Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed...

Students cheat so darn much!  Well, some of 'em.  I myself have seen a significant uptick, just this year, in students who are willing to go to great lengths to turn in a finished product, by hook or by crook.  The operative word being "crook."

But what happens when it’s the professionals who cheat?  Or, in this case, plagiarize?

Take Prof. Santiago (“Yago”) Colás, professor at U. Michigan.  No, he’s not a cheater. He was the victim. Maybe that's too dramatic of a word? You tell me...

I have had the pleasure of meeting Yago online and (virtually) talking shop with him a little bit; we share a deep and abiding love of one particular short story. While geeking out and Googling information on said story, I came across Yago’s web page. 

On it, Professor Colás describes a Julio Cortázar short story called “La Autopista del Sur” (English translation, “The Southern Thruway”), one of my favorite pieces. In this story, a traffic jam on a country freeway, a snarl of epic proportions, uncountable kilometers in length, lasts so long that an ad hoc society forms within and among the people trapped in their cars in the terrible jam. Time magically slows down. Friendships, kinships, romances form. There is death.  And then, suddenly, traffic starts moving again, and people go about their merry way, rather like nothing ever happened. I cannot believe no one has bought the film rights.  It seems ready-made for cinema.

Check out Yago’s web page, with his original content and analysis.

Harvard Law School dean Martha L. Minow seems to have “borrowed liberally” from Colás’s decade-old online musings when constructing her 2010 Law School Commencement address (or when someone constructed it for her, to be fair, because Important People often do not do their own speechwriting).

The full text of Minow’s speech may be found here

I have been a high school and college English teacher for about two decades. This "liberal borrowing" MORE than crosses the line into out-and-out plagiarism. SEE THE IMAGE BELOW, which shows color-coded matching chunks of text. I have given students zeroes on essays for less obvious transgressions, and no professor I know would stand for (what appears to be) such blatant theft. Out of a sense of fairness, I have marked, with an underline, the lone acceptable paraphrase. Plus, the following Minow line is really nicely crafted, and, it seems, original: "The tendrils of connection forged in the crisis stretch and strain as the cars speed ahead." (See below for the context.)

For the record, I have corresponded with Yago Colás, and shown him the offending document. He recognized it for what it was, I think (I don’t want to put words in his mouth), and was pretty zen about it, telling me I basically could do with it what I wanted. This was a year or so ago. I held on to it for a while because I figured, what would be the point?  It would probably bode more well for my long term cardiac health if I could be more zen about it as well. But the recent goings-on at the following places have just made me decide not to hold on to it any longer:

·         Harvard: Read about it here or here, or for a unique perspective, here;
·         Atlanta: Read about it here or here;
·         And a recent scandal among med school students here in Syracuse at SUNY Upstate.

I hope, as Harvard University comes down hard (deservedly so) on its students for such offenses, that they are consistent in their outrage at such behavior, and will investigate/respond accordingly. A Law School Dean should know better. As an English professor, I am personally outraged.   Same thing with the students in Atlanta – if they’re guilty as charged, throw the book at them (not that they’ll actually read the book once it hits them, though they may copy from it).  As for the Syracuse scandal, well, you can read about the fallout.

I hope Martha Minow did not write the speech herself; I really hope it was handed to her to read.  Politicians have most of their speeches written for them, so it's a distinct possibility.  Maybe then Minow has plausible deniability (“I didn’t write the speech myself.”)  Well… I had a student recently turn in a paper that he “didn’t write himself.”  Guess what happened to him?

Or am I overreacting?  I’m just A.S.K.ing…


  1. A suggestion for experimentation on display to make plagiarism as obvious as possible, and help see the likely copy-paste-edit steps. See 3-page PDF, version of the recent Whitaker example. If you want to experiment, see the MS Doc original.

  2. Yes, you're overeacting. Or no, because this is just a blog. Years ago I answered an add by an American student who was offering English lessons ( Euro' speking here). She wanted us to blundly memorize lists of standard expressions and there was absoluetely no other way or the Allmighty was to bury her right directly embedded into the pavement. What then ? If I had accepted, I'd been an perpetual intermediary by chunk memorization. Sue the girl for irresponsible teahouse chatting. Or submit her to the question again ( as she's probably innocent of any plagiarism, she might even be surviving it ) .