Introduction to Plagiarism

I chose my seat carefully.  Second row.  I didn’t want to seem too eager even though it was hard to mask considering I had arrived 35 minutes early.

It was my first college English class. There were only 250 people in World Literature.  My anxiety was mixed with shame– I felt like a petty thief  sitting there when I should have been in the introduction class because my AP English score was only a 3.   But my advisor had signed a form that allowed me to take a class alongside sophomores and graduating seniors looking for that one last liberal arts credit.

Image credit: world_literature_by_nimbus_24-d31jm4s

Image credit: world_literature_by_nimbus_24-d31jm4s

Everyone looked so worldly.

Even Sharla Watts.

She sat next to me and there was no one else in our row.  For some reason the upperclassmen opted to sit in the back.

Sharla was a junior from Mart, Texas.  Her accent was so thick I thought she was joking when she opened her mouth.  She called me “Dallas” and made fun of how many notes I took during class.  She always wore a maroon shirt emblazoned with the command “Gig ‘Em.”

Our first paper was due on October 8.  I fretted over my typewriter wrestling with the deeper meaning of Gulliver’s Travels. “What’s the big deal, Dallas?” Sharla chided me for perseverating over my draft.  (She didn’t know that the secret to good grades was worrying. Lots and lots of worrying.)

As the professor came around to collect the papers I read Sharla’s first page.  I had never seen such perfect prose. She used the word “sublimely” and almost all of her sentences were complex enough for semi-colons.

Shit. I looked at my own stupid paper– nothing more complex than the word “theme.” Not a semi-colon in sight.

I’m going to fail.

I almost got up right there to withdraw from the class. My stomach hurt so bad that I couldn’t take notes during the Paradise Lost lecture.

“You don’t look so hot, Dallas,” Sharla noted after class. I was too embarrassed to face her– with her insistent school spirit and raggedy command of the English language– she was actually a scholar.  I was just a poseur who was dumb enough to think she could do something as important as literature.

I cried back in my dorm room.  I was too ashamed to withdraw (and too lazy to walk across campus to figure out how to do it) but accepted I would probably get a C and have to change my major to the nebulous speech communications.

On the day the papers were handed back, Sharla didn’t show up for class.  I figured she was sick or out of town.

Right before the TAs walked through the aisles returning our papers, the professor stopped his lecture.  “This is a reminder that plagiarism will not be tolerated and your classmate who copied Harold Bloom’s essay on Gulliver’s Travels is being disciplined.  Cheating may result in expulsion.”

My grade on the paper was a modest A-.

I never saw Sharla again.

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83 thoughts on “Introduction to Plagiarism

  1. So drilled in. I was always worried I’d use phrasing even somewhat similar to someone else’s and I’d get expelled! So I went with the mantra “simplier the better; works for me.” Why are you always so damn entertaining? 😉

  2. As a nebulous Speech Comm major (actually, I went even lower than that to the Radio/TV/Recreational Pharmaceutical major) we learned that as long as you changed every third word you were fine. It’s worked great for me so far! 🙂

    • I was so scared of speech comm because you had to take a speech class and no one ever got As. I was a little scared of nonB grades because myself esteem hinged on my grades. God, I was so healty. Hope you’re taking notes.

  3. i was (and still am) always so terrified of being accused of plagiarism that I shied away from ever looking up sources. I always wrote my papers with no research and then would find sources after the fact. I figured anything I could possibly say has already been said by someone else. I just had to find it.

  4. HAROLD BLOOM. That man haunts every English Major throughout their years of study. You’d have to be pretty cheeky to plagiarize HAROLD BLOOM.
    Also, I remember feeling that way my first day of Grad School. I felt like such an inadequate poseur…it took the entire first semester to get over it.

    • Grad school was the worst because everyone there was pretty damn smart and was just as scared so they were putting on acts. GEtting that first semester over with was so good.

      On Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 11:14 AM, Outlaw Mama

  5. Lmao! Harold Bloom, of all people! What a twit! I bet the essay title even had a colon in it. Hahahaha! According to my teacher friends, they now have plagiarism software because there’s a boom in the buy-your-paper-online business.

  6. So freaking great! And as a former professor, I have had to bust people. I am so glad YOU weren’t the one doing the cheating. I was holding my breath. Thank goodness it was Sharla. ANd, by the way, there is nothing modest about an A-. 😉

    • Right on, sister!!! Let’s go that direction. Unless they steal it and make a bunch of money and I can’t afford lawyers to fight it.

      On Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 11:42 AM, Outlaw Mama

    • I do feel bad for her, actually. I honestly didn’t get the impression that she really would have grasped the gravity of her transgression. honestly, my hope is that she just left the class, but finished up her degree and went on her way.

      On Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 12:55 PM, Outlaw Mama

  7. I second what Carinn said: you DO paint amazing portraits of the people you meet. I can totally relate to how overwhelming some of those college classes can be, especially the literature courses with *gasp* older “kids”. It’s weird, you both probably had the same anxiety and just dealt with it differently. I hope she finished up her degree and went on her way, too.

  8. Isn’t this how it is with everything though? I’ll sometimes look at others and feel as if I’m doing so much worse at my job, my parenting, or something. But then sometimes, I’ll see how hard they are trying to make it appear as if they’re doing better. It happens often enough that it helps to squelch those nasty voices telling me I’m failing at life.

  9. Ha! When I read your title, I thought you were going to go down the road of “it’s OK to steal sometimes.” Like Picasso, who said “When I see something to steal, I steal it. I do not seek, I find” in relation to other artists’ work and whatever else inspired him. So naturally, I was surprised by the ending. Such a funny and honest piece and a great reminder to not judge ourselves by other people’s outsides.

  10. I used to teach high school English, and I would catch a few on almost every paper I assigned. So sad. Google these days makes it easy to copy, but also easy to catch. One time I had someone copy the whole page including the name of the web page and paste it into the paper.

  11. AHA! Your bad, Sharla, Oh NO you di’int! But you, our dear Outlaw Mama – you keep it real. You make the grade every week here with your wonderful writing. I’m so glad you were too lazy and ashamed to withdraw from class. 😉 I have friends who teach at the college level who tell me stories about plagiarism all the time. I can’t believe kids still try it now that everything can be googled.

    • I can’t imagine teaching something like a big survey course on literature. The cheating it must be insane. God bless our teachers. And thank you for the affirmations.

  12. Worrying *is* the secret to good grades! Well, that and studying, and putting effort into your writing, and all that jazz. Moments like that start to give our naive minds a little perspective, I think.

  13. Ah, what a great story. I’m right with you on the worrying; this underrated tool helps me accomplish so much. And I now feel fortunate to have escaped the nickname “Dallas” even though I’m from there! Thanks for taking that on for me.

  14. Wow, what a great story. I could picture myself doing the exact same things – comparing and worrying. I probably would have dropped out back then – great lesson on comparison and self-doubt, Miss A-. Wonderful post.

  15. Through four years of liberal arts college and three years of law school I was terrified of plagiarism. Every time I turned in a paper I was sure that this was the time that something I read stuck a little too well in my brain and ended up on the paper. Loved this story, and you are such a smarty-pants for being in that class 🙂

  16. I remember pouring over passages to make sure they sounded different enough that I wouldn’t get accused of plagiarism. Silly Sharla. Maybe she should have paid less attention to how many notes you took and more attention to, say, actually doing her own work.

  17. Oh, man, what a bone-headed choice… I was a master procrastinator. Wrote everything as I typed it (even on a typewriter, as that’s what I used in college), finished it mere seconds before class started… But I never plagiarized. Procrastinated, yes. Cheated? Never.

    • Right? You gotta have standards. I never procrastinated but I very annoyingly worried and worried and worried and only accepted A’s. I kind of wish I would have plagiarized.

      On Wed, Mar 13, 2013 at 10:07 PM, Outlaw Mama

  18. As soon as I finished reading your post, I went off in search of a “Gig ’em” T-shirt. I hadn’t realized my wardrobe was incomplete. (Nice to be reading you again after my inadvertent hiatus from blogging!)

  19. When I started college, I thought everyone around me seemed like Sharla. It never occurred to me that they weren’t, but now I’m wondering if they were really all I thought they were cracked up to be. Good riddance to Sharla!

  20. Oh well, we are worried about the same things. You were better off because you were brave and were stuck to your own paper. The story looks like a straight, simple event in somebody’s life but beneath it actually has a message – To trust yourself. Thank you 🙂

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