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Cheater, Cheater — The Morning News, June 8, 2010

Last week, The Morning News published an essay I was first assigned to write by Rolling Stone back in 2002, in which I found the first student I caught plagiarizing and interviewed her about how it impacted her life. The piece got killed (because I didn’t know what I wanted to write) but I remained fond of the work and recently decided to resuscitate it. The essay is here.

It sparked some conversation around the interwebs when it was reposted at The Awl, Huffington Post , and D Magazine. You can read how and where it was tweeted around here.

It also provoked a letter to the editors at The Morning News, which was posted today here. The letter came from Elliot Hartwell, a graduate student at UC Davis. Here’s my response to Elliot:

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.


Clearly, the conundrum that is student authorship in higher education hasn’t gone away, and neither has the tendency to moralize simplistically about what instructors’ proper responses should be.