Winter 2006

Teaching Journalism Students to Value What Is Authentic

‘I thought by sheer will I could be the one teacher who led his students away from plagiarism.’

By Brent Walth
"You have to watch students nowadays," an experienced professor told me before the first day of the first class I ever taught. "They will get away with whatever they can."

I had asked for this advice, and these drops of poison fell into my cup. Harvard's summer school program had hired me to teach a beginning journalism course, and I sought all the guidance I could get about how to run a class, what textbooks to order, how to grade papers and, generally, how to not be a bore.

I got plenty of advice. Eventually, most teachers mentioned that plagiarism was a bigger problem than ever. Many veteran teachers blamed the Internet; others, the general decline in education and moral standards. Almost everyone told me to expect it.

So I girded for the worst. My syllabus carried Harvard's stern policy about plagiarism and a terse note of my own: "Plagiarism and fabrication are not I believed I could show them that in all things — and journalism especially
— originality mattered.
tolerated in journalism. That goes for this class, too. Your work here must be original." All of this I considered prudent, but I didn't like that the underlying message sent by so many was this: You can't trust your students. I refused to buy it. I believed I could show them that in all things—and journalism especially—originality mattered. I thought by sheer will I could be the one teacher who led his students away from plagiarism.

So nothing prepared me for the crushing feeling when it happened—and it happened twice in my course. Inside, you know they're the ones who've done the cheating but, as their teacher, you tumble into a dark spiral, convinced that you're the one who has failed.

Confronting Plagiarism

My class didn't have any Harvard undergrads. Instead my 15 students ranged from juniors in high school to students from other colleges to adults looking for a new career. And they were, overall, terrific—smart, energetic, eager to please. I piled on the exercises and tossed them out the door and into the world to find stories. But before I did, we talked about ethics—a lot. They read a Stephen Glass article and vigorously debated the author's style and reporting techniques—until they realized it was all hokum (and plagiarized) and experienced firsthand what it feels like when a reporter betrays the reader.

I also went over the policy against plagiarism several times, and we talked about where the word came from: the plagiarii, Latin for kidnappers. "In this class," I told them on the first day we were together, "don't steal any babies."

"You put your name on your work, and that byline isn't for credit or fame," I added. "It's for accountability. It tells the reader the name of the person—you—who is pledging that what follows is accurate, original and authentic."

I got blank stares at the word authentic. I tried to explain what I meant, something about putting only what's real on the page. My words were met by more blank stares.

The course went off without any problems until near the end, when I tripped over the first case of plagiarism. I had asked students for the first draft of a 1,000-word personality profile that they would later have to revise. Most looked promising. But one student's story was just plain awful. I considered sending the student back immediately to try again but then I thought I could help.

I recalled the student telling me that his subject had once been written about in The Harvard Crimson—a fact I assumed the student had told me to prove his subject was newsworthy. So I went looking for the Crimson article, suspecting nothing, but instead intending to do what I could to help this student make his article better.

That's how I found it. Of the seven paragraphs the student had turned in, three had been cut and pasted straight from the Crimson. My instincts as a "You put your name on your work, and that byline isn't for credit or fame," I added. "It's for accountability."reporter suddenly kicked in. First I called the student. No answer. Then I tried to track down the subject of the student's profile. Couldn't reach him. So I grabbed a notebook to dash out the door and track them both down—and then I stopped and laid down on the floor of my apartment and covered my face. I'd have to turn the student in, and I'd have to resign as well.

"There isn't a teacher who's been through this who hasn't felt the same way," an assistant dean reassured me when I told him that I felt responsible for this. "The guilt is a normal feeling. But just remember—you didn't do this. Your student did it."

At Harvard, you formally charge a student suspected of plagiarism and a council of administrators reviews the case and hands out the punishment. The instructor has no say—and that came as a relief.

The student quickly confessed in a remarkably candid account: He had put off the work to the last moment and thought he could get by on a first draft using the Crimson article. He took full responsibility for his actions. The college kicked him out of my class, the $2,200 in tuition his parents had paid for the course flushed away.

I knew he had received the proper consequences, but when the student wrote me a letter of apology, heartfelt and full of remorse, I wanted him back, even if Harvard didn't. With some hard work, I thought, he could learn from this experience. Besides, despite the condolences from other teachers and college officials, I still couldn't shake the feeling that I had failed him.

Looking for Reasons Why

Had I pushed too hard? I had told students that—if they ever felt panicked—they should call me and we could work something out. Had I not made myself accessible enough? I increased the number of one-on-one conferences and spent even more time checking in with students as their writing load swelled toward the course's conclusion. I didn't tell my students this, but I backed off some of the exercises, in part because they didn't need them, in part because I didn't want to raise the odds of another panicked student.

None of that mattered the second time it happened.

One student had already shown herself as a corner-cutter. When I told the class to go cover an event, she instead stayed in that night and interviewed friends about what they had done. In another exercise, she had pulled some statistics off the Internet without attribution—a minor infraction, but one that got a tough warning from me nonetheless.

During one conference with me, she told me she would write her profile assignment—due in three days—based on the author of a new book. She held up the book and said, "His whole story is right in here." I told her that, under no circumstances could she rely on the book alone and that she had to cite it whenever she drew from it.

So when I first read her assignment, I saw a lyrical lead, background delicately embroidered with twinkling detail, and long, graceful quotes that sounded like a finely tuned speech, not how people really talk. In other words, a phony. I felt the rush I often had during my years as an investigative reporter, the sense you had someone cornered and you were just about to prove it.

I went to online and within 30 minutes I had discovered that of the six quotes in her story one came from Wikipedia and two others from her subject's book. Then I drilled down on every one of her phrases and soon found eight sentences that she had tried to pass off as her own she had instead pirated from the book.

The case nailed, I suddenly balked. I thought I could have helped the first student and never had the chance. What about this one? One plagiarist was bad enough; a second would certainly expose me as a failure.

I went ahead and charged her. Rather than admonishments from the college, I felt the rush I often had during my years as an investigative reporter, the sense you had someone cornered and you were just about to prove it.I got more condolence and even more praise for my diligence. But her case proved more complex than the first. Rather than confess, the student fought every step of the way. In her letter of defense, she told the board she was simply too good a writer to ever need to plagiarize. She even brought her mother to class to plead her case to me.

The college put her on probation, a punishment that meant her final grade would forever carry a black mark telling the world she had been disciplined for dishonesty. The first student I thought I could reach and help was gone; the one who showed no remorse would stay.

The program director, sympathetic to my situation, sent me a journal article by writing instructor Richard J. Murphy, Jr. called "The Cheating Disorder," which was an excerpt from his 1993 memoir, "The Calculus of Intimacy: A Teaching Life."

Murphy's candid essay if nothing else told me I was not alone. He spoke of anger toward cheating students, the time squandered in dealing with their lies, and the growing paranoia that other students—most innocents—were also conning him. Murphy's essay became painfully familiar when he spoke about "the thrill of the chase" as he suspected a plagiarist and obsessively worked to run down the cheater. The discovery of evidence, he wrote, "promised a solution to the puzzle that had eluded me. They reinforced my sense of judgment and my sense of self-satisfaction at the thought that, in some small way, I was preserving the integrity of the university."

As the class wound up, I reflected on what these cheaters had in common, and in hindsight I saw warning signs: They both had shown little effort in the early assignments and seemed oblivious to my suggestions for improvement. They'd also given themselves away by mentioning their outside sources. And they had left their stealing easy to detect: It was just as simple for me to backtrack their steps using the Internet as it was for them to dig out their lifted words.

Understanding Authenticity

On the last day, the woman in the second case didn't show up for class. Just as well—I had asked the 13 remaining students to make presentations based on the lessons they had learned in the field as they reported their stories.

Most talked about overcoming their fears—of asking for interviews after facing rejection, watching their cherished writing undergo critiques in class. One They had discovered, on their own, that authenticity meant not just putting something real on the page, but the experience of discovery.student, when the course began, had trembled as she told me of her fears of interviewing strangers; now, she eagerly told her classmates of how much fun she had dashing around Boston, talking to a dozen people she had never met before, to finish her final assignment. Some admitted that they had panicked as deadlines approached—but they didn't cheat and instead crashed through anyway with work that was sometimes uneven and erratic, sometimes beautiful and elegantly plain and clear.

And then one student said, "I know now what you meant by authentic." I looked back, perplexed, and then recalled how I had struggled to explain what I had meant all those weeks back. They had discovered, on their own, that authenticity meant not just putting something real on the page, but the experience of discovery.

I stood to speak for the last time. No one looking back at me knew about the fate of the two colleagues. None of them knew that the betrayals had made their work all the more valuable to me—or made the authenticity of their experiences all the more powerful. The cheaters stole babies; these students rescued their children and, as it turns out, they rescued me as well.

I started to read some final remarks I had jotted down but—out of exhaustion, relief, whatever it was—my voice cracked. I couldn't finish. I paused and put my notes aside.

"Look, here's what I want to really say," I told them. "You walked in here as students, you walk out as journalists. I'm so damn proud of all of you."

I couldn't say any more. I had trouble meeting their eyes, so I stared straight ahead, at the two empty chairs.

Brent Walth, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter with The Oregonian.

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