I live in a community with a lot of graduate students, many of whom are TAs. TAing is something I feel I missed out on by going to law school rather than pursue graduate studies myself, so I like to listen to their stories. But one thing I sure as hell don’t miss is dealing with plagiarists. It isn’t just that academic dishonesty gets me down, it’s that many students are so incredibly bad at it that you either have to conclude the student is just stupid beyond belief, or believes that the TA is that stupid. Either alternative is bad. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but on balance, I’d rather have a very clever student who is cheating in some very clever way, than a dumb one. And so would most of the TAs I’ve met.
Here’s the thing. Your TAs know how to use Google. Whether you are submitting your work to turnitin.com or not, it’s very easy to find the source you are copying from. And you may think “yeah, but how will they know?” So here’s the next thing. There really is such a thing as a narrative voice. You may not know how to identify or modify your narrative voice, but I promise that you have one. Think of it like an accent. Now as soon as you start speaking wholesale in someone else’s voice, it’s obvious as sin. So your TA sits in front of the computer, Googles up that sentence, and guess what happens?
Your TAs are far smarter than you think. And they get just as depressed as I do at academic dishonesty. If you act like a complete idiot and hand them obviously plagiarized work they are going to give you an idiot’s grade as well as get personally insulted. And then they’ll hand your paper to your professor and say “I think this is plagiarized, and here’s why.” What happens from that point forward is guesswork. Maybe your professor won’t even follow it up. Maybe the case will be too vague to apply academic sanctions. But regardless of what may have formally happened, your TA grading your work still thinks you are an idiot, and feels insulted by you.
Don’t plagiarize. Not because it’s wrong and not because the sky will rain hell and death on you if you do. Maybe you’ve heard of people who’ve gotten away with it. Maybe you have, in the past. So it can’t seem that dangerous, right? Well, there’s two problems here. The first is that the danger isn’t that you’ll be formally accused every time. Often you won’t be, for a variety of reasons. But when you are finally nailed, I guarantee it will be an open and shut case. They won’t bother with it, otherwise. And it will make your life suck more than you can possibly believe. Compared to the cost of just doing your own damn work, how can even the slim chance of that be worth it? Second, even when you aren’t formally accused, your TA and your professor often know. Count on it. And they will hold it against you in ways you can’t trace and can’t complain about. Reference letters? Extra help? Leniency on deadlines? Benefit of the doubt on exam questions? Forget about it. And not only that, but they talk to other TAs and other professors too.
Someone handed me a paper the other day, out of a stack they were grading, and said, “can you believe how freakin’ stupid this student is?” Quite seriously, you don’t want that to be you. If you prefer not to believe my personal example, try reading this article on Rateyourstudents. The lesson, btw, is not how to get good at plagiarizing. The lesson is that anyone dumb enough to be plagiarizing in the first place isn’t smart enough to get away with it. It’s a hell of a lot easier to just do your own damn work.
This article has been inspired by the work of a friend where I live, so here’s a link to her store. I copied the title from the last graphic. She isn’t the one who handed me a student’s work to look at, by the way (since that’s technically wrong), but she might be spared an aneurysm one day if enough undergraduates get the message.