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Personal Essays

Illustration by Julia Sonmi Heglund

Cheater Cheater

Everyone remembers their first, especially English professors. A professor confronts a student he busted for cheating—and who caused him to completely rethink plagiarism.

She was a bright-faced first year from Hawaii, one of the more alert students in the writing class I was teaching at a university in the middle of Texas, a refreshing curiosity because of where she was from; she had opinions and could share them in class, and, as far as I could tell, was a decent writer. I never figured her as someone who was going to play me for a fool. She was a plagiarist. The first one I caught. The only one I punished.

Six years later, I got a magazine assignment to write about the lives of cheaters. No longer a professor, I tracked her down. How had her plagiarism resonated in her life?

“To be honest with you it has never left my mind and I do think about it often,” Haley (which isn’t her real name) told me in an email reply. Two weeks later, we were sitting across from each other at a Waffle House in Fort Worth, a tape recorder on the table. Back then, she never looked or acted like a punk, and she hadn’t changed much: her blonde hair in a ponytail, her eyelashes thick, her voice chirpy.

I asked her why she did it. Well, she explained, the due date to pass in a rough draft had snuck up on her, because her boyfriend had been in town. Her life wasn’t so great at the time. She’d just moved from Hawaii, and her parents were getting divorced. She was overwhelmed by college life, the giant campus, the partying. “I wasn’t very happy.”

With the boyfriend around, “I couldn’t ditch class, so I didn’t ditch class, but I kind of slipped off a lot of work that I had to do. Then he left, and the next day the paper was due. And so I thought, I can’t, all these things happening at once, a combination of things, all these things. I can’t, can’t do it! I cannot sit here and think about what I am going to write for this paper. My mind is not there.”

So she went online. (For historical reference, this would be Before Google, around 1997.) “I found that website, and I said, ‘This works! This is good! This is good enough!’ So I highlighted, I copied, and I pasted it into my paper and I read through it.” She insisted that she’d changed a few things. “I didn’t exactly copy and paste.” She paused, then reversed herself. “Ummm, but pretty much I did.”

She said that she told herself, “Honestly, I’m just going to do it for the first draft. The final paper will be completely different. Which—you know, it would have been, but you would have been, ‘What the heck? She’s gone in a totally different direction in this final paper.’”

“When you passed it in, did you know what you were doing?” I asked.

She nodded. “I knew. I was worried sick about it. I would pray: Please Lord, don’t let me get in trouble for this.”

“You prayed to God?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes!” she chirped. “For getting off a bad thing I did! Isn’t that terrible? That’s terrible.”

When Haley plagiarized, it was safer for me to act as a junior bureaucrat. I saw no other choice.

What she didn’t know was that I’d worked hard to come up with engaging writing assignments. This one was, find a real instance where a book is being banned somewhere in the U.S. and write to the person trying to ban it and persuade them why they shouldn’t. Making assignments plagiarism-proof wasn’t my first goal, but this one turned out that way. So while Haley was praying to God that I would slip into a temporary coma or orthographic fugue, I was noticing that she’d put her name on a traditional five-paragraph exegesis of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Suspicious, I put a few of lines into one of the archaic search engines we had back then, which produced the irrefutable evidence in a split second. I printed out a few pages, then called her on the phone, to serve justice.

“When you called me, I knew,” Haley recalled. “I told myself, he just wants to go over grades, but I knew. I was like, oh great.” The next morning we met in a departmental office where I confronted her with the evidence. An administrator served as witness so that procedures were followed, no bargains struck. I remember that my voice trembled—I was a little afraid that she’d fight the charge, which students had the right to do. Besides, my colleagues’ war stories often contained an indignant student and a muddle-headed administrator, perhaps a parent in denial. But Haley buckled, waiving her right to an appeal with a signature on a piece of paper. I told her I would give her an F on the paper, then we left.

“The walk home felt so terrible. I never felt like I was going to get back. I just wanted to be home and sit and—ugh. It was terrible.” She laughed, then sighed. “I cried the minute I got in my dorm room. My roommate asked, ‘How did it go?’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and I just started crying. Because I knew I was going to get in trouble for it and I was disappointed in myself.” Her roommate—the only person who knew about the cheating until years later, when Haley told her parents and her boyfriend—suggested that Haley write a letter of apology. “I didn’t want you to think terrible things about me,” she said.

She seemed especially ashamed for plagiarizing a draft. “I remembered, that was a draft. I was busted for cheating on a draft! You know?” She laughed. “A draft! Oh, well.”

 

Catching Haley, I felt triumphant. No fool, I. But powerful!

But between that triumph and our Waffle House meeting, more had happened to me than I could really describe to myself, much less to Haley. How, precisely, had working with hundreds of student writers changed me, as a teacher, a writer, a person? I’d seen them in five years’ worth of classes and in the writing clinic where I worked as a consultant. I saw them baffled by what teachers said they wanted (“compare and contrast ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’”), which often seemed to mask what they really wanted (“elegantly analyze these stories and compose, in formal prose, a well-supported argument that will not only engage the ambiguities without resolving them but delight and surprise me”). And over and over I saw how the nature of the institution and its agents reduced the complexity of student experience to neat bureaucratic decision trees (“Was the student intoxicated? If no, then refer to disciplinary committee. If yes, then refer to police”). One way to do this: make a moral issue out of a moment in a life, to graft a forking path (and therefore a high road not taken) onto a moment when there’d been no choice at all. Only later would I see such moments for what they were and try to wrest them back from the machine. But when Haley plagiarized, it was safer for me to act as a junior bureaucrat. I saw no other choice.

In the broader intellectual sphere, incidents of plagiarism skyrocketed in universities in the late 1990s, and some people reached for scapegoats like the Evil Internet. But others began to rethink plagiarism, not only what it was but what it meant that administrators and instructors reacted as they did. Rebecca Moore Howard, a professor at Syracuse University, sensed that her students were lifting sentences from published sources not because they were bad people or didn’t know how to cite things, but because they didn’t understand the texts they were reading well enough to synthesize them. Howard realized that what was monolithically labeled “plagiarism” by institutions was actually a bunch of activities. Some you could legitimately condemn. Some you could teach through. Others were culturally acceptable practices, even time-honored and literary ones. The students had simply done them awkwardly or badly. Howard advocated that policies on student authorship abandon the monolith and try to find students where they were, morally and cognitively.

Shortly before I pursued a career as a writer, in my last year of teaching at a small liberal arts college, I learned something that had been wide knowledge for about a decade: Martin Luther King, Jr., had plagiarized substantial portions of his doctoral dissertation. In the schools where I taught, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” were highly regarded, oft-taught pieces of rhetorical brilliance. His plagiarism? Never discussed. And the fact that his plagiarism was never discussed was never discussed. I hesitate to say that this influenced me, because a mention of King’s academic plagiarism is usually a tool used to discredit him and the movements he led. It’s also used to attack liberal academics, as if they’re unique in ignoring the moral fault of their heroes. To me it meant that there were contradictions about what we did and what we said in our culture about who we looked up to and who we made pay for our sins. It also meant that authorship and authoring were far more complicated than could be taught—I myself was about to see this, live it.

 

Haley told me she was afraid of writing the two papers remaining in our class together. “At first I didn’t really want to write—at first I didn’t want to go to class,” she said. From that semester, I remembered us talking a few times but always about what came next, not the past. She knew what a written sentence should be like and could put them together competently. As a speaker, she was better: direct, enthusiastic, confident. She could have been a classroom star, a student I’d remember fondly. Instead, after the plagiarism, to me she became a piece of furniture.

Later, she told me, she took a few other classes with writing assignments—she didn’t avoid such classes, but she was on guard. “Every paper I wrote after that was so careful, I never plagiarized on anything. People in my group said, let’s change it to make it work. You know how people will work on a paper and find a quote and need it to say something just a little bit different and they’ll kind of tweak it to make it work? And I was like, we’re not going to do that. I was a stickler about it. I was not going to get in trouble again.”

But what she couldn’t know was how I became more confident in spotting an opportunity to instruct, and less interested in policing boundaries.

After she left my class, Haley told me, she pledged a sorority, graduated in 2001 as a communications major, and worked as an accountant for a small oil company. Because she had a disciplinary file in the dean’s office, she decided against graduate school and didn’t take the GRE, though she was thinking about graduate school in business. More importantly, though, her self-image as a good girl had been crushed. Until recently she’d told no one her secret. “I felt bad,” she said. “You know? It wasn’t like me. To this day, it was not like me to do something like that. It says something bad about a person.” She laughed. “But I did it, and so I didn’t want anybody to know.”

Haley told her parents, after she graduated. (She said that her dad said, “People do it, it happens.” Which I find puzzlingly amoral. Like father, like daughter, perhaps.) She eventually told her boyfriend (not the one who visited her) years later, in a conversation about bad things they’d done in their lives. “I told him, and he was like, Wow. He was shocked. ‘That was really stupid,’ and I’m like, I know, I know it was really stupid. Thank you, I know that!”

“Did he have something to beat it?”

“He didn’t. He’s pretty good. Which makes me feel worse.”

 

Then it was my turn: I told Haley a bit about how her plagiarism had affected me. How I took it personally, and trusted students a little less; I made sure that assignments were plagiarism-proof. But what she couldn’t know was how I became more confident in spotting an opportunity to instruct, and less interested in policing boundaries—which were, after all, mine to teach. She also couldn’t know that at one point, I’d considered designing a course that would focus on rewriting, rephrasing, riffing, and appropriation as real tools of the writer’s trade. It wouldn’t teach anything that would get anyone in trouble, but unlike other writing courses, it would be honest about where ideas and language come from: well, who knows where they come from, but not from angelic transmissions into our minds.

I wanted to admit to her that it if I’d had more teaching experience, things might have turned out differently; that only later did I realize that, like her, I might have had other choices, too. I didn’t say it like this, and however I put it, she didn’t look too happy. But she didn’t say she wished for another outcome.

“You didn’t know what type of person I was. You did what you thought was right. It was your job to make sure I knew it was bad and not do it again.”

Amazing that her sense of right and wrong had remained so intact. Perhaps, I thought, she was putting this on? Telling me what I wanted to hear? In my mind, there was so much distance between our previous roles, but perhaps not so for her.

“Did you ever feel angry at me?” I asked.

“No.”

“Did you ever get pissed off?”

“No.”

You know, I said, I might have given you more time, or had you write a letter of apology, rather than the F on the paper. “Did you ever consider that there might have been other outcomes?” I asked.

What could she say? She’d been put through the machine. “Yeah,” she said, “you could have failed me in the class.”

So much for looking back together to see who we used to be. How long would it take for us to talk like two people, and not keep reverting to our old roles in the university’s machine? When she comes to interview me, I’ll know, maybe it’s now.

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TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard