Academic Dishonesty

Program participant Nona Lewis suggested that I post the following exchange with her daughter. There is much to consider here. While I think that the classroom situation she describes is one better described as “cheating” than “plagiarism”, these are issues which must be constantly discussed with students. Cutting and pasting fundamentally changes the way we lift the work of others and situate it in our own: Nona’s note to me came on a day where I used PowerPoint slides developed by Catherine Lewis (acknowledging the lift, of course). Jonathan Lethem’s piece last year in Harper’s, The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism, rewards the reader in its exploration of appropriation.

Here’s Nona’s story, followed by her daughter’s response:


I don’t know if the following will be of use to our purposes or not. However, it was one of the most powerful lessons my kids had to deal with. For years I have watched kids copy math, science, etc. assignments with no obvious feeling of “cheating.” I knew they were also sharing answers on some assignments I had given them.

Just a few days before school was out, the students took a test on basic geographical US features–land, water, etc. They knew from the start of the year that these locations would be tested at the end of the year. It was totally rote information. All of the information was given to them on my edline site–easy to access.

Oh, my. It was obvious that someone’s paper passed among other students–eg., Willamette River became the Deschutes, the Sierras became the California Mountains.

My daughter called the night I was tussling with “Do I ignore this, school is almost over, or do I confront the students?” After some emotional distress on my part, I asked Maggie to email me her thoughts.

Here is our exchange.

Hi Mom,

Feel free to share these thoughts with your students as you see fit. I was surprised and saddened to hear that one of the last issues you need to deal with this school year is academic dishonesty. Clear evidence of flagrant cheating cannot be overlooked or brushed aside lightly.

After four years of college, one year of international affairs grad school, three years of law school, and now several years working in academia, I cannot stress enough to your students how important this issue is. Academic dishonesty is one of the most serious offenses a student can commit. I remember one of the first things I did upon arrival at college was sign a code of academic integrity, pledging that all work that I submitted in my name (whether it be an exam, paper, or other work product) was truly mine, with clear use of citations when I analyzed, commented on, or otherwise drew upon the work of others. Not only does cheating have direct ramifications on the student if he or she is caught–including disciplinary hearings, academic probation, notation on permanent records sent to graduate schools, and even expulsion–it also cheats the student out of the learning experience. And, really, you’ll look like an idiot if you are an adult in the Pacific NW who cannot locate the Willamette River on a map. Not to mention the unfair and uncomfortable position you put a “friend” in by asking to copy his or her work.

By all means, study together, collaborate, and learn from one another, but do your own work. And this goes beyond school. I’ve attached an article below from this spring about a White House aide who was forced to resign because of plagiarism. His political career is over. Period. And he’s far from the first politician, journalist, author, academic, or other professional whose career was ruined as a result of dishonest behavior.

Your students might be able to assuage their consciences by telling themselves, “But it was just a silly little quiz.” Such rationalizations will get you nowhere.

Do your own work, take pride in your own work, and find joy in your own work.


Margaret K. Lewis
Senior Research Fellow
US-Asian Law Institute
NYU School of Law

Hi, Moose…

What a beautifully written piece. I copied it in large type and projected it onto our big screen. I started out by saying how sad I was. The students didn’t know for sure whom I was referring to. They listened intently as I read your letter. There was complete silence. I then quietly passed back their papers–only the culprits got another test to retake without seeing their first. Not one of the six said, “I didn’t copy anyone.” To the one I suspected let his paper be passed around, I reiterated what you said. Again, not a word. They set right to work. Some students had no clue that others were redoing it for quite awhile. Then I could see them breathe a sigh of relief.

Great advice. I’ll use it again, I’m sure.

I shared you letter with our librarian. She asked me to ask you if she may use it when she is teaching kids about plagiarism. I thought that was very appropriate and quite funny. So, what do you think? May Rollene use it? I certainly have it saved and plan to use it many times in the future.

One of the students said something to the effect that you write so well and another said, “Of course, she’s Mrs. Lewis’s daughter.”

Talk soon,
I love you dearly,


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