Even on vacation, it’s been impossible to avoid hearing about Melania Trump’s (or probably more accurately, one of Donald Trump’s staffers’) faux pas last night at the Republican National Convention. Mrs. Trump apparently lifted some lines directly from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, amounting to what most would call plagiarism.

I hopped on Facebook this morning to see that a colleague of mine had made a joke about how Mrs. Trump would have been disciplined harshly for this at our school. When I facetiously added that I would allow for a rewrite first, I was shouted down by colleagues who said they would, in essence, throw the book at Mrs. Trump if she had been one of their students. Reasons given included that with over 100 students, “Nobody has time for that” and “In my department we don’t ‘play.'”

If you read my blog you know that I don’t write about my own personal experiences for confidentiality reasons but rather use this space as a way to examine ideas, trends, and issues in school discipline. But I will use this online parley as a way to bring up some bigger ideas about school discipline as relates to plagiarism.

First, let’s talk about why plagiarism is “bad” in the first place, something we always assume but perhaps don’t talk about. Here are some reasons I came up with:

  1. By not doing the work themselves, the student lost out on a important learning opportunity
  2. By passing off someone else’s work as their own, the student showed that they don’t understand how to credit others’ work legitimately
  3. By passing off someone else’s work as their own, the student engaged in dishonest behavior
  4. By passing off someone else’s work as their own, the student showed that they don’t understand that “in the real world” you can’t get away with that

I get the feeling, and I could be wrong, that those who would “throw the book” at a student are more concerned with 3 and 4 than with 1 and 2. But if you believe, as I do, that every aspect of schooling should be “educative,” that even when disciplining students we must be oriented toward teaching them, than it’s fair to question whether by leveling harsh punishments at plagiarizers we are actually effecting any new learning at all.

To get to that point, we should think about why students might plagiarize in the first place. Here are all the possible reasons I could come up with:

  1. I didn’t know how to write the paper or what to write, so I copied and pasted something else because I didn’t want to ask for help
  2. I didn’t know how to write the paper or what to write, so I copied and pasted something else because I didn’t want to get a bad grade
  3. I could have written the paper but I didn’t want to because it was boring/uninteresting, so I copied and pasted something else because I didn’t want to get a zero or a bad grade
  4. I could have written the paper but I didn’t want to because the teacher probably wasn’t going to read it anyway, so I copied and pasted something else
  5. I could have written the paper but I didn’t want to because my teacher is an idiot and won’t even notice anyway, so I copied and pasted something else

In my first year of teaching, I had a major plagiarism case. I still remember the first emotions that came to me: anger at being betrayed, anger at the student for thinking I would not notice, anger about the follow-up work that I would now have to do.

I slapped the source material on the student’s desk (it was easy to find on Google) and said something along the lines of “Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?” I remember feeling very righteous and glad that I was able to see the student’s response face to face.

Well, I am embarrassed now thinking about this, and I should be. There was absolutely nothing I did that made the student

  1. less likely to plagiarize in the future (unless you believe the punishment he received [an F and a mandate to rewrite the paper] ensured that he wouldn’t plagiarize again, and I certainly don’t believe that)
  2. more prepared for future writing assignments
  3. a better writer
  4. able to self-reflect to determine the reasons behind the plagiarism
  5. able to make amends and restore the damage to the student-teacher relationship.

I see now that I immediately jumped to #5 as the reason for the student’s plagiarism, without ever asking the student why he did it or what happened. With my negative emotions enflamed, I wouldn’t have gotten a clear answer at that point anyway. But if I had waited until my own personal hurt was under control, I would have been able to engage in a rational conversation to determine the underlying factors behind the plagiarism.

Based on the student’s responses, we could have come up with a plan to teach the student the skills necessary to accomplish goals A-E. Thinking back, the reason for plagiarism was almost certainly #1. The student didn’t care about grades (yet another reason why the grade-based punishment was ineffective), but had he been able to complete the assignment within a reasonable timeframe I suspect he would have. This student lagged severely in reading and writing ability.

Now, some of you will say, But you aren’t holding the student accountable. I disagree. I would absolutely hold the student accountable for making restitution, both in the form of rewriting the paper (with guidance), and restoring the teacher-student relationship. I would also work with the student on building skills to But what about the student’s grade? Surely you can’t give the student full credit. No, but only because most other teachers in the school would give an automatic failing grade and inconsistency of consequences among teachers is unfair to the community. And also because for the 90% of kids who don’t plagiarize, having the possible penalty in place is enough to keep them from transgressing. (That being said, as a teacher of writing, do you really want fear of consequences to be the reason students don’t plagiarize? What does that say about your hopes for their intrinsic investment in your assignments?)

But, this student needs to be taught a lesson, you say. Absolutely. And the student will be taught multiple lessons, in

  • what to do when you don’t understand how to do an assignment effectively OR what to do when you legitimately don’t have time to do an assignment right
  • how to make amends when your actions harm your relationship with someone else in the community

But no, they won’t learn the lesson you are thinking of: that when you do something wrong, bad things happen to you. And that’s because that “lesson” isn’t a real thing; all of the research I’m familiar with shows that harsh punishments (devoid of teaching) not only do not teach students not to step out of line again, but they actually breed resentment in the punished student and make it more likely the student will seek to exact revenge on the punisher.

(I won’t even get into the fact that when many students plagiarize on a single assignment, that often says more about the assignment than the students.)

So, if you consider yourself “old school” about things like this, then you might think I’m “soft” on punishments for plagiarizers. But I don’t think I am. I’m just trying to make a distinction between punishments that make us feel better because we got retribution on the offending student and consequences that actually address the problem and teach the student.

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