In academic circles there is the kind of letting-off steam essay that some write, or think about writing, that is framed as a letter to a semi-hypothetical student, but which affords the writer a place to get something off of his or her chest. Said semi-hypothetical student is anonymous and in truth, is a concatenation of all of the other students who have struck the very same nerve in the writer.
Sometimes the tone of the letter is one long fling of anger about something--late papers, cell phones in class for example; other times the tone can be sarcastic or instructive (especially when the writer chooses to explain why the dear student's act was wrong on so many levels). Occasionally, these letters can take on the tone of the lofty, condescending professor of old, talking down to a population that may or may not be paying attention anyhow.
Actually, the real audience of these letters, all of them, doesn't seem to be written to the "dear student," but to the dear colleagues, who can respond with pity, sympathy or disagreement. When the writer moves to get away from the sarcasm and into an explanation of why an individual behavior or institutional practice is unproductive, counterproductive just plain wrong, then there's room for this reader to sit down and chew on the topic. Otherwise, I click away from the article and read something else.
The above is the long way into talking about the "Dear Plagiarist" article that ran a few days ago in the IHE. When I saw the title, "Dear Plagiarist," my first reaction was that the reader was going to be in for one of those bile-soaked outbursts in which not much is accomplished except the venting of an understandably frustrated college professor. Yes, the title caught my attention, but until Nels tweeted that the essay was worth reading, I was put off enough by the "j'acuse" title to skip it altogether. The very title suggests that the student has transgressed beyond redemption, though oddly, to put that label on the student also suggests that both student and act have considerable power, which several commentors show can be the case.
Couser's "dear student" is someone who seemed to avoid reading the assignment instructions or paying attention in class, and who flunked the paper by using Spark Notes to think for her--though she did paraphrase the work. Based on his refutations, it doesn't sound like he had simply given a terse assignment and expected the students to forage for themselves in the great forest of the humanities. Instead, it sounds like he gave assignments and readings that would have lead anyone paying attention to be able to at least try writing a response.
The truth is, we don't know what lead to the student's behavior, and the overall tone seems to be one of exasperation with her. I've been there, and I'll bet you have, too. And I'm sure I'm not the only professor to have been impressed with the energy, intelligence and creativity some students put into pleading their cases, from our offices all the up the chain. But the questions remain--why didn't the student just write the paper? And why was it easier not to? And are we surprised that TurnitIn didn't catch it? And why did the student bother to paraphrase? And what goes on institutionally that allows students to cheat on papers and get by with it because their untenured or parttime instructors rightfully fear that the poor grade will make said instructors look bad?
Raising these questions, listening to the conversations that bring in answers from all kinds of perspectives and readings (like Pluralizing Plagiarism,for example)seem to be the most useful response we can enact when reading any essay/letter of this genre, which seems,on the surface to be an individual cry for help, but which carries undercurrents of an ongoing professional need to critique a situation that occurs time and again.