The accidental plagiarist


If you are in any way involved in teaching or academia, the title of this entry probably makes you roll your eyes, or sneer, or laugh (depending on your mood). You are probably thinking I'm going to tell a grading story about one of my undergrads who "accidentally" copied a few paragraphs from a web site, or a whole paper from a shady wholesaler of lousy academic products.

Actually, though, the accidental plagiarist is me. And it's not really about plagiarism at all, although not everyone involved has always thought so. Since that statement probably doesn't make sense to anyone who doesn't know the whole story, let me start at the beginning.

I'm taking a pedagogy class this semester. It has been awesome, because unlike what I've heard about many such classes in many departments at many universities, this class has been only a little bit about theories and ideals, and mostly about keeping things very real. We do have readings by pedagogical scholars and experts, of course, but we also discuss which things are useful and which are just hooey, we talk about things that work for us and those that don't, we try a lot of different things and mostly are encouraged to view our teaching as something personal and organic. The professor is terrific, it's a small class of great people, and tralala etc.

We've had a lot of assignments to do throughout the semester, but our "final project" was to prepare a statement of our teaching philosophy, which is something required for job applications. This is, in my field, usually about two pages of stuff about how you think of learning, teaching methodologies you use, that kind of thing. The most important thing, the professor has constantly stressed, is that it be unique to us and really reflect our personal approach and style. So, a few weeks ago, we were talking about this assignment, and the professor mentioned that she had recently been asked to look over a statement by another student in our program, and had been blown away by how excellent it was. Not only was it great, she said, it was perfectly suited to the person who wrote it.

She didn't give any identifying details, but I immediately knew she was talking about my friend Shelly (ooh, look, a rare sighting of a pseudonym in this journal!). I knew Shelly was already at the stage of applying for jobs, even though we hadn't really talked about it. So a couple of days later while I was on my way somewhere, I called her up. "Hey," I asked, "did you by any chance send your teaching statement to Fran [another pseudonym] to look over?"
"Uh, yeah..."
"I knew it!" I crowed. I explained to her why I was asking, and of course she was all chuffed to hear that she'd been talked up like that to her peers.

That's all that was said on the topic, right there. Now, cut to yesterday.

I had been mulling over my statement in my head for weeks, but since today was the deadline, over the weekend I figured it was time to move it from my head to a more tangible medium, so that I could actually hand it in. Between Saturday night and Sunday morning I wrote it all out, did some minor fiddling, and then set it aside. I figured I'd give it a final once-over this morning before printing it out and heading to campus.

Last night Shelly and I were exchanging emails about other stuff, when in a complete non-sequitur move I casually asked, "How long was your teaching statement?" The topic had come up earlier elsewhere, and a person had expressed amazement at the idea of a statement of more than a couple of paragraphs. We had been told to stay around two pages but no more, and that was what I'd done. Since Shelly didn't take a pedagogy class, I was curious to know how she'd handled the question.

She answered back saying that she, too, had stuck to around two pages, and attached her statement just for fun.

I opened it and started reading.
Hey, look at that, what a coincidence.
Oh my god. This is freaky!

We had written--well, not the same statement, but the similarities were pretty astonishing. We had both used the same structuring argument, and even more bizarrely, there were a couple of sentences that were nearly identical.

Of course, I immediately wrote her back. "I totally wasn't going to do this, but now you have to read mine. You will laugh!" Which she did, after which we both proceeded to freak out a little. The sensation was odd, a combination of pleasure (look, someone else sees things the same way I do! communication, empathy, human connection, usw.) and annoyance (damn, I'm not a perfect unique snowflake! she stole my cool idea! even if technically she did write hers first). Anyway, after a little mutual ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the strangeness of it all, I went to bed.

And woke up this morning very worried. What if my professor thought I'd copied from Shelly? I didn't think she'd believe me to be the plagiarizing kind (although I realize it's not always easy to tell), but she could easily assume I'd read Shelly's statement and been influenced by it in some way. What should I do? There was no time to rewrite the whole thing, and besides, I liked it the way it was. It was me, and it was mine, and it seemed weird to change it into something less comfortable because of some freakish accident.

I ran into Shelly on campus, and we talked about it a little. The professor wasn't in, which was disappointing, because I would've liked to have said something in person. Instead I just left my paper in her mailbox, and crossed my fingers.
Shelly, smart thing that she is, realized that a) Professor Fran was definitely going to notice the similarities, and b) the story would sound better coming from her. She didn't think finger-crossing was going to be enough. So she sent an email explaining the crazy coincidence that had happened. She also forwarded me the rest of the conversation as it unfolded. It got off to a slightly rocky start, but in the end the professor seemed convinced and even said some nice things about me, so it's a happy ending.

I'm very glad that she took matters into her own hands. I have to say, though, that I'm a little disconcerted by Professor Fran's initial reaction, which was to continue to wonder how it was possible that I'd come up with my statement on my own. On the one hand I can understand it, because it's a pretty uncanny thing to happen. On the other, well, I admit I'm a little pouty that she even seriously considered the notion that I'd copy something like this. I mean, it's not like a philosophy paper with complicated ideas that might be difficult for me to grasp--it's kind of the educational equivalent of copying someone else's journal entry. The lamest thing ever. And yeah, I know it happens, but still. I hate the thought that she thought I might be that lame.

This is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me in school.