Sunday, April 15, 2018

No Rest, No Mercy

by Jean Roberta

Please excuse this very late post. On Friday the 13th, I was struggling with the second incarnation of a bad cold that has been circulating through the university where I teach. I caught the first version in March (before Eroticon), never completely recovered, and it seems that made me vulnerable to the second round.

Its probably not a coincidence that winter has dragged on and on here, bringing snow and more snow.

April 12 and 13 were the last days of my three classes, so I forced myself to go, even though I would rather have stayed in bed.

Appropriation has appeared in my life in various forms, and the concept is roughly as complicated as the concept of “obscenity.” In the 1980s, a major Canadian feminist press divided in two over the issue of “cultural appropriation” or “appropriation of voice.” Three white women writers (but if their DNA hadn’t been analyzed, how could anyone be sure how “white” they were?) had written stories in the “voices” of “people of colour,” these stories had been accepted for publication, but then the collectively-run press reneged on their contracts. The Writers Union of Canada defended the three writers. There were headlines, lawsuits, and a lockout. It was ugly.

As a young writer who had recently had a collection of lesbian stories published by a very small, one-woman press, I was terrified. I’ve always been interested in cultures that aren’t strictly my own, and several of my stories could be found guilty of “appropriation.” I could only hope I was too far below the radar of the feminist writing community in general that I wouldn’t be ostracized for life.

At the same time, “anti-porn feminism” was on the rise, but I was also interested in writing about sex. Like all writers, I hoped to find an audience of readers who would enjoy my words, but I could never lose my fear of being “called out” very publicly, and excluded from every community I could possibly hope to belong to.

My fear has subsided somewhat as the zeitgeist has shifted, but I can never forget how easy it would be for one self-righteous person to score points by confronting me in person or in print. As every woman knows, a reputation can be lost overnight.

In the last thirty years, I’ve seen a lot of another kind of appropriation: plagiarized student essays. There are various ways I can check out the originality of the essays my students hand in, and the easiest method is to run lines through Google.

On Friday, an international student (i.e. English is not his first language) handed in a last-minute essay on a contemporary novel that showed an impressive knowledge of ancient Greek literature. I smelled a rat. I had already marked his earlier essay, which was less competently written. To be the safe side, I decided to check them both out.

I should have been much more suspicious of this student all semester. The essay on the novel turned out to have been written by a professional critic. No surprise there.

The other essay, which was definitely written by a student, had been copied from a student-help site. The mistakes I had commented on weren’t even those of my student, and my advice wouldn’t have helped him.

These discoveries didn’t help me to feel healthier. Still feeling achy, I printed out the evidence of plagiarism, attached it to the essays, and sent this material to the Associate Dean to deal with, which is the standard protocol. Since the essay on the novel was worth 20%of the grade for the course, I suspect this student has no chance of passing. Even still, I will probably have to grade his exam.

Maybe the reason this type of appropriation makes me so livid is because it’s not ambiguous. Cultural borrowing in various forms has occurred throughout history, so I’m willing to show as much forgiveness to other writers as I hope to get from them. Cheating on an assignment is a different thing, and I don’t buy the excuses from some students that 1) they had no idea they were doing anything wrong, and 2) my claim that they “cheated” is really just a misunderstanding of their way of doing “research.” (I’m reminded of the traditional claim that sexual assault and harassment are really just misunderstandings.)

Some days, I would like to be the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, and stride about yelling "Off with their heads!" For better or worse, I don’t have the energy for that today.

Maybe next week.


  1. The internet has made it so much easier to cheat on papers, hasn't it? Yet it's also made it easier to find out who's plagiarized. A double-edged sword, to be sure, I guess I'm lucky in that I only grade papers for my tutoring center, for kids grades 3-7, who, for the most part, are too scared to turn in anything that isn't original...even if they knew where to find it.

  2. The age of innocence! They'll probably lose it soon. :(

  3. I hope you recover quickly, Jean. At least you were well for Eroticon!

    I struggle constantly with students who cheat. It's worse in Asia, I think, where there's a notion that friendship includes helping (i.e. doing) your less accomplished pal's assignments for him or her. In some cases, these kids really don't understand that what they're doing is wrong, or damaging to the student who submits the plagiarized work.

    The Internet has really blurred the definition of ownership and authorship. When content of any kind is out there for anyone to see, people just tend to think appropriating it is fine. The concept of a "mash-up" has legitimized the idea that if it's on the 'Net, there are no limits to its use.

  4. I hope you are already feeling much better than you were when you wrote this, Jean! And I agree that appropriating the words of others (plagiarism) is a very serious form...


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