This response is all too familiar to an experienced professor. Only once in my three decades of teaching has a student I caught plagiarizing owned up to it right away. And in that case, I believe (perhaps cynically) that she (a graduate student) thought a forthright confession might lead me to lighten the penalty. It didn’t; I failed her for the course and wrote her up. Indeed, I found out later that she had been caught plagiarizing by a colleague the previous term and let off lightly. I suspect that, because too many professors (many of them adjuncts fearful of student backlash) overlook or are unwilling to pursue plagiarism -- the process can be labor intensive, and it is always unpleasant -- cheating has become a way of life for many students, and they are genuinely surprised at being held responsible for it. So I don’t doubt that your shock is real.
When I declined to believe your initial denial, you reiterated it less strongly (“OK, I used SparkNotes, but I reworded everything”) and appealed to me for leniency on various grounds: first, that you didn’t know that paraphrase required documentation; second, that you had in fact read the book you were supposed to be analyzing (Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and, third, that the low term grade resulting from your F on the paper would cost you your scholarship.
With regard to your first claim, I have to admit that your paraphrase was very thorough, so much so that Turnitin.com, to which you were required to submit your paper for screening, did not lead me to SparkNotes. There were other clues, however: the potted nature of your off-topic observations and, more obviously, your paper’s entire lack of specific page references to your primary source. Also, earlier, less skillful plagiarists had alerted me to theSparkNotes on Girl, Interrupted, so I knew where to look.
Your second claim is also familiar; student plagiarists often claim that they thought documentation is only necessary for quotation. For all I know, this excuse may have worked for them before. But any adequate discussion of plagiarism will correct that misimpression, as I do in course documents you should have read. As a college student, you should know that the key to responsible use of secondary sources is to cite them openly from the get-go and to indicate clearly the boundary between your words, insights, and ideas, and those of your source. But you relied almost entirely on SparkNotesfor your observations on Girl, Interrupted.
As for your third ground, you must understand that I cannot take your financial circumstances into account here. In any case, can you see how ironic it is to plead, in effect, that you had to cheat to keep your scholarship?
This brings me to what is, from the professorial point of view, the heart of the matter. Your use of the online “study guide”SparkNotes is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such guides very rarely enable students to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a student has actually read (as a student I occasionally used them that way myself), but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for -- or stimulus to -- the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of true college writing.
For that, you need to pay close attention to the prompt provided by the assignment. As I say in my handout “Tips on Writing an Academic Essay,” well designed assignments in humanities courses often ask students to think