Tales of WTF?

When you work in academia, you see students try a weirdly impressive amount of stupid shit. Culled from my time both as an instructor and on a panel that hears cases of academic misconduct, here are some of the most titillating examples of aforementioned stupid shit, sassily named for your reading pleasure.

Oddly Familiar: In an English Composition II class years ago – back before I even knew what a “course website” was – I provided my students with a sample essay illustrating the type of assignment they were about to write. This sample was an anonymized essay that I had gotten in a previous semester, and I gave it to the class with grim but standard instructions: “This sample is intended to give you a practical idea of the type of essay you should write for our next assignment. Do not copy any of the wording or the sentence structure; doing so is plagiarism, and plagiarism means an F for the course and a visit to the Dean of Students.” We also discussed plagiarism, how to cite sources appropriately, etc. So a few days later I’m grading their essays, and I start reading one that sounds oddly familiar; the sensation was sort of like hearing your song on the radio and not realizing it’s you, only less cool. I keep reading, and then one passage brings it all home to me – this is the sample essay. I don’t remember the exact topics involved, but I do know they were pro/con argumentation papers, so let’s just say the sample concerned banning boxing, and the aggrieving paper in question concerned legalizing marijuana. What this writer had done was copy every single word of the sample (remember, no course website, no substantive use of e-mail, no electronic copy to highlight/copy/paste) and then change all boxing references to marijuana-legalization references……except she didn’t catch all the references. So there, in a paragraph on (e.g.) the thorny issues surrounding medical marijuana use, appeared a reference to blunt-force trauma and the frequency of long-term brain damage among ex-fighters. This example introduces a question that crops up in virtually every case of academic misconduct: considering the necessity here for retyping the entire paper, at some point wouldn’t it be easier for the offender to just write the goddamn thing herself? Apparently not.

Mom Wrote It: While grading English Composition I papers one semester, I noticed that one of my student’s papers was a bit better than earlier efforts, though not so much that I became too suspicious of inappropriate outside help. When I got to the end of the essay, I realized there was another page attached, which was unusual because we weren’t using sources and therefore had no need to list any references. So what was this mystery page? Why, it was a letter from the writer to her mother, thanking her for writing her child’s paper. Really. It literally said something like this: “Dear Mom, Thanks for writing my English paper for me. See you this weekend. Love, So-and-so.” I sat there looking at it, wondering why the fuck this student couldn’t have just given the letter to Mom! Had she done so, I would have finished grading the paper, assigned its appropriate grade, and kept moving. Instead, I had to meet with this student and endure the following:

ME: So-and-so, this paper is a bit better than your previous ones.
SO-AND-SO: Thanks.
ME: Why do you think this one is better?
SO-AND-SO: Um, I don’t know. I guess I just worked harder on it.
ME: It has a few places that concern me, as though perhaps you had some help. Did you have any help?
ME: Are you sure?
ME (producing the letter to her mother from my bag): Well, I have this letter here…

...at which point So-and-so’s face blanched out and her eyes bulged and she copped to the whole sordid affair. And just in case you’re wondering, I take absolutely no pleasure in scenes like this. They suck the ass-end of a menstruating skunk. I’d much rather all students walked the academic straight-and-narrow, but if any of mine are going to plagiarize, I’m going to do my due diligence. Harrumph.

No Evidence = Guilty: So when you’re on this committee that conducts hearings, you get e-mails inquiring about your availability for a hearing at a certain date/time, and if you affirm your availability, you soon get an envelope in campus mail with the details of the hearing so you can educate yourself. Once, I got very few details in said envelope; in fact, you could say that there was no evidence. The envelope had the paperwork from the Dean of Students’ office, including a narrative summary of the allegations, and a typed, double-spaced research paper. As the summary explained it, a professor had been told by a former student (i.e., not currently in her class) that a current student had copied his paper and submitted it as his own. The typed paper in the envelope, however, was not the offending paper (it apparently didn’t exist) but a copy of the original paper, the one the former student said had been copied by the current student. Hence, our materials for this hearing were allegations and a typed essay that could have been literally anything. When the committee met before the professor and student arrived, we expressed dismay at holding a hearing with no evidence and flatly said that if the student pled innocent, we’d have no choice but to find him innocent and end the hearing. So when the student came in and we asked how he pled, he said – I am not making this up – “Guilty. And I throw myself on the mercy of this court.” We looked at each other in shock, had a very short hearing (verdict: guilty), and then decided amongst ourselves (after the involved parties were gone) that this student had likely not known we had no evidence and therefore assumed his goose was cooked; the other logical explanation – a desire to confess the truth – was not, we decided, all that logical after all.

Seventeen Counts, One Offense: Sometimes, the packet of information you get for a hearing is so thick, you do the only right-thinking thing you can do: you ignore it. This is what I did for a recent hearing, preferring instead to thumb through the info as the hearing went along. My strategy, it turns out, was a bad idea (imagine that), partly because I was less informed than I should have been and partly because the particulars of this offense were damn-near impossible to believe. Indeed, it wasn’t until about a week had passed that I fully grasped the concept that this student had committed seventeen flagrant offenses that ended up counting as one offense.

Here’s the shiz: dude decided to buy some research data online from one of apparently many eBay-type sites where one can bid on “jobs.” He did this not once but seventeen separate times (that we and his department know of). The details of how he got caught were about as salacious as novice-level academic research gets, but, sadly, I don’t remember them all, and they make us turn in our info for shredding once it’s all done. I can tell you that it involved weeks- or possibly months-long surveillance by the university’s network technicians and that the linchpin of their case was a document or screenshot linking this guy’s please-sell-me-my-homework screen name to his university account……which they eventually acquired because dude forgot to logout of a screen that showed both his commercial screen name and his university ID (without this, his case would have been much harder to prove). I tell you, it was crazy to be sitting there in that hearing, staring at a screenshot from AcademicMisconductRUs.biz (or whatever) that showed (a) his description of what he wanted along with the reduced price of $50 (alas, no takers at $100), (b) his screen name, and (c) his university-assigned ID there at the bottom of the frame. “What in the fuck did you think you were doing,?” I wanted to ask him.

At any rate, he pled guilty, cried, and said he learned his lesson; his mom cried and said he learned his lesson; his fiancé cried and said he learned his lesson. Touching, perhaps, but I was having none of it. I like to think I’m as generous as the next person regarding lessons learned, second chances, rehabilitation, what have you, but seventeen separate counts of bought-and-sold cheating, all rolled into one über-offense since they’d been discovered at the same time? Sorry, old chap: that stomps all over whatever “line” I draw as a faculty/committee member. I was alone in my desire to expel this guy because his offenses were so numerous and so dire; the rest of the committee overruled me and voted to suspend him for five full years, which, in all honesty, will probably result in a de facto expulsion, since most people do not come back after that long, especially with such a bloody ugly track record. (FYI, I did not fully understand what “expelled” means until I got on this committee. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it means “you can never come back to this school, and probably not many others either, since most schools, for some bizarre reason, are not fond of would-be students whose transcripts are stamped ‘EXPELLED FOR ACADEMIC MISCONDUCT.’”)

Cut & Paste: Then there’s this one, the Ishtar of academic misconduct as far as I'm concerned. A few years ago, a fellow teacher in my program brought a potentially plagiarized paper to my attention. The evidence went like this:

1. The writing style of the document’s first two sections was very obviously less sophisticated than the style of the remaining 4-5 sections (too many short & choppy sentences in a row, lots of overly informal phrases, many silly expletive constructions like “it is” or “there are,” etc.).

2. The font in the first two sections was 12-point Times New Roman, while the rest of the document was 10-point Arial — not exotic fonts, of course, but a dramatic and wholly nonstandard shift nonetheless.

3. Every single section of the document after the first two contained variant British spellings, most containing “-our” instead of just “-or.” Such spellings aren’t wrong per se, but they are beyond the reach or purpose of most students from the rural South.

(Note a running theme in the three items above: everything in the document past the first two sections was noticeably different than the shit in the first two sections. Gawrsh! This water sure is wet!)

These items alone would be grounds for bringing up plagiarism, but the best and most damning evidence was the presence of thin, dark lines and smudges along with what looked like fingerprint whorls in strategic places that more or less framed the writing on the page. These irregularities were telltale signs of a literal cut-and-paste job: shadows created by the space between two less-than-perfectly flat sheets of paper during the photocopying process, and fingerprints evidently left by the offender while taping one sheet of paper onto another.

Yes, this MENSA candidate took an existing document, cut out (with scissors!) the sections he needed (not the first two), taped them (with dirty hands!) to blank paper, photocopied the resulting “pages,” and submitted all this as his writing assignment. We actually kind of marveled over his ability to line up the different blocks of paper so exquisitely, because none of them looked askew in the least.

So, 15 seconds on Google and we had the offending PDF (hence, I guess, the lack of virtual cut-and-paste) pulled up on my screen, every word, font, graphic, and design element a spot-on match. When confronted, this student admitted it outright but said he got the source document at work and didn’t know it had actually been published (as if this makes any difference at all).

Talk about dedication.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, and brought back a few memories from when I was teaching Freshman Comp. I didn't experience anything quite as intensive (or as hilarious) as those train-wrecks, but I do remember a linebacker turning in a paper on Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, which basically consisted of "Martin Luther King once gave the following speech"... followed by large excerpts from the speech, some of which were in quotes, some of which weren't. I had to give him an F, o' course (although I hated to hang an F on MLK's great words... it felt like sacrilege, but under the circumstances, what could I do?) but I didn't nab him for plagiarizing, even though he did. I used it as a "training issue" 'cuz I honestly don't think this guy knew what plagiarizing was. He was kind of like a room-temperature chunk of spam, really. Since I was pretty sure he wasn't trying to scam me, just didn't know how to write papers, I explained it all to him, and he did do better after that. Well... not better, his papers were still awful, but at least he didn't plagiarize.

    The cut & paste guy I almost have to admire the stupidity of... it's like trying to make a term paper the way ya make a zine! He should've thrown in a few pictures while he was at it.

    Oh, I noted the change-of-handle and edited a mention in my last blog post to reflect that... :)