Reader Letters


Dear Mr. Erard,

I remember my first, too. It was my first quarter as a history graduate student, and I was grading for a class on the Dark Ages. It was a paper on the Black Death; the student in question began his introduction with an especially lucid and off-topic discussion of medieval medicine. A quick Google search revealed the lines were stolen from Wikipedia.

The professor in the class had a very strict no-tolerance policy concerning cheating, and the student ended up getting an F on the paper and a D in the class. I still feel guilty about it; the punishment was probably disproportionate to the offense, and I really hope I didn’t screw up some guy’s life over a short paragraph from Wikipedia.

But unlike you, I still hunt plagiarists. I still run lines through Wikipedia and I still search through Google Books. Hell, last week I took a bus to school on an off day with the express intent of checking a student’s citation (turns out he had completely fabricated his sources).

Maybe I didn’t do a good job serving justice my first time out; that doesn’t mean that the rules against plagiarism are wrong. Even though I feel guilt over my first catch, that doesn’t change the fact that fighting plagiarism is an important part of maintaining my university’s academic integrity. To turn a blind eye to cheating cheapens the value of my university’s degree, and it is unjust to the students who follow the rules and actually write their own paper.

I’m not convinced by your essay. As best I can tell, you argue that punishing plagiarism unfairly simplifies “the complexity of student experience” and creates the appearance of choice “when there’d been no choice at all.” I don’t understand the reasoning here. Many choices lead up to a student cheating—the choice to not work ahead of time, the choice to get trashed the night before, the choice to not ask the teacher for an extension, the choice to not turn the paper in late, the choice to copy and paste someone else’s words and claim they were his own. Sometimes the choice is as simple as the student deciding that their free time was more important than doing the assigned work. In fact, if we want to get down to the nitty gritty of the matter, students even have a choice about being students—a choice that, when made, should obligate said person to certain norms of academic and ethical comportment.

Your essay revolves around Haley, and how her life—and yours—was changed by her plagiarism. I think you want readers to feel the pain that Haley went through, the fear and self-doubt that your (and not Haley’s!) actions inflicted on her. But I got a different reading from her response to your questioning: after being caught cheating, she cared more about academic and personal integrity. I won’t go so far as to say Haley was a better person for being caught, but she was definitely a better student.

And maybe if you’d punished more plagiarists, you’d have other students that learned integrity is a both an academic and a personal virtue, and dishonesty a vice. Instead, you cheapened what it means to be a student—and a professor—by giving cheaters free passes.

Elliott Harwell

Mr. Erard responds:

Dear Elliott,

Your note is puzzling. You start out agreeing with me, and by the end you’re in full-blown ad hominem mode. I won’t venture to diagnose what this suggests your experiences as a graduate student or as an instructor might be. I will say that nowhere in my piece do I say that I removed a statement of plagiarism policy from my syllabi. Nowhere do I claim to have stopped hunting plagiarists. And nowhere do I say that I stopped dealing with people I caught. You have felt free to read that into my essay. I wrote an essay that pursued nuance of morality and biography, yet it seems to have provoked you (and a few other readers, judging by the comments that were left on websites where this essay was linked) to accuse me of some sin against civilization itself. I invite you to quote for me from my essay where I said that moral standards do not matter. I’ll make that offer even broader: I invite you to quote for me from anything I’ve ever written that glorifies or sanctions cheating in any form. But the essay is imperfect, because I didn’t describe what I did when I discovered plagiarism in the semesters following. I responded by doing my primary job, which was to teach writing. Of course, I had to uphold institutional policy, but when policy conflicted with teaching, I let the pedagogical guide my hand. I should have assigned more writing to Haley, not less—as it stood, she only wrote six papers that semester (three drafts, three revised drafts), not the eight papers that her classmates did. I should have made her write me an apology. I should have made her write an apology to the website’s author. I should have made her accountable, and I should have made her articulate her accountability in writing. I happen to think that school at any level should endeavor to make better people, not merely better students. In that, the punishment failed. I failed. As for the integrity of the academy you believe in, well, let’s just say that scholars and researchers are part of the culture, not apart from it, despite their insistences to the contrary. I don’t know you, but allow me the presumption of hoping that you learn this gently when the time comes.


Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. He is the author of three books, including his latest novel The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of 2017). His articles and essays appear in a variety of magazines, including GQ, Travel + Leisure and The Paris Review, and he’s written opinion pieces for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian. More information can be found at his website. More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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