At first I didn’t notice it: that she referred to Neal Cassady by name in her essay about “Howl,” though he is never explicitly mentioned in the poem. How did she know N.C. was Neal Cassady? Was there a footnote? Another sentence, and I began to pray silently that, even though the assignment said not to, she had done some outside research. Did I mention this stuff about the Beats in class, maybe? As I turned to the second page of her essay, the sheet of paper suspended in air between my two fingers, the truth twinged in my gut.
The words were not Amanda’s. I knew the essay wasn’t hers, the way I knew Caleb’s story about spending the night in jail was true but Mikell’s story about strep throat was a lie. Teachers sometimes know things, and I knew these words were not Amanda’s.
If I’d thought it all the way through, I would have felt sick thinking of the countless emails I’d have to send in the weeks ahead. I would’ve felt annoyed by the meetings I’d have to set up a mile across campus in the Undergraduate Affairs office and how I’d have to walk there in heels during my lunch break, barely leaving enough time to scarf down a granola bar before my next class. I would’ve resented the research and the four-color highlighting and the cross-referencing.
I would’ve hated the thought of sitting in my office after hours to prove Amanda was lying—that this paper didn’t belong to her.
But in the fifth paragraph of her essay, I didn’t think about any of that. Instantly, I grieved over the now-lost friendship we’d formed during her difficult semester. It was over the instant I realized her offense, and part of me wanted to undo my realization: turn backward to page one, unread the sentences someone else had written. I didn’t know right away that I would send her an email the next day telling her not to bother returning to my class because she was going to fail for the semester. All I knew was that whatever trust we had established was broken, and even though I hadn’t been the one to break it, I felt like the bad guy.
Plagiarism happens. But no matter how many times I encounter it, I can’t steel myself against that frigid feeling of regret. Could I have done something differently to prevent it? When I spoke with Amanda again, I would be resolute. I would act as if she hadn’t cried in my classroom over a dying friend two weeks before. I would pretend not to be the same professor who excused her from my midterm—a rare deviation from the terms of my syllabus—so she could drive home and tell that friend goodbye. I would tell her I was disappointed but that she left me no choices. I would act unfazed as she cried again, this time over her father’s predicted reaction. Surely students like Amanda could never guess that professors themselves feel all sorts of emotions when students plagiarize: betrayed, sad, angry, guilty. She probably thought I crossed her name off my class roll with the neutrality of the stranger I’d been to her a couple of months before. Another one bites the dust.
Or am I being naïve? Are students like Amanda betting on my feelings of guilt and grief as they copy and paste, rearranging clauses in a pitiful effort to escape detection? Could she have predicted that I would say that night to my husband, reading on the sofa, “This makes me so, so sad. I wish I could ignore it”—and that my husband would console me for having discovered her crime? Do students plagiarize more in classes in which they’ve developed a bond with the professor, hoping the bond will save them? Or—and I most fear this—do they form the bond with future indiscretions in mind?
Was there a friend dying back home?
Probably they consider none of this. Probably they plagiarize because they have a chemistry test and a graphic design project due the same day and because they stayed up late watching “Jersey Shore” but still need 2,500 words by 8:00 am. Most likely there is never a thought given to the person on the receiving end of that assignment, the one who will decide in a hearing whether the student deserves to fail the assignment, fail the class, or be expelled from the university.
Does that make me feel better—or worse?
The semester is now over, and I haven’t seen Amanda in months. I look her up on Facebook, relieved that in her photograph she is smiling. I wonder if her father was kind to her when she told him she failed my course.
I hope she is okay.
Lindsey Jones is a beauty junkie. prefers questions to answers. slightly more rebellious than she seems. bibliophile. classic middle child. pessimist, cynic, or realist? writer. editor. aspiring photographer, painter, foodie, and fifty-other-things. scared of the phone. loves snail mail. is unafraid to report bad service to the proper authorities. has a noisy brain. wants her children to have funny names. hangs out in coffee shops but hates coffee.