Friday, April 29, 2011

“Why Must I Paint?” - My Own Experience With Plagiarism

In the shadow of a calling I found myself . . .

Speaking of deep inner truths.

Musical Moment
~ “Brand New Love” Serena Ryder

When I was in college, I was accused of plagiarism. This was back in the early 1990s, before the internet (and before I owned a computer as my paper was written on a typewriter), and my college professor accused me of stealing text. Whose text? What text? He did not know, nor could he prove it, he just “thought” I did.

I didn’t.

I knew back then I wanted to be a writer and I was working my way through discovering my voice, my thoughts and my words. I love words and always have. I love learning new words and putting them together in new-ish ways. In stretching myself and my imagination, I hit a wall in my professor’s disbelief of my skills.

I was 19 or 20 years old, when I was taking this Humanities class, which is essentially a hodgepodge of English, art and history, when my professor asked the class to write a paper about a great artist. I chose Michelangelo. I have always been fond of him and, while watching one of the videos the professor presented, experienced a sympathetic moment as I listened to the story of his struggle to do the art his soul wanted and balance that with the expectations the pope demanded.

Here are the sections of text he accused me of stealing:

“Why must I paint? Why must I paint? Why must I paint? When all I want to do is take my chisel in had and create an embodiment of souls through a marble visage, to give me pleasure, to make me great. In the eyes of the Lord, to the eyes of a mortal: me.”

“In his sculptures he took out his loves, hates, his anger and his happiness. With an inanimate piece he could create his own reality.”

My professors reaction was to write in bold red:


The highly elevated and literary diction of this paper suggest that you have copied material from a printed source. This is called plagiarism, and as discussed in class - this is considered a form of academic dishonesty. I have taken this into consideration in issuing your grade.”

Gobsmacked I was. Oh, I saw him after class all right and battled it out with him in the hallway. Luckily, my class before his was Creative Writing and I had my folder with all my work in my hands, as well as the last paper I had written for his class called “The Divine Comedy of Generation X” where I took the first five Cantos of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy and compared them with my generations struggle into adulthood. I took the fears Dante represented as animals - the leopard, lion and she-wolf - and created my generations version as the Canine of Fear, the Reptile of Failure and the Anthropoid of Control and Vanquish. My professor’s written response on that paper was:

“This paper received a high B for mechanics, particularly vocabulary . . . on content alone, it is an impressive job, one of the best I’ve looked at so far.”

I told him to contact my creative writing teacher to discuss to my style and work, because what he accused as being stolen text, was the way I wrote.

As we stood in the hallway he looked through my work from both classes. I told him if he thought I plagiarized he needed to show me the source. We both knew he couldn’t, because I was the source. He had to concur. He had no proof, but he did have a student who would not back down, had nothing to hide and who learned a valuable lesson.

On one hand, I was deeply ticked off that I was being accused of such a heinous crime, but on the other hand, I was deeply flattered. He thought my writing was so good, it was already published. This incident, and the years prior of all my teachers drilling in the unacceptable-ness of plagiarism, convinced me of the seriousness of doing your own work and being mindful of watching for purposeful and inadvertent thievery.

I did not like the feeling of being accused. I did not understand the idea of plagiarism because there are so many words and ways of telling a story if the effort is put in to do it; and I never wanted the feeling, the embarrassment of defending myself for such an accusation of such an execrable crime.

So why would any one want to plagiarize? What do they get from it? How can they think getting caught won’t happen? Do they think this or are they willing to take a chance to get an “A” on a paper or money in the bank? I guess I’ll never know.

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