Fool me twice

I went into teaching, a second career, in part because I wanted to give students the respect they deserve. Anyone who has felt invisible in the classroom or who has felt shamed by a teacher, as I have, knows this is a noble goal.

For a decade, I taught college writing on the east and west coasts. At times, I would teach at as many as three institutions in a single semester just to make ends meet. Adjunct instructors, or “freeway fliers,” as we were called, are at the bottom of the food chain and earn very little when compared with their full-time colleagues, who also earn very little. This is particularly true in the humanities.

Low pay (and no benefits) is just one of the ways adjunct professors are devalued, but, as some might say, it was my choice to go into education and to accept an inadequate salary; I really couldn’t let myself be too glum about it, and I didn’t. For some 15 years, I had been in the business world, where people of my temperament can easily die, and teaching was my lifeline.  I loved my students, and I tried to give them the very best of myself.

Nevertheless, I left teaching about six years ago because I was exhausted and because I just couldn’t live on the hem of poverty any longer. I hadn’t imagined myself returning to the classroom, but when I lost my job of five years and was not able to find full-time employment after many months, I accepted a part-time position at a nearby community college.

A lot has changed in the intervening years. Most notably, student honesty seems very much on the wane. Whereas before I might have had one clear-cut case of plagiarism in a given year, now it is surprising if a student does not try to make off with another’s words. 

The reasons for the rise of academic dishonesty are, no doubt, many, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex forces at play here. Who, for example, can begin to know what young people go on to think after they witness corrupt businessmen committing wholesale crimes against society with impunity.

One thing is certain, though. It is easier to cheat now than ever before. Just google “cause and effect essay,” and, in 0.18 seconds, you will receive about 2,960,000 results. Even the best teacher-sleuth, and I consider myself to be a pretty good one, doesn’t stand the proverbial snowball’s chance of bringing every cheater to justice.

Last semester, I had 23 students in my class. Of those, six, or about one-quarter of the class, plagiarised all or parts of an assigned essay. Confronting these students was, for me, a torture, and I spent a number of sleepless nights trying to figure out what I would say to them and what actions I would take. This was the hard part because there are degrees of plagiarism, and there are also degrees to which students know they are plagiarising. In the end, I thought I handled it well. Above all, I tried to be fair. Too fair, it seems.

I gave two students the chance to write another paper because they conned me into believing they didn’t know they had plagiarised. Damned if they didn’t turn around and do it all over again.

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