Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Play and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book prize for fiction. A book of Chinese stories, Hsi-wei Tales, is forthcoming.
If, to be polite, I have to sit through a film directed by a sadist, I usually can. I may even manage to watch one of those medical shows on TV, though I would rather take a walk. If courtesy demands it, I will grit my teeth and tolerate moronic comedies, self-righteous message movies, films pandering to cheap romantic fantasies, a while hour of a pretentious three-part European epic. I will find something of value in each. We all have our limits, though.
There is one kind of plot I find repugnant. I have an almost physical aversion to any story about a false accusation, one in which a character is innocent but unable to prove it, a frame-up story. I recoil. I will put down the book, shut off the TV, make for the exit. This sort of story has always distressed me but, until recently, I didn’t think deeply about why. As people do, I fastened on an explanation to my credit. I figured I was so ethically sensitive to all the genuine injustice in the world that a made-up story about it was insupportable. But this notion is as sloppy as it is vain. It wasn’t injustice in general that triggered my antipathy, but a specific form of it—the false, unanswerable charge. Now, by prying open the coffin of a buried memory, I think I’ve dug up the source of these feelings.
I was twelve years old when I began eighth grade in one of Philadelphia’s last K–8 public schools. Such institutions preserved innocence and extended naïveté, at least mine did. The move to a suburban junior high school the next year was a shock. It was if I had been plucked from a Victorian village and plunked down in the world of Al Capone. The teachers at my elementary school—all women—were old-fashioned in the finest sense. I’ve occasionally speculated on what their lives might have been if they’d been born a couple of decades later. They were upright, smart, dedicated, self-sacrificing, decent, capable, scrupulous, and idealistic. Mostly, I’d say they were pure of heart and, especially in the lower grades, unfailingly kind. They liked us children without being unduly sentimental about it. Their classes were as large as their salaries were low. These were women without many options. Some had done war work and were more or less forced into the classroom when the men returned. While waiting for marriage they had gone to teachers’ colleges, taking their fathers’ advice to “have something to fall back on.” All were worthy of respect; one was a local legend.
Miss Willard taught eighth-grade English. My mother, a PTA member who organized annual fund-raising drives by having us hawk Bachman pretzels to all our relatives and childless neighbors, was in awe of Miss Willard. I was about seven when she said, “When she was your age, Miss Willard’s father made her read The Congressional Record and discuss it with him every morning over breakfast.” What impressed me at the time wasn’t The Congressional Record (was it music?) or even the weirdness of Miss Willard’s father but by my mother’s hushed tone of admiration. I also remember her saying that, if Miss Willard only had the chance, she could have been a member of Congress herself—then adding “or even President” followed by a pre-feminist laugh. My mother implanted in me a high opinion of Miss Willard long before I became her student. When I was in the lower grades, I had seen her around the school. As I remember it, she always dressed the same, like the Lone Ranger and Little Orphan Annie. She wore a severely tailored navy-blue suit and her hair was just like Lois Lane’s. No one actually bowed to Miss Willard but there was something distinctively deferential about how everybody moved out of her way. Respect is a blend of love and fear. No one ever made fun of Miss Willard, or even thought of doing so, which is remarkable considering the mean and mocking proclivities of pre-pubescent children. This impeccably tailored and fastidiously groomed woman with her intelligent face and ramrod posture exuded an almost military air, as if she would have handled the job of drill sergeant with as much competence and aplomb as being as President, or an eight-grade public schoolteacher. Miss Willard was set apart by her appearance, erudition, self-confidence, posture, and also by her unmarried state, by being a “Miss.” The rest of our teachers were either married or widows and almost all had children of their own. But, like Queen Elizabeth the First, Miss Willard seemed impregnable. Later, when I was in her class, I found that she also spoke differently from the other teachers. Her enunciation was studied (no “j” in “education” for her) and her diction high-flown (“Procrastination is the thief of time, and you must always eschew it.”). When it came to grammar, she was, of course, an absolutist and taught us by a kind of Pavlovian conditioning. Miss Willard is to blame for my inability ever to split an infinitive, to end a sentence with a preposition, and for shivering when others do. I know now that, while there are rules governing language, if lots of people violate one of them often enough, the mistake ceases to be a mistake. Still, the rule is my default and this is why I have to pull so hard against the anchor of Miss Willard’s conservatism to get with it, grit my teeth and accept “they” as a singular pronoun or “alright” as a passable spelling of “all right.”
When I learned at the end of seventh grade that I would be Miss Willard’s student the coming September, I felt lucky, that I had been granted a privilege. I looked forward to a year with the extraordinary woman I’d heard extolled for years. And, as I was going to be taught by the best, I wanted to do my best. I had no thought of distinguishing myself; I was only anxious not to fall too far below the lofty standards of the famously formidable Miss Willard.
She assigned us a paper the first week, right off the bat. It’s a long time since I was twelve years old and I can’t recall the topic or requirements. What I do remember is working harder on that paper than I ever had at writing anything before. It was, after all, for Miss Willard.
The papers were due on Friday and returned one by one on Monday. We were to step up to the desk and be handed our papers each of which would have a grade and a set of comments. Miss Willard sat behind her desk and called our names, which she had yet to learn. When she called mine, I stepped forward, but she didn’t give me my paper. Instead, she leaned over the desk said in a low but firm voice—a loud whisper--that she wanted to see me after school. If she was trying to be discreet, she wasn’t successful. “You must be in bad trouble with Miss Willard,” somebody said at lunch, then laughed. I was bewildered and had to wait three more hours for school to be over. Was I going to be singled out for praise? Was I being thoughtfully spared the embarrassment of a public commendation? Or was something really wrong with the paper—a split infinitive, a sentence ending with “with,” some horrible stupidity or other?
At three-thirty the bell finally rang, and everybody streamed out of the building into the early September sun. I trudged alone through empty halls to face Miss Willard, unsure if what was going to happen would be good or bad.
She was at her desk, writing. She put down her fountain pen, told me to come forward, and picked my paper up with her thumb and forefinger, holding it away from her as if it smelled. She sat frighteningly upright and looked disgusted.
“You didn’t write this paper.”
I stood before her, shocked, shrunken, an insect, my stomach filling with something sour and black.
Years later, when I discovered Kafka, I had no trouble at all identifying with Gregor Samsa and Joseph K.
“But I did write it.” That was all I had.
“No,” she declared with such unshakable confidence that it shook mine. “It’s too good, too correct. Who wrote it for you?”
“Well, did someone help you?” I could hear the quotation marks around “help.” (By the way, Miss Willard is also responsible for my having just written out “quotation marks” and not just “quotes.” I can still hear her: “Remember the parts of speech. Quote is not a noun. Quote is a verb.”)
“Nobody helped me,” I said helplessly.
It was how sure she was that took my breath away. The only thing I could do was deny the charge and this made things worse.
“Now you have compounded the crime of plagiarism with that of lying,” she said, her voice as controlled as ever, but rising.
This was the first time I heard the word plagiarism. It is an odd term for stealing words. It derives from the Latin for kidnapper. The credit for inserting it into the English language usually goes to Ben Jonson. In 1601, during a time when English poets were enriching the language on a daily basis, Jonson charged a writer who had swiped somebody else’s work with “plagiary.” A good classical scholar, Jonson probably knew that Martial introduced the term into Latin sixteen hundred years earlier when he accused a rival of “kidnapping” his work. It’s puzzling that Martial didn’t choose one of the many Roman words for thief: fur, cleptor, contrectator, ereptor, etc. After all, a poet who makes off with another’s verses is unlikely to be holding them for ransom.
There is no law against plagiarism. It is not a crime like, say, infringement of trademarks or attempted murder. District attorneys don’t prosecute plagiarists, but institutions do, especially academic ones, where plagiarism is close to a capital offense—or was once.
Martial and Jonson notwithstanding, plagiarism was pretty common before copyright laws were adopted and enforced. The first such law wasn’t enacted until 1710 and it appears to have taken most of a century to catch on. We tend to think originality was always highly valued, and protected, but this is an error. Renaissance authors routinely rifled Italian, French, and each other’s work. The prizing and praising of originality really began with the Romantics who valued novelty, personal vision, and solitary genius. It was when originality became a cardinal virtue that plagiarism became a mortal sin.
I suppose the effect on me of Miss Willard’s accusation was hard to hide. I probably mope, visibly despondent and embittered. In the end, my mother wormed the story out of me and then intervened. I don’t care to imagine the mixture of indignation, protectiveness, timidity, and chagrin with which she had to address a woman she revered, one whose intellect and life she may have judged superior to her own. Whatever happened at that conference, we never spoke of it. But I can’t help feeling that, though my mother’s intercession averted a failing grade, it didn’t really change Miss Willard’s mind. All she agreed to was not to give the paper an F, or any grade at all. What did improve her opinion of me was my subsequent work, none of which she challenged. Miss Willard gave me high grades but she never apologized. I would like her to have felt remorse; I would like to believe she reproached herself for neglecting Aristotle’s point that character is revealed only over time, by habitual choices. Anyway, though Miss Willard’s charge of plagiarism evaporated, the feelings it provoked in me did not. And I believe that’s why I can’t stand frame-up stories—except for the very best ones, like Kafka’s Trial.
By simply staying in school, in the fullness of time I found myself on the other side of the desk. I too assigned papers and so have to deal with plagiarism. When caught, students usually ascribe what they did to stress (“I had a calculus exam and a presentation in organizational management”) or peer pressure (“everyone was doing it”). I was to understand that their plagiarism had nothing to do with their character; it was just a one-off and not a way of life.
A plagiarized paper is a betrayal of the educational enterprise and, to a teacher, can feel like a personal one and, if the cheating is particularly obvious, an insult as well. I’m not soft on plagiarism. I sympathize Miss Willard’s righteous anger; however, suspicion isn’t enough to support a charge, nor is excellence always suspicious. I won’t act unless I can adduce some sort of evidence. This evidence doesn’t have to be a Wikipedia page. Often, it’s enough to ask students a few questions about what’s in their papers. For example, a student submitted an essay on a Shaw play which included a lengthy, sophisticated, detailed and not particularly relevant section on commedia dell’arte. Instead of grading the paper, I did as Miss Willard had and asked him to come to an office hour and to bring his essay. We spoke a bit about the Shaw play before I asked him what commedia dell’arte was. He made the kind of face people do when suddenly confronted by a non sequitur and said rather huffily, “I have absolutely zero idea what you’re talking about, Professor.”
Plagiarism can be serious business; it can also be real business. Students buy papers and sell them. Even before the Internet, there were companies that would provide them. One local outfit had different prices for papers they calculated would receive a C, a B, or an A.
Then there are potential fees for attorneys. I’ve sat on panels convened to conduct formal hearings on contested charges of plagiarism. It’s not unusual for expensive lawyers to be lurking outside the committee room, toting up billable hours, while waiting beside the fuming, affluent parents who hired them.
Some cases of academic kidnapping are memorable for being funny, others for being bizarre. The very first case I had to deal with as a new college instructor was one of the latter.
As a first-year instructor, I was hired to teach a literature course to first-year students. To keep my expectations within bounds, I reminded myself that just three months earlier they’d still been in high school and also that teaching freshmen is as much a job of demolition as construction. There are misconceptions that need demolition and bad habits to break, such as plagiarizing. I assigned the first paper, five pages on one of the short stories or Greek plays with which I began the course. I offered a wide range of topics, hoping one might inspire a good paper, also so that I’d get a variety to read. I received three papers on the same topic that were nearly word-for-word identical. I remember thinking of a famous sentence Thoreau wrote in his journal: “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
The school provided mail slots for students. When I returned the set of papers I put identical, Miss Willard-type notes in the slots of the three students who had submitted identical papers. “Please come to my office at 3 o’clock this afternoon.”
Within an hour, one of the students, the one with a bad conscience, appeared in the doorway. She had been crying and was clutching my note. I didn’t need to say a word; she was desperate to confess.
“I copied from Cliff’s Notes.”
She offered no excuses, nothing about having the flu or food poisoning, a bulimic roommate, a really, really hard stats exam. Nothing about her parents getting divorced or being dumped by her boyfriend. It was a brave confession and, as I’ve learned, rare and therefore valuable. I didn’t feel like moralizing let alone yelling at her; I wanted to comfort her. I would have liked to dispense absolution. But I didn’t.
I thanked her for coming forward, congratulated her on her superego, and explained the penalty I was bound to impose. I also asked her to come back at three o’clock, when two of her classmates would be joining us. “But please don’t say anything unless I ask you to. Okay?”
I prepared for the meeting by using a red pen to underline the common passages in the three papers and set three chairs opposite my desk, on which I laid the papers out side-by-side.
Come three p.m., the two students who had not confessed pretended to be flabbergasted. What an amazing coincidence, one said, that they should all have the same insights, correct and perceptive ones, too. “But,” I pointed out dryly, “it isn’t only the insights, is it? It’s also the words. Did you consult any outside sources that you neglected to cite, as the assignment required?”
Silence from the penitent, vociferous denials from the other two.
“Well,” I said, “Miss X. here has already told me that she copied these words from Cliff’s Notes. Isn’t that so, Miss X.?”
That was enough for one of the other cheaters who admitted that she too had cribbed from Cliff’s Notes. She had so much work and not enough time; everything was so much harder than it had been in high school that she was desperate, and so on. But the third young woman was adamant in denying that she had cheated. She was even indignant.
“I did not copy a single word of my paper from Cliff’s Notes.”
She had to be lying, yet she didn’t sound like she was.
I told the other two that they would get a zero for the assignment and that they could leave, which they promptly did.
I turned to the remaining student. “You’re quite sure you didn’t look at Cliff’s Notes?”
I pointed at the three papers. “How do you account for these, then?”
She shrugged. “I can’t.”
Ever since Socrates, one of the skills essential for teachers has been the ability, not to give students the correct answer, but to ask them the right question.
“All right. Let’s say you didn’t use Cliff’s Notes. Are you still insisting that you didn’t use any other source?”
She took a deep breath. Her tone changed. “Well, I was always taught to use the library. I did just glance at a book—but it wasn’t Cliff’s Notes.” Her tone suggested that Cliff’s Notes was beneath her.
“And did you perhaps take some words from this other book?”
Thoughtful pause, eyes cast upward, memory consulted. “I may have. I’m really not sure. Maybe I did and forgot to make a footnote. I guess it’s possible.”
“I see. Can you perhaps recall the title of this book at which you just glanced?”
She rifled through her backpack, extracted a notebook, and gave me both the title and author of the book she’d just glanced in the library.
Between classes the next day, I went to the university bookstore and took down the relevant Cliff’s Notes from the depressingly large display. I wanted to see if Cliff cited any sources for his cut-rate insights. Nope. Not a one.
Then I went to the library and found the book the third student had plucked from the stacks. Sure enough, it was the source plagiarized word-for-word by the anonymous author of Cliff’s cheat sheet, doubtless a member of the proletariat of the spirit, an embittered, untenured, underemployed, and vengeful Ph.D.
I had another notable case when I sat on a hearing board, a judge rather than a prosecutor. A colleague accused one of his students of submitting a paper on Russian history he was sure she hadn’t written, even though he could find no source from which she had cribbed. The paper was superior to her other work, he said, and written in a style nothing like anything else he had seen from her. She challenged the charge, allowing that the paper had fewer mechanical errors than her previous work because her roommate’s boyfriend had looked it over, but only for grammatical slips and typos. The paper itself, she insisted, was entirely her work.
The three of us on the board summoned the roommate’s boyfriend to appear with the accuser and his student.
The hearing began with the professor stating his case with determination, contrasting the essay to the student’s earlier papers. He provided us with copies. The student then repeated, with equal determination, that the paper was wholly hers and that it was outrageous that she should be accused of cheating just because her work had improved. We turned to the roommate’s boyfriend. He swore that he had done nothing beyond correcting a few minor errors. He did so in an English accent. In the paper, “civilization” had been spelled with an s, ‘honor” with a u, and “different from” was rendered as “different to.” The accusing professor either hadn’t noticed or neglected to mention these Anglicisms. But when the boyfriend swore he hadn’t written the paper, he committed the mistake of gilding the lily. He added that he couldn’t have written the paper because, being a public relations major, he knew zilch about Russian history.
We adjourned, promising a decision by the following day. We were inclined to believe that the paper was written by the roommate’s boyfriend but wanted to be scrupulously fair. Could the Britishisms be accounted for by the proofreading? Improbable, not impossible. Then a colleague and I had the same idea. We accessed the Registrar’s website and checked the Englishman’s transcript. He was indeed a P.R. major, but only since the start of that semester. Prior to that, his declared concentration had been history, and the last course he had taken in that discipline, only months before, was titled Twentieth-Century Russian History.
A pair of Asian students were accused of exchanging answers on an examination. The professor said that he had seen them collaborating and showed us that all their incorrect answers were identical. They didn’t deny copying from one another. Their defense was based on ethical relativism, an argument as sophistical as the Sophists it echoed. “In our culture, unlike here in the West, the group comes before the individual. In our country, not to share answers on an examination would be called counter-revolutionary.” The argument was clever and certainly politically provocative. It was also unsuccessful.
Of course, plagiarizing is not a practice limited to stressed, lazy, or dishonest college students. Award-winning novelists, distinguished historians, rock musicians, journalists, and a slew of politicians (even their wives) have been caught at it. Plagiarism is, after all, time-saving, not illegal, and, in a pinch, can be defended as homage rather than theft. Plagiarists are frequently absolved by the public, especially if they are accomplished and popular. Of all institutions, though, it is the academy that is least forgiving.
Not too many years ago, a dean of a communication school had to resign after delivering a commencement address largely reproducing, without attribution, a journal article written by a film critic. The dean admired the article. In fact, he had copies made and distributed them to his faculty in advance of commencement. However, in his speech (or “his” speech), the dean neglected to mention the author who actually wrote most of it. Ironically, the title of the kidnapped article was “Popular Culture and the War Against Standards.” The dean’s violation of standards might have gone unnoticed—as it was apparently ignored by his faculty—but for the vanity of selling graduates videotapes of the address. Apparently, one of the purchasers came across the rifled article and phoned a reporter. A freshman plagiarizing is hardly newsworthy; a dean doing the same thing can wind up in the New York Times, which is what happened. The dean’s defense was that he intended to credit the author of the article; if he hadn’t, he would hardly have given it out to his faculty. He said he simply forgot, being fatigued by the hectic preparations for commencement. But he was a dean at a research university. As he had academic tenure and was a personal friend of the university’s president, he was compelled to resign his administrative post but not fired. On the contrary, the president created a new research center and appointed the disgraced dean its head. I’m not sure whether the job came with a raise or not.
Apropos standards, there is always a question as to how to judge their violation. The dean wanted that he be judged by his intention, not his action. Students routinely express the same wish, declaring that they did not mean to cheat. I am in principle and practice in sympathy with the desire to be judged by more than just the facts and the law. Intent does matter. In dealing with undergraduates, I find that where there is no intention to deceive there is also no plagiarism. For example, quite a few students will include in their bibliographies the very works from which they have copied passages without bothering with quotation marks or citations. This is more usually an occasion for instruction than prosecution.
As with most moral judgments, in coping with plagiarism professors can choose between two general methods. The first is legalistic and pretty simple. It can be applied after getting answers to two questions: Is this your work? If not, did you cite the source? Judging by intention is not less simple and carries obvious risks. But the two methods don’t exclude one another. If there were no rule against plagiarizing, there would be no reason to examine someone’s motives for violating it. The legalistic approach is rigid but has the virtues of objectivity and equity. Trying to determine intent introduces a subjective element and, with it, the potential for prejudice, favoritism, susceptibility to tears, special pleading, or threats. But the legalistic approach might also be unfair by ignoring meaningful distinctions; it can be equitable yet unjust. Either way, then, there is the danger of making a mistake and, given my indelible experience with Miss Willard, if I’m in doubt I’m reluctant to accuse and, when I must, deeply saddened.
There is another reason many professors are reluctant to go after plagiarists, even when they have compelling evidence. This is that the procedures one has to follow, carefully crafted by university lawyers, have grown elaborate and time-consuming. Plus, there is always the risk that a well-funded student may file a lawsuit. The incentives are against enforcing the rule against plagiarism. I know some professors who, burned by a bad experience, hung out to dry by administrators, have entirely given up. However, to blink at plagiarism is to let corruption seep into the system, to undermine its integrity of education and one of its chief purposes. Any college student caught cheating who claims that this was the first time they’ve ever done such a thing is almost certainly lying.
Plato pointed out that it is better for a cheater to be caught and corrected than to get away with it. A bad grade will lower your GPA but successful cheating will hollow out your soul and eventually become a way of life. Like any other cancer, a moral tumor that isn’t cut out is apt to spread.
As the trauma of an unjustified accusation can have a lifelong effect, so can failing to receive a just one.