The 6 Stages of Plagiarism Aftermath

December is my favorite month of the school year: units are wrapping up, students are more cheerful (and unruly), teachers display a renewed sense of camaraderie, and days of freedom from responsibilities beckon warmly. Although the month is filled with the agony of finalizing and grading heaps of exams, a small part of me rejoices in these stressors; there is light at the end of the long, dark wormhole that has been the fall semester.

This year, I was dismayed to discover plagiarism halfway through the frenzied circle of hell that is Grading Essays. Dismayed isn’t the right word for it. . . . No; I was aggrieved. Discouraged. Infuriated. Insulted. Exasperated.

I was freaking pissed off.

People who aren’t professors, English majors, or lovers of literature and writing often approach the topic of plagiarism with a “So, what?” mindset. Some laugh and say, “Shoot, if I hadn’t plagiarized, I wouldn’t have made my way through college!” Others say, “Well, it’s not a big deal if there’s just a little plagiarism, right?”

Right. Just like it’s not a big deal if I only stab someone with a knife . . . a little bit. Right? And it’s not a big deal if I steal candy from the thrift store . . . if I only take a little bit. Right?

I was raised to believe that cheating of any kind is intolerable. Same goes for theft. So when I learned about plagiarism in grade school, I took the crime very seriously. Plagiarism is both cheating and stealing. It’s the holy grail of intellectual offenses.

In high school and college, I knew several of my classmates plagiarized often and without reserve. Their crimes were distant, though; I viewed these peers as idiots and cheats, and dismissed the issue at that. Now that I’m a teacher, though, the problem has become personal.

When a student plagiarizes, he or she doesn’t just commit the heinous theft of intellectual property. That student plunges a metaphorical dagger into the back of his or her teacher and twists it with a sharp wrench of the wrist. Allow me to provide an example of the 6 Stages of Plagiarism Aftermath teachers may experience:

  1. Disbelief. First, the teacher blinks at the text a few times. She may rub her eyes for good measure, close the document and open it again, run it through the plagiarism checker one more time, and/or take a swig from a mug of coffee/tea/Pepsi that is nearby — whatever’s handy, of course.
  2. Fury. Next, she begins to shake. The tremors start in her hands, which are twisted tightly in her lap, and spread throughout her body until even her bowels are quaking with rage. Her skin may also begin to adopt varying shades of red.
  3. Grief. She’s just realized either these offenders A) are very stupid; or B) believe that she is very stupid. She’s not sure which is accurate; possibly both. This time, she reaches for the coffee and chugs.
  4. More rage. At this point in time, there is nothing the teacher would like more than to scream at the offending student. Instead, she vents to any and all teachers that will listen. Other victims of these rants may include spouses, family members, non-teacher friends with high moral standards, strangers, and pets.
  5. Anxiety. By now, the teacher has alerted school administration about the crime. (Let’s call it like it is, shall we?) She would like to bring the full force of the law upon the plagiarist, but now she begins to tremble with apprehension, rather than anger.
    1. She will be questioned. Did you teach the students about plagiarism? Are you sure this is plagiarism? Are you sure they knew what they were doing was wrong?
    2. She will be challenged. Why can’t I redo the assignment? This was my first offense. Don’t I get a second chance? What about So-and-So? They told me they copied their essay! Did they get in trouble?
    3. She will be denigrated by students and parents. This is such bullshit. She didn’t teach the material. She didn’t help me enough. She didn’t do her job.
  6. Normalcy. Eventually, the teacher will return to a state of mental well-being. This will likely come after a few days of heartburn and anxiety-vomiting, once the students have been dealt with and tempers have subsided a bit.

Plagiarism isn’t simply the trampling of the soul of another writer’s work. No, that is not the only crime committed when a student commits this type of theft. When students plagiarize, they also gut their teachers, who so often feel a certain amount of responsibility, despite their lack of involvement in the decision-making process to cheat/steal.

When a student plagiarizes, I am left wondering: If students knew of the mental turmoil these choices caused their teachers . . . would they think twice?

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This public service announcement has been brought to you by a highly disgruntled English teacher.

I’m taking it personally.

In first grade, a kid from Cassoday (accidentally) tripped me as I hustled (perhaps more quickly than I needed to) from my desk to the trash can, empty chocolate milk carton in hand.

I was clad in a white, fringed and embellished Western-style shirt — my favorite — because it was picture day. I was excited, for three quite understandable reasons: 1) we’d just finished snack time; 2) it was nearly 3:30; and 3) I’d smiled my biggest grin ever — showcasing my complete and utter lack of front teeth. I knew Mom and Dad would be super-mega-ultra proud of that grin, so naturally, I was in a hurry.

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My face connected with the desk like a magnet had drawn the object and I together, and in moments, blood was gushing down my chipmunk cheeks and onto that remarkably white V-neck. Naturally, my first reaction was: Holy shit! That’s a lot of blood! (sans the expletive; I was only seven, guys) and then — I caught sight of  Cassoday-kid.

You know those movie clips in which a major character narrows his/her eyes and looks at another character/object/animal and the camera zooms in on that dirty look, so nobody misses it? Yeah. That happened.

It suddenly became clear to me, as I glowered (and hyperventilated/cried upon a stool in the boys’ bathroom, which was [mortifyingly] closest for my bleeding-like-a-stuck-pig self): Cassoday-kid had tripped me on purpose, duh. Any fool in his right mind could have seen I was in a hurry to get to the trash can. His foot was obviously intentionally placed in my direct path.

That all went down about 20 years ago, and I’m still half-certain I was tripped purposely. Of course, being the reasonable adult that I clearly am, I’ll pretend to lean more toward certainty that it was all an accident, caused primarily by my own haphazard hurrying; but deep down…that’s another story, folks. I took it personally. I used my woman-brain to twist this relatively innocent experience into a grudge-worthy personal attack.

In fact, over the past two decades, I’ve taken personal offense to comments, sideways glances, Tweets, jokes made by siblings, memes, blog posts, gum on my shoe . . . You name it, I’ve taken personal offense to it, as if the person saying/doing any given thing said/did the thing as a direct criticism of myself. Do I realize this is a completely irrational line of thinking? Absolutely. Is it something I continue to do? Most def.

As a third year teacher, I struggle most with this particular aspect of myself, which doesn’t lend itself well to my career. I work with a horde of angst-y teenagers who — more often than not — blame anyone other than themselves for shortcomings. The ability to connect actions (or lack thereof) to consequences is not something they’ve mastered quite yet. Examples:

  • It’s my fault my students did poorly on a test, despite the fact that they didn’t complete the reading, or failed to do their practice homework, or talked over me during class, or refused to participate in class discussions.
  • I’m mean because I sent students out to the hallway — because they didn’t complete the chapter we would be discussing in class.
  • I’m unfair because I gave students homework over a holiday break — because they didn’t finish any of their reading homework assignments, so we had to read over break in order to finish the book before the end of the semester.

Get the picture?

Deep down, I know that my students enjoy me; at least, most of them do. But at the surface level? I’m an insecure 26-year-old, floundering about the halls of a high school in memories of my own horrific high school experience, berating myself for every little detail my students find to criticize me about. I sometimes want to shout, “Hey! I hear you! I’m taking it personally!”

I’m aware that students’ brains are still developing. I know that their hormones are raging, and their emotions . . . terrifying. I know that they’re trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, the careers they want to obtain, the next color they’ll dye their hair, why their parents don’t come to school events, where their next meals will come from, why their best friends are no longer talking to them, how math and letters can possibly exist in the same world . . . and yet . . .

I’ve got feelings, too.