Learning my way through teaching part 4: UGH. Plagiarism is the absolute worst

101 as a Teaching Associate. This becomes an option for all grad students once we complete at least one year of tutoring in the writing center while assisting in an English class. Each student must apply and interview, then the qualified are offered a class during the fall and spring semester. This blog series follows me through my first semester of teaching and each blog post features a specific topic or issue I came across as a new instructor. 

When I first started writing this journal entry, I only had one case of plagiarism occur in my class. However, the count is up to two. Where to begin? I guess the best place to start would be to tell you that I didn’t expect to feel as bummed as I actually feel. My mentor told me not to take it personal, but I did at first. I’ve never done it myself (unless you count the time when I was in second grade and wrote out most of Charlotte’s Web, but I digress), and as an English major, it’s pretty much equal to treason, so I didn’t consider the way in which I would feel when I discovered one of my students doing it.

So what did I learn from this experience?

First, that my ability to spot plagiarism is spot on. It’s kind of creepy, but true. Since I had already read the first student’s writing in Essay #1, I knew within the first few lines that I was not reading her writing, her thoughts. As a student, I never doubted my instructor’s ability to spot plagiarism, but I just never thought I would be able to do the same. I was wrong. If you are a brand new instructor, a tutor, or an assistant, don’t doubt your abilities. If you are a student – don’t doubt your professor’s ability to spot plagiarism. It’s not worth your grade.

Secondly, I learned that plagiarism is often not an “act of evil” but rather an act of desperation. Sure, I felt like I was being cheated, but ultimately both of the students I confronted were panicking, insecure in their writing, and stressed out. I think that people often forget the fact that the traditional student is not-so-traditional any more. These students are working full-time, caring for family members, or the student is an athlete and feels the pressure from both academia and athletics. They are young so they have yet to master real time management skills. Does this excuse the act of plagiarism? Of course not. However, it does allow us (me) to see the issue, not as a criminal act, but as a cry for help.

The impact of the plagiarism from the two students, regardless of how or why they cheated had a major impact overall on the class because of the gamification element. Not only were the individual students impacted from receiving zeros on their assignment, but also the entire class’s standing was affected dramatically. I’d like to think that the added guilt these students might have felt in affecting the entire class rather than just themselves will influence them positively next time they think about plagiarizing.

Overall, going through this experience with my two students taught me the importance of recognizing and applauding their small writing successes, being available to them for coaching, and to be very specific in my future writing assignment instructions. Heading into my second semester of teaching, I will be ready should (when) this occurs.

Next Up: Why I still want to teach.

Dianna graduated from California State University, Fullerton with her Bachelor of Arts in English in May 2015 and is remaining at the university to complete her Master of Arts in English. Once she finishes her degree she plans on teaching college-level English and literature at a community college. As a mother of three while attending college, Dianna works to balance her school and family life but finds great joy in both. She most recently published her own book, College Success for Moms.