where to look.
Your second claim is also familiar; student plagiarists often claim that they thought documentation is only necessary for quotation. For all I know, this excuse may have worked for them before. But any adequate discussion of plagiarism will correct that misimpression, as I do in course documents you should have read. As a college student, you should know that the key to responsible use of secondary sources is to cite them openly from the get-go and to indicate clearly the boundary between your words, insights, and ideas, and those of your source. But you relied almost entirely on SparkNotes for your observations on Girl, Interrupted.
As for your third ground, you must understand that I cannot take your financial circumstances into account here. In any case, can you see how ironic it is to plead, in effect, that you had to cheat to keep your scholarship?
This brings me to what is, from the professorial point of view, the heart of the matter. Your use of the online “study guide” SparkNotes is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such guides very rarely enable students to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a student has actually read (as a student I occasionally used them that way myself), but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for -- or stimulus to -- the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of true college writing.
For that, you need to pay close attention to the prompt provided by the assignment. As I say in my handout “Tips on Writing an Academic Essay,” well designed assignments in humanities courses often ask students to think through a general issue in terms of a particular instance of it; ideally, the limited scope of the particular case enables students to address responsibly what would otherwise be an unmanageably broad question.
In this case, you were asked to “discuss Kaysen’s critique of the medical paradigm in her memoir in light of readings about the ongoing revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that suggest that our conception of mental illness is not entirely a function of objective biomedical knowledge but also inevitably conditioned by social, cultural, and moral values.”
You had been prepared for this paper by a sequence of selected reading assignments (for which study questions were provided), directed class discussion, and finally a workshop that walked you through the assignment. Once you consulted SparkNotes, however, you had difficulty focusing on the topic. SparkNotes did not help you analyze the text; it came between you and the text. As a result, you barely discussed the issues involved in the revision of the DSM, and you used the phrase “medical paradigm” exactly once in your entire essay -- in your tacked-on introduction. This flies in the face of my advice that the way to keep your essay on track is to reuse key terms in your topic sentences throughout.
The reason that plagiarism like yours makes professors so sad – and, yes, sometimes mad -- is that it entirely defeats our attempts to educate you. We work hard to put you in a position to reach understandings that you would not otherwise be able to attain. (This is what makes a real course a course.) Cannibalizing a source like SparkNotes is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do, and which your professors see as being at the heart of a liberal arts education. The opposite of academic honesty is not actually academic dishonesty; it’s dishonesty that is decidedly unacademic. To commit it is to suggest that you don’t understand, or don’t value, the kind of education for which you (or your parents) are paying so much. The problem is not so much rule breaking as point missing.
G. Thomas Couser is founding director of disability studies and a professor of English at Hofstra University.
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