“Fuck The Dodgers”
Moldova tips me off, a place that has no business in this midterm. It takes fifteen minutes, typically, to grade a community college essay, but telltale words make me stop to process my inkling of gut wrongness.
I don’t even know if Moldova is a current sovereign state or a former commonwealth, like Yugoslavia, but that’s inconsequential. Students were instructed to source ideas and examples from the textbook alone. Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and India turn up in its articles about social media and democracy. Moldova doesn’t.
I fear the student body takes democratic values for granted. Full course loads, jobs, ICE, and health crises are what this population loses sleep over, not whether foreign rulers or the U.S. Fed uses technology to restrict citizens’ rights. But the point of the assigned readings is that we all should beware of government machination and not get distracted, lest we lose ground and are left with regret.
A motorcycle growls through the curve in my street. My mind has strayed. Someone else contemplating this grading predicament might float the possibility that my midterm writer spotted Moldova in an article footnote or aside. Granted, we professors can fail to notice every single detail. Fair educators give students the benefit of the doubt and don’t jump to unfounded conclusions.
My conclusion, however, is founded—on meticulous study of the instructional materials. Moldova is an outlier. Case closed. Because if I, someone captivated by distant regions and place names, had come across “Moldova” in print, I’d do a search. Or ask Siri. The name drips with mystery and intrigue. Mol. Do. Va. You don’t forget Moldova.
My eyes drop back to the sentence in question. More nuanced and word-smithed than typical freshman writing, its originality requires confirmation.
Yet Google proves un-originality. The passage appears verbatim on culturaldiplomacy.org, in reference to Moldova as a nation where a “Twitter revolution” has taken place. The factoid corroborates my theme about the democratizing power of social media. Even so, copying unapproved internet verbiage is taboo. The syllabus, Academic Honesty statement, and college catalogue all contain No Cheating commandments. My essay prompts, including the midterm, warn: “Content detected from prohibited sources will be grounds for a grade of zero.” Conscious students know the drill.
Then where has Moldova come from? Plagiarism.
The whole sentence is plagiarized. Like a rat infestation, where there’s one, more are bound to be found. The next two paragraphs are studded with well-turned locutions easily tracked to theatlantic.com.
After so many dictates against it, such piracy could never be perceived as allowable. No matter how sophisticated The Atlantic is as a source, hanging ripped-off information out to dry uncited is a student’s lost-cause ploy.
Moldova, in Eastern Europe, once part of Romania, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union, today is an independent republic. Member of the World Trade Organization and United Nations. Population 3.5 million. The national sport is a form of wrestling called trinta.
The midterm counterfeiter, Erik Liner (not his real name), looks like a wrestler with bulked shoulders and dense arms poised for throw downs. I point my pencil tip next to his typed name and inscribe his grade: 0/150. Keeping to policy and principle.
Zero isn’t the transgression’s end point. First-time offenders are allotted a do-over opportunity. My goal isn’t to be draconian. Turning a mistake in judgment into a teachable moment is preferable. Should I decide on disciplinary action as well, the Dean of Students will administer it. Alternately, I can put the student’s peccadillo to bed in-house.
Erik Liner has succeeded in re-casting himself as a miscreant, someone I’ll soon refer to (though never on campus) as The Plagiarist. A young man asking to be tangled with and scrutinized. When I think back over the past weeks, signs were there of this fellow’s shall we say ‘personality misgovernment.’ Shades of narcissism, rebelliousness against authority, disruptiveness. But having raised sons, I know the feistiness of young males. So far The Plagiarist has seemed like someone not impossible to oversee and tap the potential of.
I peruse the next midterm in my pile to see if it explains the difference between tech apps used to further political freedom movements or instead to enable oppressors. It doesn’t, nor how internet companies watch, track, data-mine, and target users, even get people identified or jailed.
By contrast, The Plagiarist legitimately comprehended the threat and the need to take good care of freedom. Then why did he brazenly cheat?
His angle baffles me.
Back on Day One of the semester, Erik showed his hand by raising it early into my low-down on attendance and other classroom business. Seated in the middle row, posture exemplary, he smiled with teeth, a good sign. I established eye contact.
“Yes,” I said, “a question?” Clarification on syllabus items assures detail-oriented students and helps others as well.
“Actually, a suggestion,” he said. Notably Caucasian in a predominantly Latinx, African American, and Asian campus mix, the twenty-something male gestured at some of his cohorts. “Why don’t we take a break to go around the room and introduce ourselves?”
My teaching practice welcomes student contributions, but getting interrupted a quarter of an hour into my remarks felt premature. What’s more, a student supplying pointers on how to break the ice could be drifting into my lane. Course enrollees tend, especially at first meetings, to act deferential and unoffensively reticent.
“Suuure,” I said, worried about betraying a soupçon of displeasure at my momentum being halted. Projecting a poker face isn’t my deftest skill.
But a thought calmed me, from a seminar by a college provost on the challenge of teaching Millennials: given Generation Y’s short attention spans and presumptions of being the center of attention, educators are obliged to work around the self-absorption without calling it out.
“Good idea,” I said. “After covering the basics, we’ll try to fit it in. Okay?”
Syllabus review occupied another half-hour. I couldn’t presume students would digest the information on their own. Globalization Q&A followed, participants volunteering thoughts about trans-nationalism affecting communications, culture, trade. I announced, “We’ll examine graffiti, the internet, and immigration through a global lens.”
The good posture Caucasian followed along. Beefy and taut, he kept silent, though I observed impatience brewing, a twitchiness in his mass. Not surprisingly, he raised his hand again and when called on said, “So, you’re not taking my suggestion?” His smile had turned forced. Maybe he was trying to get under my skin. Or he was a needy puppy slavering to showcase himself.
Another student tittered. I wondered if the semi-rude behavior was a challenge to my authority, a boundary crossed. Or an innocent attempt to make class time less hierarchical, more social?
The options: adopt his proposal or carry on with the plan from my bag of tricks. I usually ask everyone on the roster to reply to the roll call by answering a question rather than mumbling, “Here.” Last movie you saw. Favorite meal. A country you hope to visit—the perfect query on Day One of a global issues class.
We lacked the time for both my exercise and his, and a pissing match made no sense. Here was a student wanting to create a community of learners. Why not tolerate slight insurrection if it’s ultimately helpful?
“Let’s do that now,” I said. “What details should everyone share?”
Looking surprised, he mused aloud, “Name, of course. What you’re majoring in, where you come from…how we spend spare time. How’s that?”
“Fantastic. Start on the right.”
At his turn, Erik Liner stated his name and revealed he was born in Russia, lived in Israel a few years, and ended up in California for high school. No foreign accent, just a slight overweening air. Thinking of majoring in Business. Hobby—sports.
Listening to the others’ introductions after his, I secretly sized up Erik as a fusion of Russian bear, Israeli peacock, California badger. On the flip side, by virtue of being a Jew of Russian extraction, a member of my tribe on a campus where virtually no one else is, Erik Liner was automatically simpatico.
Coiled beneath my positivity that first day was an instinct to stay on guard.
The Dean of Students is a small but mighty administrator. I have several days to weigh whether to send The Plagiarist to her mightiness. Erik’s was the only identified plagiarism. In-class essays are harder to fudge than at-home writing. To sit in a room and dissemble under the instructor’s watchful eye takes premeditation…and gall.
My gradebook indicates a B-minus on Erik’s first essay about political graffiti. In recollection, nothing there stood out as fraudulent. I check my Comments archive: logic imprecise, discussion undeveloped. The low B may have struck an ego blow. Perhaps Erik plagiarized the next assignment to elicit a result better suited to his alpha self-image.
My memory drifts back to Erik’s arrival at the fluorescent word processing lab for the midterm. He’d halted in the aisle between banks of computer stations and with bushy-tailed bustle asked, “Okay to use notes?”
“Of course, Erik. Notes, textbook, dictionary, all fine.”
From a hind pocket he produced a folded piece of white paper. Week after week, he’d brimmed with questions and remarks in class, leaving me disinclined to suspect a cheat sheet. Quite the opposite, I was delighted to see prep notes. Students often arrive at a test cold and wing it. Many leaf helplessly through pristine textbooks kept free of annotations or highlights, to sell back at a greater value to the campus store at the course conclusion.
No opportunity arose to peek at The Plagiarist’s textbook during the exam, yet wariness about his “notes” set in. Students usually jot ideas in spiral notebooks or on Post-Its affixed into their reader. The folded paper struck me as irregular. But with the group settling at monitors to write, I brushed off misgivings.
I now re-assess Erik’s class participation: contributions frequently off the wall, only tangentially related to the article under discussion. His modus operandi was to receive speaking credit without generating productive input.
I contact the Dean. As I type my email, a small irony pops to mind, related to a point I unearthed about Moldova’s Twitter Revolution protest, which took the form of a Dignity and Truth movement. Erik Liner obviously didn’t get that memo.
This isn’t my first plagiarism rodeo by far, and when I inform cowboy Erik that I know he copied from illicit sources, he confesses. He takes his lumps with equanimity and books an appointment with Dean Shoemaker. His library privileges get frozen, and he’s barred from class until the Dean instructs him in proper comportment.
I’m startled when, returning to class two weeks later, he presents me an I’m Sorry letter: “I apologize to you but more importantly to myself,” it goes. “Thank you for catching me before I made the same mistake at an [sic] university level.”
The hand-printed note promises he will submit the online “plagerism” [sic] course certification of completion and asserts he’s glad “we nipped this in the butt [sic] early so it doesn’t continue in my future.”
In twenty-two years, no other plagiarist has put such thoughts in writing. Erik’s gesture cheers me. We arrange for what his note coined a “redue,” a makeup midterm to be written at his home. One stumbling block cleared.
Others invariably arise. As we read through the research assignment at the next class meeting, The Plagiarist squirms. He’d stalked in tardy with a smug demeanor, probably feeling on top of the heap again, his makeup midterm, ungraded yet, under his belt. Now, raising his hand, he literally quakes like a disgruntled badger.
“Erik?” I say.
“Is the research essay optional?”
“Optional?” I echo. “Definitely not.” My arms cross. The research assignment is the primary Student Learning Objective of the course. “The information sheet stated all written assignments are mandatory. Since I use a point system, it’s nearly impossible to pass the class if you receive a zero on one essay. The research project is worth one-quarter of the total points. As the saying goes, do the math.”
The daft suggestion of skipping a sizeable fraction of the curriculum is something to nip “in the butt.” If students chip away at performance obligations, then writing, research, reading, and thinking standards erode.
Joseph, another co-ed with charisma and intellectual promise, raises his hand. “To be clear,” he says, “you’re saying that if someone who’s doing well doesn’t have time to write a research paper, they won’t pass?”
I flash again on Erik and Joseph blowing into class late, chuckling like dingoes. “Joseph,” I say, my brows furrowing, “you’re receiving the assignment today. Everyone has sufficient time for the project if you stay on schedule. It’s a seven-page essay. Other 1A sections write ten and twelve pages.”
But Joseph Pruitt, African-American star of the journalism staff, teacher’s pet with an A average, shifts as if his chair is pierced with needles. A garbled protest escapes his lips. Venom has entered his frame of mind, injected from the reckless fang of Erik Liner.
The Brookings Institution homepage is the source of the alerting words in Erik’s midterm introduction: “With the help of social media, ordinary citizens can become agents of persuasion and leverage their personal network for whatever values, issue positions, or ideological stances they cherish.”
I swallow cheap Merlot at my desk at home. Scammers assume a teacher won’t notice a honed, professional passage amidst their humbler articulations. They don’t recognize the meticulous editing behind content released by think tanks like Brookings (or study-guide companies like Shmoop). Syntax and diction choices stand out starkly, the clash detectable.
Blatant plagiarism makes no sense except as a cry for help from someone asking to be caught and punished. Repeating the infraction, after going through the motions with the Dean of Students, the apology letter, the makeup exam… Shouldn’t Erik realize that not fooled once, I won’t be again? For him to do this comes off as a sickness. To believe he doesn’t have to follow rules departs from sanity. Does The Plagiarist want to be kept in line? Or did he assume he’d outfox me, wow me with pilfered smarts, and in return be showered with accolades?
Sniffing in outrage at getting preoccupied by a plagiarist’s motives instead of others’ hard work, I input a permanent zero for Erik. Going forward, he’ll have to bust his ass to compensate for the hit to his average. Write a research essay, endure another consultation with Dean Shoemaker. I’ll pull Erik aside before next week’s research workshop and let him know he’s been caught again.
Who wins, who loses? The college librarian, Jessie Farr, models research questions in terms of what’s at stake for who and why. The approach orients students to debating a side in a controversy and locating information that supports or counters. Jessie is demonstrating Gale databases with the query “do undocumented immigrants absorb social service funds?” when Erik enters, forty minutes late.
His tardiness insults the librarian and robs me of the chance to speak confidentially about his second bootlegged essay. I’d hoped to provide him an opening to abscond from the class for good before the workshop.
Instead he materializes long after the period’s start. Lateness produces toxic effects on pedagogical morale. It’s distracting and indicates contempt for the schedule and norms. Sauntering latecomers make punctual students feel like chumps.
Joseph Pruitt sits in the back row, morphing from go-getter to defeatist. I need to squash further demotivating behavior from Erik before it escalates but am forced to wait until this training ends. Behind his monitor Erik looks so happy I assume he has a sports app on his screen instead of the Newspaper Source Plus database the others are learning to use.
Later, after Jessie Farr and others exit, I beckon to Erik. “What were you thinking?” I ask, his midterm sequel visible in my fingers.
“I guess I wasn’t thinking,” he says.
Curious and anxious, I call Dean Shoemaker following her second meeting with Erik. “After a lengthy discussion,” she tells me, “Mr. Liner has decided to withdraw from your class.” End of conversation.
Although this denouement brings relief, I question if I handled the episode effectively. If what transpired was a showdown, I triumphed, although a go at each other was never my intention.
At my next office hour, Jorge, an ex-military student, and I outline his research argument about immigration and crime rates.
“Say,” I comment, “have you seen Joseph? He was absent today.” I know from Joseph’s “What’s my community” writing sample that he’s an Afghanistan vet.
“Naw,” Jorge says. “He hasn’t been around.”
“You armed services vets are some of the best students.”
“I ran into Erik a few days ago, on his way to meet the Dean.”
“Unfortunately, Erik dropped the class.”
“He made it sound like that could happen.”
“He was wearing a ‘Fuck the Dodgers’ tee-shirt.”
“To talk with the Dean?” I snort. Even though “fuck” is a centuries-old word, it reserves shock value to annoy, from the association with raw sexuality.
“Dude’s whacked out sometimes,” Jorge says.
“Not the best attire for the occasion.”
Jorge scratches his Hollister sweatshirt-clad chest and says, “You know Erik served in the Marines?”
“He never said so in class.”
“There’s four of us in class on the GI Bill. Or three, now.”
Erik did once tell me he’d been called out for rebelliousness in the past, which led me to conjecture he got expelled from a high school. I wonder if he was dishonorably discharged from military service.
In the midst of these local tribulations, Donald Trump gets elected president.
Lord knows why, but when one of the department chairs emails me about Spring book orders and enquires about my semester, I report my two-time midterm plagiarizer.
“It takes something (spunk? stupidity? entitlement?) to pull this with you twice!” she writes back, cc-ing the co-chair to document what could become a student grievance.
“Before he withdrew,” I reply, “the student asserted he didn’t want to write a research paper, an idea seized upon by another student, an editor on the newspaper. This second guy, a model student, threatened to ‘take my chances with a different instructor another semester.’ Am I supposed to let a top student who doesn’t turn in a research project flunk?”
“Joseph Pruitt?” the cc’d co-chair replies to me alone. “If that’s who you mean, he took my class last semester, and we’ve stayed friendly. Would you object to me talking to him?”
“Not at all,” I type back. “Want him to succeed!”
Soon Joseph does come to confide about going through a tumultuous breakup with the mother of his son. Though knocked “off his game,” he plans to catch up on his work and thanks me for having his back.
I’m comforted by his assurances. The thoughtful co-chair thanks me for caring about our students. I thank her for intervening.
Despite all the gratitude, deadline extensions, reminders and pleas, Joseph never produces a research essay. I can’t shake the perception that The Plagiarist is responsible for setting up a macho test of wills that roped Joseph in. It wouldn’t have taken much for someone of Joseph’s intellect to make a nominal stab at the research essay, get partial credit, and stop the fuss, but he opted out.
I calculate Joseph’s grade at the last moment before closing out the term’s duties. He’s done so well in every other element of the class that, with the 0/250 reckoned, his average squeaks to a concluding 70%. A scholar driven by curiosity and passion lands the lowest C.
Upholding benchmarks and rules doesn’t always feel good. But arbitrariness, or misrule, seems more noxious.
Academic thievery, the epidemic of failing to give credit where credit is due, doesn’t end when a new semester begins. The next alleged case involves two Chinese nationals, nineteen or twenty years old. They always sit together near the back and depart as a duo. If one is absent, the other is. They even have the same last name, but when asked about being cousins or brothers, Xiaoma Han says no. He explains in halting English with a Mandarin accent that they met at the college only recently.
“Quite a coincidence,” I comment.
Sheng Han speaks no English. Called on to furnish a short answer during discussion, he mangles a single word. For either of the Hans to complete a university-transferable writing class seems implausible. Yet the essays they turn in reflect an adroit command of written English. Xiaoma, I find out, is a recent immigrant to the U.S. Sheng is an International Student enrolled in a work-visa program. Their compositions are sprinkled with Chinglish errors that, at my most peevish, I postulate have been inserted by a contract writer-for-hire to lend calculated verisimilitude. I google their erudite strings of words yet don’t succeed in proving foul play.
In the aftermath of Erik Liner, my cynicism runs high, as does my allegiance to the American virtue of honesty. At one point, while returning graded essays, I comment to both Hans, “Your spoken English is not adequate for a discussion class.”
Sheng does not understand. Xiaoma slowly figures out my meaning and laughs in an embarrassed way.
“It makes me wonder,” I venture, “if you’re writing your own essays or getting help?” I smile and risk the obvious: “You haven’t plagiarized, have you?”
Xiaoma shifts from nodding agreeably to acting confounded. I wonder if the confusion is an arch performance, trickery employed in lieu of bald lying.
There’s no way to substantiate my skepticism. But bearing in mind The Plagiarist’s test-taking tricks, at the in-class midterm I keep an eye on the Hans. I set myself up not far behind their usual spot at the rear of the classroom, where there’s space to spread out paper, as if I’m getting a lot of work done, when my true agenda is keeping tabs.
Xiaoma’s and Sheng’s textbooks lie open beside their keyboards. They appear to flip pages and think hard. Eventually, they type. I witness no pasting in gambits. Of course, I’m three rows behind them in a huge room with wide aisles and glass walls. In this blanching light I can’t read their screens. Are they great actors, pretending to compose but in reality typing over and over a translated Chinese equivalent of ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, and the second I blink, they will replace the gibberish with blocks of pre-formed essay from a google doc? Are they regurgitating line after line of memorized papers, authored by someone else? To know for sure, I would have to bring binoculars to essay tests and spy from a distance like a birdwatcher.
In the end, despite some of their efforts warranting B-range grades, the lack of verbal participation points drags both of the Hans down to course grades of C. Given my residual disbelief that they produced their own essays, the grades seem fair.
Perhaps they got the message. In the fullness of time, a different lesson occurred to me: to not reflexively assume inability in foreign students nor fall prey to suspicions akin to micro-aggression. The Mandarin speakers could be pidgin English savants, for all I know, who speak poorly but read and write with competence. High achieving students with speech hindrances have graced my rosters in the past.
Then again, despite my goal to trust students, the moral of the Hans’ code of conduct tale could indeed involve wrong-doing. A wit of my acquaintance, a businessman, once enunciated two main rules of criminality: 1) never commit more than one crime at a time; 2) if you commit a crime, don’t tell anyone. In other words, cheat smart. The same precept applies in academics.
Xiaoma and Sheng, if plagiarists, followed the faked essay rule-book better than clever Erik Liner. The Hans did not get caught red-handed or be forced to withdraw. They passed the class with the same grade Joseph Pruitt ended with. Does that make them success stories or scam artists? Perhaps these days there’s no difference.
Stamping out plagiarism is not an exact science, nor does it always conclude fairly. Two years later I’m still undecided about whether I over-reacted in handling Erik Liner’s delinquency. At least I tried what his apology letter thanked me for—stopping him from paying a conning habit forward.
I have a current offender who makes me fear some people are misplaced in systems, like colleges, that rely on integrity. Dalia Cantal’s recent plagiarism drama begins garden variety. She is one of three students in Critical Thinking Through Literature who, despite ample admonitions, plagiarize parts of their short story interpretations.
The culprits are asked to “See me in my office.” There, I present my findings and convey disappointment. Each plagiarist expresses shame and pledges to earn back my trust. Dalia tries to justify her transgression with excuses of fatigue and economic struggle. She, like the others, is offered the chance to submit a replacement essay on a different story.
Unlike the others, Dalia returns to me for help, but her concentration drifts.
“I need a B,” she tell me. Besides the original 0 on her essay submission, she has received a C+ on a poetry interpretation. Her frustration is palpable, her lips pursed. She seeks admittance into the college’s competitive nursing program.
“It’s hard because my brother and I support sick parents. He’s a cop. I have a job at a restaurant.”
“Commendable children,” I say. Dalia’s difficulty is not sheer time management; her writing and verbal expression expose academic skill deficiency. She has advanced to a critical thinking class without the reading, grammar, persistence and reasoning abilities she needs to thrive. “I’ll help every way I can. I’m here before and after class.”
“The problem is, I can’t come regularly because of my work hours,” she says.
“Try a drop-in peer tutor in the resource lab. They’re available early and late.”
Dalia and the other plagiarists turn in valid story interpretation rewrites. Dalia’s paper receives another C+, which, considering her grammar gaffs and lack of abstract thinking, is a generous evaluation.
On campus, the magnolia trees’ purple buds flop open into pale blossoms as the weeks pass. Dalia revisits my office to discuss her novel interpretation essay.
“My brother saw me reading Fahrenheit 451,” she says, holding the Bradbury. “He hates this book. He doesn’t trust it.”
“Maybe he hasn’t grasped the danger that lies in a society that bans book learning. What do you plan to write about?”
“Religion. Catholicism is a big part of my family. Not that I have a choice. I should write about religion. Church is my daily life.”
“Sounds good. Have you looked up the Biblical allusions? There are several besides the ones we went over.”
“I probably will. Also, I hired a tutor to get organized.”
“Why not use the free tutoring on campus?”
“I need someone who can work with me at night. This tutor is a family friend. She’s brilliant. She graduated from Brown.”
“Great. If you don’t mind saying, how much does your tutor charge?”
“$110 per hour.”
“Wow. I guess she’s good.”
I do freelance tutoring, though not for students at my school. I charge $70 an hour. Dalia might be getting bilked by the family friend, but I keep this concern to myself.
“Oh, she’s worth it,” Dalia says.
The analysis of religion in Fahrenheit 451 that Dalia turns in starts on shaky ground. There’s no evidence in the opening two pages of a hotshot Brown editor’s guiding insights, and, befuddled and chagrinned, I can’t isolate Dalia’s core points. On Page 3, however, the paper evolves in comprehensibility, quickly reading like something written by a pro.
Google verifies what I already know. After the first half of the essay in which Dalia tried to produce composition on the up and up, she threw in the towel and helped herself to readily available online content. I highlight the stolen passages with a yellow marker, scribble the source URL in the margin, and email Dalia about seeing me in office hours.
It’s not often I confirm a second plagiarism case. The last was Erik Liner. Most students, except those who find untraceable means to cheat, reform rather than endure another dose of humiliation. Dalia suffers the same fate as The Plagiarist for repeat offenders: a permanent zero. She sits across from me in my office, bristling with panic.
“What does this mean?” She blinks at the yellow highlights placed before her.
“You’ve lost points. It means a trip to the Dean. These days the Letters and Science Dean supervises plagiarism cases.” I write his email on a Post-It. “You can find him across the hall.”
“Any way I can still pass your class, if I do great on the last paper?”
“Let’s crunch the numbers.” I pull up the Learning Management System on the computer screen, click on Grades, scroll to Dalia’s row. I turn the monitor so she can see the total at the end of her line, a sum out of 850 possible points to date. “Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you do well on the take-home final, which I hope is so, and receive a perfect 150. If we add 150 to your current total, you end with…” I input the digits and watch the system compute. “681 points. You need 700 to get a passing C. I sometimes make exceptions if a student has tried her best and finishes a few points below the cut-off, but your scenario equals a D.” Dalia breathes raggedly. “If you skip the final, and who would blame you, you can take an F in the class. It doesn’t matter, D or F. You still need to repeat 2B.”
“What about extra credit? Is that possible?”
“Not with one week left. I wish you’d thought this through before deciding to plagiarize again.” I want to cite ethicist Michael Josephson’s aphorism that “Honesty doesn’t always pay, but dishonesty always costs.” I resist sermonizing.
Dalia looks dazed. I wonder if she has told her brother about her misconduct. I imagine a cop storming into my office and demanding, service revolver drawn, that I pass his sister, I of the reprehensible gumption to assign Fahrenheit 451! I remember a day on campus around when Erik Liner dropped my class. As I got out of my car in the remote parking lot, a campus police officer stood on the walkway. I spoke with him as we strolled toward the quad.
“One of my students had to drop my class because he plagiarized twice, and even though he’s never done anything threatening, he has impulse control and anti-authority issues,” I said. “Do you mind walking me to my office? In case he’s angry and looking to confront me?”
“No problem,” the cop said.
Feeling a little foolish, I continued, “It’s too bad about this young man. He could be successful if he’d try. He took improper shortcuts instead. After consulting with Dean Shoemaker a few days ago, he decided to withdraw.”
“A big, friendly guy? White? I bet I saw who you mean outside the Dean’s office.”
“Might have been.”
“I liked that guy. We talked. Basketball guy. Interesting. Seemed like he had it all together.”
I smiled. Of course The Plagiarist could chat up a campus cop. “If only he trusted his own brain more.” I recalled the audacious “Fuck the Dodgers” attire Erik reputedly wore that day. Some time ago, I looked up the etymology of “fuck.” It derives from medieval German, ‘to hit’ or ‘move back and forth,’ perhaps denoting the sex act literally. “Was the student wearing a wacky logo tee-shirt when you saw him? I heard something like that.”
“I didn’t notice. Why?”
“Fuck the Dodgers” is more along the lines of “fuck you” than a sexual barb. On a baseball shirt it’s a slur referring to the rivalry between the San Francisco Giants and the Western Division competing team from Los Angeles. According to Melissa Mohr in a Huffington Post feature, from its start, the word “fuck” might have meant what it conveys today, disapproval communicated as a grammatical intensifier. As in that fucking plagiarist.
The officer gave me his business card. “Call anytime you feel unsafe.”
I never called. Dalia, meanwhile, sister of a cop in a close-knit family, sits and breathes the new carpet off-gassing in my General Education Building office. She’s a different headache when it comes to serial breaches of academic honor.
“I plan to stay in the class,” she says, “to practice writing, even if I have to repeat it this summer. I want to be a better writer. I’ll need to be for work.”
“Yes, all the charting that nurses do. I’m happy to help you pick up skills.”
“Thank you. And maybe, who knows, I’ll ace the final and end up passing?”
I give her a look that means to say, without words: Are you as bad at calculating averages as you are at composition?
Her final essay is the last of the batch I grade at home. She appears to have taken a page out of Xiaoma Han’s and Sheng Han’s playbook. Although this eloquence is surely not hers, my time-consuming sleuthing cannot find online evidence of subterfuge. As if grading dozens of essays isn’t onus enough!
“Damn sneak,” I curse. I can’t give her paper the deserved zero. With strokes of the pencil I reward Dalia’s tutor with 132/150 points. B+. “Douche!”
My husband’s head pokes through my office doorway. In his hand is a baggie of bin food. “Hating on students?” He unknots the bag. “Unprofessional, Doc.”
“She plagiarized three times. Told me she hired a tutor to help pull her thoughts together, and guess who wrote this essay?”
“So flunk the douche.”
“She’s getting a D!”
“Don’t get excited. What does it matter? Want a cookie?”
“Give me two.”
We chew fig bars. My husband drops crumbs near his bare feet. My heart races as if shot through with accelerant. The student culture of rule-breaking and information appropriation frustrates me. I would have retired from teaching by now if we could afford it.
“It matters because she lied. She claims to value the ability to express herself, then pays a tutor $110 an hour to do her work. She plans to be a nurse! Who wants to be treated by a nurse who cheats and won’t learn? A sinner who calls herself a devout Catholic?”
“When did you get religious?”
“110 an hour? Money to burn.”
“She’s not rich. Plus, the product she bought is implausible, not her style. The scam’s too obvious.” I bite into my second cookie. “She should have hired me. I’d save her money and write an assignment a teacher like me would never suspect of plagiarism.”
“Ghost writing a student paper for yourself to grade? That’d be a racket.”
“When you put it that way…”
My husband dislodges a fig seed from between his teeth. “Do something like that, and you’d be so fired.”
“It was a joke.” I grin, defending my commitment to the noble teaching profession. “You know I would never ‘do something like that’.”
Instead, a month later, I write this.