How to Catch a Plagiarist!

I already know who my A students are out of 11 as we lurch into Day Five out of 30 days of course instruction for Summer Session One. I have five more weeks to find out who my B and C students are and hopefully none will fail.  Unless, of course, I catch them in plagiarism which I have sternly warned them to not even try it with me.  I usually can easily detect the plagiarists.  They try to lazily get by among those who are more honest enrolling to LEARN how to improve their writing. A genuine student shows up quickly especially for us writing teachers who have to check all aspects of a students skills in listening, interacting, logical reasoning, following through with assignments, facility with grammar and spelling and finally how adept the students are with using the computer.  The following are ways I can spot a plagiarist a mile away.


First, the plagiarist doesn’t follow instructions.  I’m not sure if it is a listening problem or if it is purposeful, maybe a combination of both.  I had one girl in a recent TOEFL class I taught who was a very weak student.  She tried to cover it up by being confused by the instructions or she claimed she didn’t understand so it was probably a reading comprehension problem as well.  In any case, I was flummoxed why she was taking an advanced course of TOEFL to see about placement in a western university abroad.  She needed to be back in a remedial class brushing up on the basics.  Another instance was this same girl’s computer started shutting down (I think on purpose) so that she wailed she had lost her whole document she had been typing on. Yeah right. 


Second, a known plagiarist skips classes and they make a habit of this practice early on.  That way they have a reason for not knowing what the assignments are or not doing it as the instructor asks them to.  This happened with a girl back in Minnesota who was too busy with her job to bother to show up for my class.  She had a stunning essay about young people and drunk driving she submitted to me electronically.  It didn’t take long, matter of seconds, to find the same essay on the Internet. I caught her red-handed.  I can’t remember if she dropped out or if I failed her in the class when I showed her the evidence. 


Third, these “kidnappers of words” (Latin root) like to come and talk one-on-one with you as their teacher. These “kidnappers” take up teachers’ valuable time explaining why they didn’t do their assignment or why they don’t like doing it the way we prescribe. My guess is that these talkers want you to see how good their English is and they are very communicative on an oral level.  I won’t be fooled by this tactic.  Oral fluency skills are different from writing skills.  Give me the students who are NOT good talkers, more introverted and readers, they are typically the good writers.  I have two who wrote in their first night of class that they LOVE reading.  I love those kinds of students, they produce great writing samples right away.


Fourth, these talkers about their writing can also be found out to be good liars.  Case in point, one girl came to my office a couple hours before class was to begin to tell me she would be absent because her boss called her back to the office. (I wonder about some of these masters students who are juggling a full time job and taking not one but maybe two extremely intensive summer session classes.)  I’m not sure when they have time to sleep with all the reading they are assigned to do along with writing about it.  I have a couple students who are mothers so they are “supermoms” going back to school but I appreciate their maturity.  Sometimes older students are my best students because they take their learning seriously.  Funny thing about this same young girl who was absent, I found her smoking a cigarette behind another building right after our class was through.  I don’t like being lied to, no teacher does.


These are the tell-tale signs of a plagiarist in action, not following instructions, skipping classes and talking to me about why they don’t want to send their assignments to me electronically.  ?!?  I’m just wondering if known plagiarists are among our teaching ranks or God forbid, among our top administrators at our institution of higher learning.  Just asking because by the time I get to the end of the sixth week of teaching this summer session we all know what the level of involvement is with each student.  The student knows that I know just by what they have produced in class and by their attendance and level of participation.


Writing is NOT like some impersonal lecture class of 100s of students where a few students claim to be surprised by the final results of a final examination of 100 multiple choice questions.  No, the writing process is ongoing from the get-go and a very personal and sometimes exhaustive communication between the teacher and students.  Writing teachers should know their students very well by the end of the semester. That is, only when the students are writing honestly and not kidnapping other people’s words while the teachers take interest and read everything the students write.  Correction of grammar and mechanical errors in formatting styles is a whole ‘nother topic for a later blog post.

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