Triticum Turgidum

Lying Dormant and Waiting to Bloom Since 2005

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Location: The Prairie, Illinois, United States

I am a beauty-loving ambidextrous higher-order primate who learned transcendental meditation at 7, statistical analysis at 23, tap dancing at 30, and piano at 35. I tolerate gluten, lactose, and differences of opinion, but not abuse. Or beets.

Friday, May 05, 2006

All or Nothing

My friend Mireille at recently posted some compelling thoughts about Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard student who plagiarized passages of another author's books and got caught after her own book hit the shelves.

Click here to see examples of the plagiarized passages and how Viswanathan altered them to make them "her own." It's clear that, despite her claim that her "photographic memory" led her to unconsciously retain and use the plagiarized passages, she knew exactly what she was doing. Select words are replaced in each passage to deliberately mask the plagiarism.

So the question is not whether she fell into this hellhole of dishonor purely accidentally--as I said, she knew exactly what she was doing--the question is what would lead a bright young author to plagiarize in the first place. It's this question that Mireille raises in her post, and that I'd like to revisit here by sharing a similar story.

When I taught at the University of Michigan, there was a student in the Department of Communication who took an exam and, apparently, did not have much confidence in her performance. Her professor graded the exams and left them in a pile on a shelf with the coded answer sheet on top. The next morning, the professor came back and noticed that the student's scantron sheet was on top. Strange. The professor checked the student's answers: she'd aced the exam. Suspecting foul play, the professor notifed the chair of the department, who notified the Dean of Students. Turns out another professor in the Department of Chemistry had noted the exact same thing with an exam she'd administered to the same student. The Dean of Students got involved and exchanged several emails with the communication professor. Then the communication professor, a woman, got a call from the dean exonerating the student: "Oh, we figured it all out, it's a mistake, she's innocent." That day, the dean, also a woman, got a call from the professor making the same claim. Both calls were traced to the student's dorm room. Yes, she had actually impersonated both her professor and the dean. A little more detective work revealed that she'd posed as a teaching assistant in the comm and chem buildings and asked the custodial staff to let her into her professors' offices, where she filched her original scantrons and filled out new ones using the professors' coded answer sheets. (Lesson to professors: hide exams and answer sheets.)

Of course the whole thing resulted in expulsion. The chair of the comm department had the unpleasant task of talking to the student's father after the sentence had been handed down. One might have expected the father to be angry and defiant, but instead he was sad and guilty. He admitted to telling his daughter that nothing less than straight As was acceptable. (Her grade on the original comm exam? B.) He confessed that maybe he put too much pressure on her to be perfect, and that she was using her energy to create the impression of perfection by cheating instead of using that same energy to study for the sake of learning something. Now his daughter's academic reputation would be tarnished for life, much as Kaavya's professional reputation has been. Will she ever get another book deal? I wouldn't bet on it.

If you read Mireille's post, you'll see that she's very compassionate toward Kaavya. I think this compassion is warranted. American culture is so focused on appearance that we send our youth the message that they must impress the hell out of others by being The Best at Something, Anything, regardless of what it takes. One-trick ponies are lauded to the skies. "Well-rounded" has become a euphemism for "average."

I think this is a terrible shame. We've come to a point where the students who cheat most are not those in danger of failing (though they cheat too), but those who CANNOT have a minus after that A. I can't tell you how many students I've heard lament, "But you don't understand, I'm an A student!" after receiving a B on a test. Evaluations of their performance become their identities.

Like Mireille, I hope Kaavya finds an identity that represents who she truly is, even if it doesn't net her a $500,000 book deal. I hope all students who cheat or plagiarize find a way to express who they really are, not the person they think will impress people. I tell my own students that plagiarism is the saddest of all academic crimes. You only have so many opportunities in this life to use your voice to say something important and actually have people listen, and what do you do? Use someone else's words. Sad, sad, sad.


Blogger mireille said...

I am so glad to read your take on this ... you are in the unenviable position of being able to shape students' approach to scholastic ethics. And there are clearcut standards.

Kaavya's story highlights the ethics of creativity -- and intellectual property -- in the face of commercial (and, I guess in this case, parental) pressures.

She is such an unfortunate symbol for the ways we all, to varying degree, are capable of bending away from what we know is right.

Again, thanks.

12:26 PM, May 05, 2006  
Blogger Bela said...

Hmmm... you are both so generous and understanding.

Here in the UK, mediocrity is what people aim for. No one feels the need to plagiarize anyone. People apologize for being 'intellectual'. I find that very sad too.

10:25 PM, May 05, 2006  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

Interesting post, K.

There was an article in a magazine today about how children are pushed so hard, and that for some parents, mediocrity is not acceptable, and can be a form of child abuse. Where are those individuals who get the Cs and Bs, instead of the 5.2 average? Why can people not be appreciated and accepted for who and what they are?

BTW: I want to see more pix of FI!

10:28 PM, May 05, 2006  
Blogger PFG said...

K, I understand your point and I believe it is a fully valid one. But I have a hard time feeling charitable about a need for an external appearance of perfection as the compelling reason for doing something that deliberately unethical. It really rubs me the wrong way.

4:27 PM, May 07, 2006  
Blogger WinterWheat said...

Oh, I hear you PFG. My compassion is the type you feel toward someone who did something really stupid for all the wrong reasons and really regrets it now. It's not the type you feel toward someone who's not at fault for their actions. If she were my daughter, I'd be incredibly angry with her. And if she were my student and did that for a paper in my class, it would merit a failing grade.

5:40 PM, May 07, 2006  
Anonymous jonniker said...

I've thought so much about this, and at first, when everything came out, I believed her. I KNOW, but I really did. I'm so susceptible to picking up everything, from expressions and accents, from other people, that I'm sure many of the things I say/use every day are things I picked up from other people. So, I kind of got where she was coming from, and thought maybe it was an isolated incident.

But eep, not so. What a shame. Makes me wonder how many people out there did it too, and just didn't get caught. What a shame.

10:36 AM, May 08, 2006  
Blogger Bela said...

Phew, WW! I thought you might have gone 'soft' (you know, motherhood = mushy brain. LOL!)

11:53 AM, May 09, 2006  

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