Posted on December 27, 2011

I am a TA at a Canadian University . . .

Reddit, December 26, 2011

The course in question is an introduction to writing for first-year undergraduates at a Canadian university. They submitted their first full-length papers of the term a week ago, and we’ve been dutifully marking them with the intention of handing them back next week.

We’ve been extra-rigorous when it comes to checking these papers for plagiarism, both because it’s the first real work they’ve submitted and because of a memo sent out to our department back in late August urging every instructor to take greater measures. We’ve been cross-checking passages (especially suspicious ones, but also some that have been randomly chosen) using Google all along the line. We have been finding plagiarists.

Specifically, we have found six plagiarists (out of a class of 50).

All of them are black. And there are no other black students in the class.

My prof and I are both pretty sure that other students have probably plagiarized (it happens so, so much), but these are the only ones we can definitively prove. It’s not even circumstantial or flimsy proof, either; complete, shitty, largely unaltered papers taken directly from sites like this. Anyone with a search engine could find them.

It would seem to be an open and shut case, but the fact that every last one of the students is black is making us hesitate. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but in Canada we have a well-established Human Rights Commission that would be all too happy to accommodate some or all of these students bringing both my professor and me up on charges of racial discrimination. It wouldn’t even matter if we were to be eventually vindicated; the process is really expensive and time-consuming, and many people who have to deal with it end up settling even though they maintain their innocence. This, anyway, is quite apart from anything the university itself might do to us, which is another story entirely.

It’s possible that our worries are unfounded, but we still have them–these things have happened before. How on earth should we proceed? The idealist in me insists that we give these students the failing grades they deserve and maintain some spirit of academic integrity, but neither I nor the prof wish to have our careers ruined over something like this.

The most annoying part: neither of us even wants to teach this class.

What do you think, Reddit?

EDIT: Lots more replies here than I anticipated, so thanks for that! I’m trying to reply to everyone who’s given useful advice, but it’s pretty late and I have to go to bed soon. Still, I’ll try to get back to everyone in the morning, at the very least.

EDIT 2; SUNDAY AFTERNOON: Wow, this went absolutely nuts. There’s no way I can respond to everyone, but thank you all for your advice (and your jokes, too).

My prof and I have decided to take this situation directly to the department chair and describe exactly what’s going on. As much as we tend to agree that it would be best for us to just pass the papers along without any comment about the strange racial clustering that took place, mizike’s comment is an astute one. All the cards have to be on the table if the chair is to take this seriously and provide the right sort of guidance.

We’re also going to follow the advice of some other posters here and ask the chair if she thinks we ought to go to the HRC ourselves to get them to provide additional scrutiny. hmasing’s comment here gives the best account of what that should probably look like. I’m somewhat nervous about this, but we’ll see what the chair says first.

All of this could come to nothing, and I really hope it does. In the best-case scenario, the students will get their zeros (just on the assignments, not in the course in its entirety), learn a valuable lesson about etc., and we can all move on to the next round of papers.

If there’s still any interest, I can post a follow-up about all this later in the week. With luck, it will just be to say that everything went better than expected. Here’s hoping!

Thanks again, everyone, for all your contributions.

[Editor’s Note: This posting at received more than 2,500 comments, which can be read here.]