Friday, May 9, 2008


Well, this one was inevitable...

A couple of weeks ago while I was checking notebooks, I discovered that a student had copied his entire notebook word-for-word from someone else's. It had been a while since I caught a student plagiarizing, but it does happen with some regularity. Last year, I had students downloading old Regents Anchor Papers (samples which the State gives teachers to help illustrate the different scoring levels) and copying them, sometimes right in front of me during an in-class essay writing. Of all the things students do with respect to their schoolwork, cheating and plagiarism I think are the worst. I'd almost prefer a student do no work at all than be a cheater and a plagiarist; at least the former is honest.

I've reached the point now where I essentially never give students anything to write outside of class. Their notebooks stay here, on the tables; they are not supposed to take them home. Final essays are written as in-class exams. On those occasions where I do assign long-term writing projects which the students are to produce on their own outside of class, there are always a few which have been cut-and-pasted from the internet, whether from Wikipedia or some other source, or in some cases, multiple sources. I can't remember the last time I gave such an assignment and did not find at least two or three that had been plagiarized.

I've mentioned several times on this blog how my former principal at the fraudulent, corrupt "School of the Arts" in Queens where I taught in 2002-03 and coached baseball from 2003-05, let my students off the hook for cheating and implicitly encouraged them to keep on doing it. Instead of reading the text and writing their own responses, as they were assigned to do, they chose instead to go online and copy the chapter summaries word-for-word from (or Pinkmonkey, in some cases; I've had students over the years copy from Monarch Notes and other sources but never, oddly enough, Cliffs Notes). Some students who were not copying from SparkNotes were copying from each other. One of these put on a tear-filled, Oscar-worthy performance of denial and indignation before sheepishly admitting what she had done. I've seen many of these performances over the years, and they all unfold the same way.

The first time I saw this, I was obviously angry. I am always angry when students cheat, especially in a manner like this which is not only easy to detect, and entirely defeats the purpose of the assignment, but can actually take longer and require greater effort than simply reading the text and writing one's own response. The problem was that, even after a whole slew of students received failing grades for their fraudulent notebooks, things did not get any better. In fact, they got worse. Students were warned that if they did this again, they would receive a zero, not an F; I gave them some credit the first time, for having at least done something (even something so loathsome), but made it clear that in the future this sort of craven dishonesty would not be tolerated under any circumstances. Sadly, maddeningly, but perhaps predictably, a good proportion of these students who were explicitly warned not to do this again, did it again.

The nadir occurred after a large number of students, particularly those in one class section, failed the marking period because of the F's and zero's they received as a result of this brazen, shameless cheating. The principal was obviously perturbed by the high percentage of failures in that class, but when I explained the situation, his response was absolutely unfathomable:

"Well, you must have made the work too hard, so they had to cheat."

My jaw dropped to the floor. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, that a high school principal was actually standing there telling me that it was perfectly OK with him that the students were LYING, CHEATING and STEALING, because it was MY FAULT that the students were lying, cheating and stealing. (For the record, once again, the assignment was: Read a chapter of the text, 10-12 pages or so, think about what you read, and spend 10-15 minutes writing a response to the reading, i.e., about the text and your ideas. If this is "too hard" for high school students, we are all in a lot of trouble.)

The worst thing about that school, aside from the corruption and filth at the top, was this intractable and widespread epidemic of cheating (including theft of exams from teachers' files) and plagiarism by students, enabled by the administration (whose modus operandi seemed to be to kiss the backsides of students and parents until their lips were raw, metaphorically speaking). Once I discovered the problem, and realized that the administration had no intention of supporting my efforts to eradicate it, it quadrupled the amount of time and effort I needed to mark, grade and return student work. Every entry in every notebook, and every paragraph of every essay, had to be checked against online and print sources, as well as the work of other students, for plagiarism. As easy as it is to find sources online, when the problem is so widespread and insidious that everything the students submit is under suspicion of plagiarism, grading notebooks and papers can become incredibly difficult and, more significantly, inefficient and time-consuming.

I suppose some students count on this, i.e., that teachers will not bother to take the time and effort to seek out and uncover academic dishonesty. Some students may actually think their teachers will not notice or be able to tell that the work is plagiarized. Others may count on their parents and administrators letting them off the hook and blaming the teacher for "making the work too hard" or providing inadequate instruction. I had one student at that school complain that since he always received low grades on his essays he had to cut-and-paste his entire essay from SparkNotes, because in his words, "My work is never good enough for you." The parent and principal promptly fell in line with this reasoning.

As I discussed in Toxic Truths: A Closer Look, infra, it never occurred to either of them that (a.) the student had received low grades on his essays because his writing was not very good; and (b.) the way to get a better grade was to pay attention to classroom instruction, and to the specific, individual feedback he received on his prior work, and learn to write better essays. Once again, the parent and administrator preferred to teach him that he was entitled to a high grade no matter how good his work was, and that if I wouldn't give him one, then he should cheat. A parent or administrator in this instance might also contend that the instruction and feedback must have been inadequate if the student's grades have been low; the student's own effort and attitude are not part of the calculus. Once again, the student, not the teacher, receives the benefit of the doubt (see The Great Failure, infra).

Regardless of the specific reason, students cheat and plagiarize because they do not perceive a risk in doing so. They have either gotten away with it in the past, or have been absolved for it when caught, so by the time they reach high school it becomes in their minds not only acceptable, but routine.

I've heard all sorts of excuses from adults for why students cheat, why they read and copy SparkNotes instead of actually reading and writing about the literature they're assigned. I've had other supervisors besides that odious principal, not to mention parents, excuse and blame me for the students' dishonesty. I even mentioned all this recently to some of my law school classmates, who laughed it off and dismissed it as "what kids do," implying that I was the one who had done something wrong by taking exception to, refusing to tolerate, and punishing this behavior. Again, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Doesn't anyone realize that this is why they do it? Doesn't anyone realize that if we, as adults, make it OK for students to do the wrong thing, they will do the wrong thing?



F.X. said...

"Plagiarism" struck an all too familiar chord...the dismissal of this intellectual theft and subsequent fraud by the powers-that-be is truly astounding...the view of students that such an offense is expected, and of little consequence, is equally disturbing...finally i would add (albeit somewhat sarcastically); if your going to do something; do it well!!! so please remove the Monarch Notes and Encyclopedia Britanica headers and footers from your final print copy!!!

Jay Braiman said...

That's part of the frustration. Kids not only cheat, they don't even cheat smart; they cheat stupid. I've seen some papers with URL headers and footers, others showing different typefaces, etc. Not to mention the fact that anything they can find on the internet, I can find on the internet. Their own laziness backfires in a big way.

As great a resource as it is, the internet has unfortunately made it easier for kids to cheat and plagiarize. Where once they had to actually leave the house, go to a library, and find a book to copy from, now they have all this material at home, at their fingertips, 24 hours a day (unless, of course, we give them an assignment that requires them to use the internet, then suddenly no one has a computer at home).

The larger issue here is that the school system is teaching kids not to learn, but to game the system. I've written often about how there seems to be no correlation between students' grades (or passing/failing status) and actual intellectual ability in the form of demonstrated knowledge and skills. School administrators seem to prefer it this way, because the alternative is to have a lot of kids "feel bad," a lot of kids fail, and very few high achievers.

I've actually been run out of two different schools because, at least in part, I would not allow the kids to game the system. They came to my class and discovered that they could no longer get away with things like cheating, plagiarism, handing in work late, and all the sundry frivolous excuses for not submitting work, and that they would not automatically get an A just for "trying their best." They found themselves suddenly compelled to do their work and learn; this was the only option, and they just couldn't do it. So they complained (and, in some cases, lied) to the higher-ups, who took their side and assumed I must be no good, and had to be gotten rid of.

For my part, my failure (particularly in the Long Island school I've so often written about) was not understanding exactly what I was walking into, and being unable to adjust when I got there. Prior to 2001, when I taught at a large Queens academic high school, I had always been able to criticize student work, grade the students objectively, compel them to learn and foreclose all the cheats and shortcuts and excuses and gaming of the system that the students had become so accustomed to. Then I got to the suburbs, where I discovered rather quickly that everything I had been doing, which I had spent four years developing with great care and with great success, was entirely unacceptable and profoundly wrong.

The phony "Arts" school wasn't much better. My supervisor on Long Island was merely strange, difficult, hopelessly rigid and maddeningly inconsistent; the principal at the "Arts" school, on the other hand, was a real sociopath; a sick, demented, pathologically dishonest, profoundly evil creature. My failure there was to trust him; really, to trust anyone. The environment there was so toxic in terms of all the gossip, rumor, innuendo, backstabbing, furtive and perfidious whispering and plotting, etc. that it was indistinguishable from a soap opera.

In the long run, none of this is good for anyone. The students' long-term intellectual and moral development is being sacrificed for their short-term self-esteem, and not only does no one seem to care, but those of us who do care are being vilified, marginalized, and run out of the system.

f.x. said...

btw, i was a "plagiarism perpetrator" once in my academic career... in a private high school latin class, i used a "trot" in translating cicero's orations...was caught and received a righteous cuffing from the good brother "latinus"... didn't feel abused or suffer any major loss of self-esteem: only gained the realization that all actions have their consequences!!!

Jay Braiman said...

Of course. There are plenty of kids who do get the right message and who do learn from their mistakes. It's astonishing that because some of them don't, because some of them engage in reactionary self-flagellation ("I'm just going to fail anyway, so there's no point in trying"), that some schools build their entire philosophy around that, and around preventing that at all costs.

It's an example of how we give kids too much credit for the wrong things, and not enough credit for the right things.