Plagiarism: The New Gateway Drug

Today I was trapped in a professional development seminar disguised as an informal discussion about millennial students. Many of the other faculty members in the room were around my same age--Gen-Xers. The presenter claimed to be Gen-X, too. But when he let fly his birth year, I experienced an "Oh no" moment. Never would I consider someone born just five years after my own mother a member of my generation. I think he may have been misinformed.

As were many of my colleagues. The woman sitting immediately behind and to the right of me became indignant when the presenter said, "This is a cut-and-paste generation. They don't see anything wrong with having information on the internet at their fingertips and copying it into an assignment and turning it in for a grade." The indignant woman scoffed and said, "I just don't understand what's wrong with plagiarizing in a class that's not part of their major."

"Oh no" moment numero dos.

I calmly turned around (read: my face immediately began to burn and I whipped my head around so fast I nearly gave myself whiplash) and said, "I just read an article about what we're really doing in the classroom. What we're really doing when we're teaching about plagiarism is teaching about integrity." (Okay, it's a blog post, not an article. Sue me.)

As I said this, my voice rose. I tried very hard to stay in my seat and not rip the face off of Little Miss Plagiarism.

Some of the other people in the room tried to come to my aid and began to make statements about plagiarism, probably because I was the only General Education person in the room--and the only English instructor--and my annoyance with Little Miss Plagiarism was pretty apparent.

To everyone but Little Miss Plagiarism who said, "But it's just words. Who cares about taking someone else's words?"

"It's intellectual property," I snapped. I could've gotten up on my I'm-A-Writer high horse and turned her comment into an attack on me personally, but by then I was so angry and fuming I couldn't even think about myself. "It's about teaching them not to steal. To be good people."

"Words don't harm people," Little Miss Plagiarism continued. "What does it hurt to take someone else's words?"

"Tell Snowdon that," I said. Granted, not my finest analogy. I probably should've said, "The pen is mightier than the sword," or pointed to The Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen or The Declaration of Independence or The Fugitive Slave Law (or any law for that matter). But by then I was willing myself not to clobber this woman.

And I suddenly found myself having "Oh no" moment number 3: She probably plagiarized her way through undergrad (maybe even grad school, too), and was voicing a "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" opinion without mentioning her goosey behavior.

I couldn't even look at Little Miss Plagiarism anymore. I was sitting with my arms crossed staring at the large screen at the front of the room where the presenter's slideshow was stalled on the big red print "'Cut and paste' mentality."

The discussion swirled around me, forming a toxic bullshit cloud that I was sure was going to float out of the room, across campus, and into the President's office so he could then say, "Thank goodness they all agree that plagiarism is a practice our students should avoid," before going on with his more important tasks. Because what seemed to be going on was lip service. I hoped my colleagues actually believed what they were saying about the necessity to keep our students from plagiarizing and not simply disagreeing to save face, but I didn't think they were. Somehow, I was sure I was the only person in the room that actually cared about language. About integrity. About thinking.

Because that's what plagiarism does--it removes the necessity of thought. It keeps the plagiarizer from flexing his/her mental muscles and turns them into an intellectual weakling. Millennials are going to end up as the generation that explains why they think what they think by saying, "Wikepedia told me."

Especially with teachers and mentors like Little Miss Plagiarism, who seem to think that intellectual darkness is fine and dandy. If I'd had my wits about me, instead of my temper, I might've hyperbolized and mentioned something about The Dark Ages.

As it was, when I finally regained enough composure to enter the discussion again, I said, "Students plagiarize once and get away with it, so then they do it again and again."

A minute later, someone else said the exact same thing. Which lead me to "Oh no" moment number 4: No one was listening to me. Which lead me to "Oh no" number 5: I was right about lip service.

The presenter interjected with an analogy: "You wouldn't steal someone's car, would you? So why would you steal their words?"

I looked down at my lap. I couldn't believe I was in a room with people who had to reduce the explanation of plagiarism to grand theft auto.

So fell my idea of the intellectual utopia. Which, if I'm being honest with myself, is an idea that began to crumble long before Little Miss Plagiarism made her comment. And it has nothing to do with millennial students. And everything to do with the fact that I seem to continually work around people who don't seem to want to be teaching. They struggle and moan and complain. And never change. They think that teaching is supposed to be easy, something they can throw together while they watch 60 Minutes.

I don't get it.

Little Miss Plagiarism finally said, "So plagiarism is a gateway drug to other bad behavior."

Yes, Little Miss Plagiarism, that's exactly what it is. Now go buy LoJack. And find another profession.

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