At the first whiff of plagiarism, I am quick to launch a full frontal assault. Check the plot summary or, for my student, uncharacteristic phrase against its occurrences online; assign a zero for the assignment, request a meeting, send a parent/guardian email, deliver the offending evidence to an administrator who can track other screw-ups by the same perp.
These are all in my arsenal of responses to the Demon Plagiarism. From there it is a short walk to sending a herd of pigs off the cliff, and having the teachers-only job satisfaction of seeing a student crumple into tears as years of bad behavior are repented of, and finally wading into the water with him, emerging with faces to the sun, both knowing that Creative Commons has our allegiance forevermore, and the laws of copyright shall remain inviolate. “from this day to the ending of the world.”
But today yesterday I brought out a new weapon; a kinder gentler means by which to assert my dominance over the spirit that bedevils young writers. In my feedback to the writer I referred not once to the “P” word. I made no mention of credit. I appealed to the writer’s sense of authority, personhood, audience and purpose. [See images below of writers at my school creating and sharing their work for a variety of authentic purposes and audiences in secondary English and science, also second-grade/tenth-grade collaboration.]
Because of my recent focus on expressing “what the words do to the reader” — both in peer and teacher response to student writing as well as mentor/class texts — my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged for responding to cutting and pasting of another’s work.
my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged
Rather than corner the student with an awkward out-of-class confrontation, I took a different approach by responding just as I would to any electronically submitted draft. Instead of using the authority of our student handbook and its policy, I appealed to the authority of the reader.
➡️Will your reader know these big words?
➡️Where does the reader hear your voice?
️➡️Why should your reader be interested?
➡️Which class discussion or personal inquiry question got you thinking about exploring this topic? If the reader can see your thinking process, you might persuade her to thoughtfully consider your point of view.
Although I have slightly modified these to protect the anonymity of the writer, they differ drastically from my typical frontal assault: Is this your own work? Where did you get it? Why didn’t you cite the source? What did you think was the goal of the assignment?
All of which are mere pretenses and preamble to the often unstated Big Gun: Whatever could have possessed you to think I, all-knowing, would not recognize this as another writer’s work? You have insulted me, broken our trust, and demonstrated that you do not value the deities of the writing process (insert constellation of choice, for me Bay Area Writing Project, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Sheridan Blau, Tom Romano, Dons Murray and Graves to infinity and beyond)?
As I often remark, I am the one doing the learning here. Because of my interest in authority in the classroom, I see this as an opportunity to wait and observe the outcome — just as I do with every other paper at this later drafting stage. By turning the focus inward, I am able to monitor my own problem-solving process, identify the place where my own ego gets in the way, and try an innovative or at least creative solution that eases the burden for the student in one way by subtly shifting it.
The student’s responsibility would have been to justify himself (his cheating behavior) to me and to his parent, at least; but now it becomes more about justifying his writing choices to his readers. If the writer is willing to assume creative control over this writing task, the finished written product will communicate a chosen purpose clearly and strongly to a specific chosen audience, which it does not yet do.
The paper will have voice and the student will exercise choice. This is my first blog entry ending with the term “Voices and Choices.”