Monday, May 23, 2011

Plagiarism almost always results in some unpleasant email exchanges. Invariably, no matter what action has been taken, the student tries to get the penalty lessened by one degree. So if they received a failing grade on the assignment, they argue to have it count a little more. If the final course grade was lowered significantly, they try to persuade me to just drop it one letter grade. If they failed the class, they argue to get a low passing grade, even a D (last resort) in the class. If they are reported to Undergraduate Studies, they beg to just fail without being reported. And if they get the worst sanction of all - referral to Judicial Affairs - instead they argue to be reported to Undergraduate Studies only.

I'm completely non-negotiable on this topic, and to be honest, there are some students in my classes who have argued with me passionately when we cover academic dishonesty. A good number are offended over my objectivist views, really protest and probably think I am crazy. (Maybe that's why I'm "weird.") Then, the students who are caught red-handed refuse the label of unethical and don't like being called on it. They don't seem to believe it reflects a character flaw - after the initial denial (they stop when they know the evidence cannot be refuted), they say it's the first time and once that falls flat, that it's expedient or understandable or no biggie, not a symptom of a bigger (profound) problem. Quick! Go to RMP and write that I'm incompetent and cruel.

Usually the violator shuts up or dries their tears after a volley and goes away but occasionally there is one who continues to push it. Mostly this happens when I have chosen one of the lower level (in my class) sanctions, which generally means course failure with no referral. That's my usual path for borderline cases.

This approach comes in two varieties: schmoozers, the sales rep types, or self-righteous, the arrogant types. In the hope of what, I wonder? Hurting my feelings? Getting me to concede? I've one such student now, unfortunately not someone who is trying to win me with flattery. (That wouldn't work either, but it does make me feel a lot less pissed off.)

An odd feature of this incident is that it shares something with a long-ago case that caused consternation at that time, and then again, recently (as well as sparking a really nasty comment on a post). They are the only times in the 20 or so times when I've detected cheating where the student would have gotten the bad final course grade anyway, without having to be sanctioned for plagiarism, so technically they didn't fail due to academic dishonesty. That factored into my decision to not refer the case to the university for review and additional penalties. No need. Maybe I should have, in both cases?

The condescending missives I've received drip with outrage and finger pointing. Oh yeah, I'm the one who is out of line. I suppose it is easier to be mad at me, than to take responsibility. Unfortunately, this is one of those times when I can't elaborate with lots of details for a long time, if ever. I would dearly love to copy and paste the correspondence here to record it, but that would be unethical.

Suffice to say, when something like this happens, I ponder why the student is trying to push my buttons? It is possible they do not realize that they should go away and thank their lucky stars, because I always have an excellent "paper trail" and if ruffled, I may be forced to resort to a worse penalty than the one I imposed?

PS I hate to be writing this. I wanted to put the semester to bed, and move on. And honestly, complaining about awful students makes it seem as if I think poorly of a lot of students, which isn't true at all. One of my constant sources of frustration - and I know the same is true for other faculty - is how much time the tiny minority of bad students take up, and how little time there is to devote to the bright lights.

I don't necessarily mean "A" students when I describe them as bright lights, either. Oh sure, A students make up the largest proportion of wonderful students. (But, not all A students are wonderful.) What I mean is, most students are great, whether they are A students or C students. I like them a lot; they have much to offer. The students who are working with me on my research are shining examples of young people who make me proud. Cases such as the one I am describing here are rare, thankfully. Unfortunately, though, they are not completely absent; I catch about one per year. I can't just look the other way, as I know some do. That would be shirking my responsibility.

Also, in my experience, the A and B students outnumber the C and D students by a lot. That may not be true in all classes, not sure. Regardless, the A students who are so smart and a pleasure, as well as the B and C students who may need a bit of extra help but deserve it, do not get any where near the attention as the total slackers and the cheaters. Is that always true, at any level of education?

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