I keep a list of my Top Four Plagiarism Stories in a manila folder and hand them out to my freshman Western Civ students at the beginning of each semester:
1. The student who Xeroxed the paper that another student had handed in the year before accidentally stapled the original paper to the Xerox and turned in the whole batch.
2. The student who met with his teacher three times to plan his paper on "The Last Temptation of Christ." When the last day of term rolled around, he instead handed in a fairly incoherent essay on a fairly obscure aspect of Mahayana Buddhism, listing two secondary sources in his bibliography. Turns out he'd lifted every other paragraph from the first book and all the rest from the second book.
3. The student whose paper on the Book of Job was so terrible that her teaching assistant gave her an F. Then the T.A. said to another T.A. in the class, "Could you glance over this and tell me if you think it deserves a better grade?" The second T.A. looked at it and said, "Funny, I got an identical paper this morning."
4. The student who was assigned to write a paper on slavery and copied two pages straight from a book his professor had written.
I hand the list out to my students and give a little speech: I explain just what plagiarism is, warn them that it can get them kicked out of school, tell them that it's theft, just like stealing a roommate's watch. Then, to lighten the mood, I smile and add, "I'll probably catch you if you plagiarize, though, of course, I may not. At least if you're going to do it, bother to be clever. Don't insult my intelligence by stapling the paper you copied to the paper you hand in."
Some students laugh, and some seem scared into submission, but the routine doesn't always work. This semester it didn't.
One of my students--who got a D- on the midterm and has trouble writing in complete sentences--handed in an elegant biographical sketch of Friedrich Nietzsche. (The assignment had not been biography but criticism: Summarize a passage from "The Genealogy of Morals" and tell me whether you agree with Nietzsche.) Nietzsche, her paper explained, was an expert philologist, had anticipated existentialism, had influenced Soren Kierkegaard.
I wrote "See me after class" across the top. When the student came to the podium, I told her I was intrigued by the connection she had hinted at between "The Birth of Tragedy" and "Either/Or"--could she flesh it out a bit more? She confessed on the spot.
But many students don't get caught. If my student hadn't confessed, I wouldn't have spent time searching for the source she'd plagiarized from. I'd bet all my worldly goods that she simply cut and pasted from an easily accessible web encyclopedia, but at $2,200 a semester, Fordham's not paying me enough to spend a day in the library searching for proof of plagiarism.
This story won't make it to my Top Four list. It's too unoriginal.