talking 'bout p-p-plagiarism

As happens every now and again, I had the most blatant case of plagiarism turned in as a student essay today. The essay was cut and pasted from someone's blog. I'm sure my student found it by doing a Google search using Alexis de Tocqueville since we've been reading him this quarter and it was required that the students use a passage from Democracy in America to get their essay's argument off to a start.

I guess the good news is that I didn't feel so offended as I used to when students did this in the past. There was no overwhelming desire to get the student, though I did let him know he would be failing the class, and maybe worse if he were to challenge that decision. It's all so stupid though. I merely typed in four or five words and, boom!, only one hit, but it was the hit that counted. The only difference between what was submitted to me under my student's name and what was on the blog he stole it from was a slight variation in the title. Maybe he thought I'd only do a search based on the title. I don't know.

The thing is, plagiarism is so painfully obvious. As soon as I started reading I knew something was up. Not only was the voice of the paper not the student's, but it was as if the paper was written to be intentionally bad. The essay contained phrases such as "backwards political gain," "whether detached to this notion or not" and "The spotlight will once again branch in it multicultural diversity" and similar non sequitors.

The bad news is that in some ways it's my fault. Not that I can look the other way from such a blatant act, but the assignment may not have had the built in controls and expectations of the previous assignments that pretty much make it impossible to plagiarize and fulfill those expectations. However, it's not like the plagiarized essay did what my assignment calls for. I called for Aristotelian argument format and it was absent. I called for no more than two web sources and they were all from the web. I called for one of the print/database sources to have been published in the last six months and that didn't happen either. Previously the student incorporated Tocqueville in the introductions of his essays, as a spring board and this time it was in the paragraph just prior to the conclusion. So, maybe the assignment, in adhering to the letter of it, is not at fault. But maybe in the spirit. I'm just not sure.

I made a decision to do this particular assignment in lieu of one that is all but impossible to plagiarize, and that was an error on my part (but I still don't think that's an excuse at all). Had I gone with having the students compare how a topic is treated in a traditional (somewhat anyway) print/media source and the electronic source of their chosing (web, video, whatever) then it would have been all but impossible to round up some other student's essay and slap a new name on it. I'll be sure to avoid this mistake in the future, though I also have to say this is the first time I've had someone blatantly plagiarize on this assignment. However much I may be culpable, theft is theft is theft and that's what plagiarism is. And that's why a student failed my course today.