How to Suspect Plagiarism

Academic twitter has been abuzz with the story of Tiffany Martinez, a student and aspiring professor at Suffolk University. Martinez was called out in front of her whole class for suspected plagiarism because she used the word “hence.” Martinez described her own story here. I join many others in at least suspecting that if Tiffany Martinez were a white male, she would not have been questioned and humiliated for using a word like “hence.”copy-paste

Sadly, I’ve seen so many academics who are minorities commenting on the Martinez matter discuss how, while students, they felt that had to be super careful about citations, because they were always suspected of not doing their own work.

This is unacceptable.

Look, of course plagiarism is a plague. Like most college-level instructors, I’ve caught plagiarizers. But we should be extremely wary of falsely accusing students in general, especially if, as seems to be the case, we are disproportionately accusing minority students.

So here I’ve outlined a few ideas to help professors avoid a similar situation to Tiffany Martinez’s.

  1. Unlike Martinez’s professor, never, never, never announce to other students your suspicions of plagiarism. It is no other student’s business.
  2. Never, ever suggest a student plagiarized due to writing style alone. Not only is this immoral, this is incomprehensible to me. Has this teacher not had a variety of students of all apparent racial, ethnic, economic backgrounds who are amazing writers, or formal writers, or overly dramatic thesaurus denizens, etc.?
  3. Some possible rare caveats to number 2: I’ve had cases in which the writing style switched strikingly mid-paper for a couple of paragraphs, or from one paper to the next. I’ve also had students use philosophical jargon that I never used while teaching. These have been red flags, and occasionally following up on such has led me to find plagiarism. Note: it’s unthinkable that one word alone – especially one that’s unrelated to course subject matter – should itself count as a red flag. If it passes a plagiarism checker (see #5 below), I’d either let it go or – in the case of technical jargon only – Google around a bit. If you still find no evidence, I’d personally give it up at that point. But if you feel certain there’s a problem despite lack of evidence, you can ask students to visit during office hours and talk about the paper and sources without accusing them. I worry about even doing this, since it might have a chilling effect on students (especially minorities). But I suppose it’s better than evidence-less accusations, private or public.
  4. Most schools have a means by which you can grade your students’ assignments anonymously. If you can take advantage of it, it’s a good idea, in part because you won’t fall into any traps of second-guessing matches of student with writing style.
  5. If your school does not have a plagiarism checker, use a free one for all your students’ papers.

I’d love to hear more ideas and/or criticism of these ideas in the comments.

Elegy for a pen name

russelldaniel3I’ve enjoyed being Russell Saunders.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my decision to use a pseudonym back when I very first started writing this blog (version 1.0). It’s an angry internet out there, and it seemed prudent to try to keep a buffer between my work as a doctor and the potential for particularly angry responses to things I might happen to write. The decision to be Russell was about protecting my practice and my colleagues from negative reactions to my work as a writer, beyond any other consideration. Continue Reading

What good is sitting alone in your room?


The first gay bar I ever went to was called the Cabaret.

It was kind of a dive, and had a dance floor the size of a postage stamp. (They eventually expanded it, but the Cab that I remember best involved a sardine-like dancing experience if the song was any good.) There were drag queens, and occasional musical acts, and strippers from time to time. But what it mainly was was a place full of other gay guys.

The first time I went was at the behest of the guy I was attempting a long-distance relationship with, who was paying me a visit. I was only 19 at the time, so a fake ID had to be procured (I think I borrowed someone’s, but that detail is lost to memory). I actually ended up having a pretty lousy evening, as he spent the whole time dancing with someone else. (The less said about that idiotic stab at romance, the better.)

However, he got me through the door. Chances are I’d have made it there eventually anyway, but I’ll give him credit for giving me enough of a push to step into the gay world in a way I never had before. My first tentative stumbles in that direction had been entirely virtual, facilitated by Internet Relay Chat (which is where I’d met him). As my eyes were getting used to the light after exiting the closet, I looked around blinking and realized I had no clue about what it meant to be an out gay man. Continue Reading

The Democratic Party’s Current Civil War’s Uncivil Tactics

Northern Elephant Seal, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, CA 02feb2008 - photo by Michael "Mike" L. Baird Canon 1D Mark III w/ 600mm f/4 IS lens on tripod Elizabeth: Daniel and I have decided to write this post as a discussion, even though we are largely in agreement. We’ve both watched the conscious and celebrated rise of incivility as political tactic within the Democratic party with some dismay (see Daniel’s post about his experiences as a Hillary delegate at the Maine Democratic Convention). [Updated before publishing to add: when we started writing this post, the Matt Bruenig brouhaha had just started to be discussed on Twitter. He had not yet been fired. So it may look like initially as if we are avoiding The Very Obvious Current Conversation; we address it below.] Continue Reading

Donald Trump & The Tower of Babel

Here’s an interesting idea for a short story:

The God of the Old Testament looks down on Earth and is not at all happy with what he sees. Mankind, He notes, is overflowing with the sin of hubris. But more than anyone else, He takes exception to the one man whom He sees as the living embodiment of this hubris: Donald Tump, the “enfant terrible of American real estate, slapping his name on everything from Atlantic City to San Francisco condos.” Trump, God sees, is about to become the most powerful and revered (even if despised) person on Earth, and is starting to think himself God’s better. Continue Reading

Are Political Leaders Responsible for Supporters’ Behavior?

Trump_protest_Chicago_March_11,_2016A couple of posts ago, beloved co-blogger Russell wrote about his experiences as a delegate at the Maine Democratic Convention. Although this convention had not gotten any national press of which I’m aware, Russell reported seeing Sanders delegates shouting, heckling, cursing, and acting with general uncouthness of the sort much more widely reported in Nevada. (No chair throwing or threatening voicemails to party leaders, though.)

I asked a question in the comments, and I want to open it up for discussion here. Here’s the question: “What responsibility does a political leader have for his supporters’ behavior?”

Here’s my tentative answer for this current election cycle, the reasons for which I’ll lay out briefly below (but I’d love to hear from others). Trump does bear significant responsibility for the violence at his rallies and the anti-Semitic trolling attacks on reporters (among other bad acts carried out by his supporters). Sanders is not responsible for the chair-menacing, etc., that occurred in Nevada and Maine but was seriously remiss in his statement yesterday. Therefore, he may be partly responsible for some behavior from this point forward. He would not, however, bear nearly as much responsibility as Trump. As far as I know, Clinton is not responsible for the bad behavior of her supporters.

Full disclosure: I am a reluctant Hillary supporter. I detest Bill and don’t much like Hillary, in no small part due to how she ran 2008 campaign against Obama. I decided to support Hillary because my preference for political pragmatism won out over my dislike of Hillary as a person. I’ve grown to like her a bit more over the course of the campaign. She’s likable enough. I firmly believe, though,  that if situation were reversed, and Hillary supporters had shouted people down, harassed, made death threats, etc., and had Hillary released Bernie’s statement, I would draw the same conclusion as I have.

First, there are always going to be some people who act out violently in someone else’s name. We’re not going to blame Jodie Foster for John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

But how about this? I saw someone tweet in defense of Sanders that just recently Wendell Pierce, the actor from The Wire and apparently a far more rabid Hillary supporter than I, assaulted a couple who were Sanders supporters after a political argument. If people are blaming Sanders for his supporters’ behavior, why aren’t they blaming Clinton for Pierce’s behavior, the tweet (which I can no longer find) asked.

There’s one way to look at this, which is that a politician bears no responsibility whatsoever for the actions of her supporters. People are going to do what people are going to do. As long as the supporters are fully autonomous adults, they make their own decisions, they alone are responsible. End of story.

And surely each individual supporter is mostly responsible. Almost entirely. Very largely.

But politicians are running for their offices in virtue of the fact, in part, that they can offer leadership. They are asking to influence our lives and behavior in the aggregate and showing us their skill at doing it. (In the case of libertarians, they are asking to influence our lives by removing regulations and such. Even if a libertarian purports to disdain a cult of personality, they certainly can have influence over our lives.) Supporters of politicians will do things in support of their candidate that they wouldn’t otherwise do. This can be great – a skilled political can influence a generation to, say, public service. Or it can be not so great.

Given that influence politicians can have on our lives, I think they have special obligations in how they use that influence.

Let’s look at Trump first. In speeches, he promotes violence, laughs it off. His slowness to disavow white nationalism has ensured racists’ continued support. Multiple times, he (and his wife) have declined to condemn the anti-Semitic harassment of reporters who cover them. They bear some responsibility, then, for what has been carried out in their name.

By contrast, Sanders never called for violence – it’s been clear that his revolution is meant to be non-violent. As far as I know, he has earned no prominent racist endorsements and then winked at them.

Sanders’s supporters disrupted political events, which I think is bad news but is arguably a legitimate form of protest. The death threats, harassment, and vandalism, are a far clearer no-go. However, it’s not like the supporters were following Sanders’s orders at that point.

Here’s what makes this different from Wendell Pierce. Pierce was acting alone. He’s clearly a one-off situation. In the case of Sanders’ supporters, there were several of them acting the same way, and they were targeting a political opponent. One gets the sense that not only did they feel they were justified, many others felt they were too, and that behaviors like this will continue without some sort of signal from the candidate that this is absolutely unacceptable.

I don’t think Hillary supporters saw Pierce’s actions as justified. I don’t expect that others in growing numbers might follow suit unless Hillary makes clear that it is absolutely unacceptable. If Bernie supporters are more systematically targeted, even in small numbers, then absolutely Hillary gains a responsibility to speak out.

I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Nevada politics. Sanders may well have had a legitimate beef. But no matter how big the beef was, it could have been set aside. By not condemning them, he sent a message to his supporters that he thought harassing voicemails and death threats was a legitimate means to political ends.

Since Sanders still has never incited violence or anything similar, he still bears far less responsibility than Trump.

I expected far better of Sanders. I was actually shocked when I read that statement.

Anyhow. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the matter.

Photo by TheNoxid

A word on comments

“Don’t read the comments.”

It’s a truism of online culture that the overwhelming majority of online commentary is, at best, dispensable. At its frequent worst, it is ill-informed, vitriolic, hateful, and a disgraceful cesspool of humanity’s ugliest impulses. Avoiding comments sections entirely is generally considered prudent.

Over at The Daily Beast, I’d try to keep myself from reading the comments on my pieces, only to succumb all too often to morbid curiosity. (I’ve been told that everyone reads comments on their articles, even if they know better and pretend otherwise.) The angry ones followed familiar patterns, often along the Big Pharma shill track. The good ones were rarely so effulgent in their praise to make reading the whole mass worthwhile.

And then some time ago the Beast did away with comments entirely. I did not miss them. Continue Reading

Turn down the flame, Bernie supporters

Supporters of Bernie Sanders, you have some work ahead of you.

I am not referring to the long odds you face in the delegate math on the way toward getting your candidate nominated. I’m talking about what you’ll need to do if you manage to pull it off.

This past weekend I had the privilege of serving as a delegate at the Maine Democratic Convention. (I obviously did so using my real name.) I was there in support of Hillary Clinton. However, like most Clinton supporters, I went into the convention fully prepared to support her opponent if he ends up with the nomination.

While what happened there didn’t change my mind about how I might vote in November, it sure made the climb there steeper. Continue Reading

Was Edgar Allan Poe’s Genius One of His Devising, or Our Own?


First, a concession: My dislike of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing style — the visceral, physical cringing I feel when reading his poems and stories — is likely a testament to that style’s phenomenal success. The dreary, gothic, broad strokes that paint each line are to me a cliche, one that hearkens to every bad poem read to me in over-earnest tones by sophomoric students back in the day when I, too, could be counted as one of their kind.

You likely know what I mean.

You’re reading a poem someone you have a crush on wrote, and it’s about a death, and there’s a scary tree, and it’s rather obvious that the tree represents death because the poet you have a crush on lacks the subtlety to do anything but telegraph the allusion with a jackhammer, and then at the very end of the poem the poet you have a crush on inexplicably sees the need to actually switch to dramatic all-caps and announce “AND THEN I KNEW THAT THE TREE ITSELF WAS DEATH!” And then the poet you have a crush on looks at you intensely with slightly tearing eyes, and asks you what you thought, and you concentrate so very hard on your facial muscles not to give away the actual answer to that very question.

We’ve all been there.

Except, of course, that Poe wasn’t really a cliche. Continue Reading

Hauling away the pedestal

It’s an unsteadying moment, realizing one of your favorite authors is pretty obviously racist.

For various reasons, I tend not to speak much of my personal religious faith when I write. I’ve mentioned my evangelical upbringing at times, generally in the context of discussing my eventual rejection of its beliefs, and I’ve made reference to a familial connection to Judaism (which I cherish) from time to time. But that’s as far as it goes, and as far as I’m inclined to take it.

However, I will cop to loving C.S. Lewis. Continue Reading