May 13, 2011
How Tough Should We Be on Student Cheats?
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

In my semiannual quest to avoid grading, yesterday afternoon I happened upon the article "Student Cheats and Those Who Harbor Them," in the Journal of Legal Education.  Michael J.Z. Mannheimer gives his take over at Prawfs.  Whether or not you find it gripping reading probably depends on whether you've confronted a plagiarism or cheating case before. I have, early in my teaching career.

Much of the account of "Sue D. Naim" (get it?) reads like a Kafka novel--she's visiting at another institution, she's not sure of what to do, she decides on an informal resolution (giving the student, "Dani," an F but not reporting the cheating).  Dani is not at all contrite, but instead denies the cheating and threatens to sue. "Sue" agonizes over what to do, and ultimately caves in and gives the student a D. 

I was shocked by this outcome, probably because of my own reaction when confronted with the issue.  I hesitated very little before reporting the plagiarism.  I felt then, and continue to feel, that the fairest treatment is to report all incidents.  Otherwise, the vagaries of individual professor's mercy determines how harsh a particular penalty is. That just seems wrong to me.

One part of Sue's account rang true, though:

These were stressful days; it was hard to believe just how personally I took the incident. It wasn't just something that happened in the world that I was analyzing as an abstract moral dilemma; it happened to me, and was an emotional maelstrom. I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself, feeling disappointed in my pedagogy for failing to reach Dani, feeling frustrated that I had not written a better exam on which it would have been harder to cheat, and feeling tremendous anger at Dani for having put me in this situation. And yet I also continued to see myself as Dani's protector from an uncertain and potentially devastating fate. 

The plagiarism case hit me hard, and I spent what in retrospect was an inordinate amount of time wondering if I should have caught it earlier, if I had somehow signaled that I was an easy grader or easily duped.  And I worried about being "too harsh" or "too lenient"--ultimately, that's why I felt most comfortable taking it to the administration.

Personally I'm pretty hawkish on plagiarism, but maybe I'm too harsh?  Water-cooler-type discussions I've had recently suggest that perhaps some students come to law school genuinely not understanding what it means to plagiarize.  Lyrissa Lidsky suggests as much in a comment to Michael's post--and says "When I teach seminars, I state very clearly in my syllabus that lack of originality is grounds for a failing grade. Then I have a session, with handouts, on plagiarism."  I wonder what others do and, if they have encountered plagiarism or cheating, if it's been stressful for them as well?

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