I’ve long been fascinated with plagiarism, not so much as a problem of students, but as a preoccupation of certain professors. A fear of plagiarism– and an anxiety about grade inflation–seems to be symptomatic of our era, to use the old term from theory. Yet, as Rob Jenkins suggests, there’s really not much to worry about when it comes to plagiarism (“Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism.”)
Urban myth at the University of Texas at Austin held that the fraternities had extensive collections of tests and papers, dating back decades, that the fraternity brothers could use for all sorts of mischief. I am not sure how much of that story is reality and how much is braggadocio, but I do know that a certain subset of fraternity culture sees substantive learning as irrelevant to a college degree.
Animal House (and its antecedents and predecessors) may be an exaggeration, but it’s rooted in a grain of truth. There’s nothing new in the idea of cheating in college and little evidence that technology– the internet or otherwise–has made it any more common. Most writing teachers don’t need any software, either, to notice that a particular students’ prose has suddenly improved dramatically.
It takes time and energy to succeed at cheating. Students don’t cheat often, and they cheat under pressure, and do it badly. The anxiety about plagiarism, I think, echos the degradation of the authority of the college professor, culturally and economically. As our ‘soft power‘ declines, in short, professors feel the need to assert their authority as the guardians of property and bourgeois propriety.