My academic career was ended by plagiarism.
A student, an English Lit third year who had been unremarkable for the whole semester, had produced a final essay full of suspiciously glittering prose. It was not impossible but it was unlikely, rather like an off-key shower crooner suddenly singing like Bing.
I googled her first sentence and found that she had copied and pasted with abandon. No further questions, your honour. I gave her zero and wasn’t surprised when I was later invited to state my case in the administration block at the University of Cape Town.
I had expected an office, a clerk, an academic or two. Instead a visibly frightened apparatchik led me into a large wood-panelled room in which sat the accused, her father and two men in suits.
One of them looked familiar and just as I remembered where I’d seen him – in a newspaper, commenting on some high-profile lawsuit – they were introduced as the accused’s legal representation.
The lawyers subtly began implying that their client had been a victim of a kind of assault: on her character and self-esteem but mostly on her hopes of graduating and living a happy life.
The perpetrator of this attack? The incompetent tutor – yours truly.
It felt like an elaborate prank but even as I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation I realised that I was being cross-examined, seriously and well, and that it was working. I was tripping over answers. I was hesitating, vacillating, crumbling. I was looking incompetent. I tried to regroup and returned to the essay. The copying-and-pasting was indisputable, I said. And that’s when I got my first (and, I hope, last) first-hand taste of what the law can do.
The famous lawyer brushed the essay aside with a contemptuous hand: it was, he implied, immaterial. Of much more concern was his client’s plagiarism declaration – a signed document all students have to attach to submitted work, declaring that they understand what plagiarism is. Had the accused attached such a declaration to her essay? And was I aware that university policy barred me from marking any essay that didn’t have a plagiarism declaration attached?
I had to concede that it was possible she had not attached one. And yes, I knew the policy, but I had been marking late at night and I had felt under pressure to finish crunching through the pile without leaving any loose ends. Besides, I tended to downplay the declarations as I assumed that people in tertiary education had learned enough to understand the difference between right and wrong.
There was an almost audible rolling of eyes. Assumed?! This reckless cad had been willing to destroy the reputation and future career of this innocent with a mere assumption! But they had got what they wanted, and were ready to deliver their coup de grâce. Their client, they revealed, had not, in fact, signed a plagiarism form. Therefore, according to the university’s own laws, the essay should never have been marked. It should not even have been read; not even touched. Someone had done wrong, to be sure, but that someone was me. I had discovered plagiarism that, by law, should have remained undiscovered forever.
It made a kind of ludicrous sense and as I sat there, punch-drunk, I felt grim admiration for the lawyers. Before my very eyes they had turned white into black, day into night and lies into truth.
The student got a comforting hug from her father and I was dismissed from the room into a blanket of silence. The university asked me nothing, told me nothing. A while later I heard through the grapevine that she had graduated. I left UCT soon after that, figuring that if I was going to earn the same as teenaged babysitters and envelope-lickers, I might as well do it far away from plagiarists and attack lawyers.
This week, as lawyers are thrust onto our pages again, I am tempted to surrender to easy and fashionable dislike. It’s an old prejudice – Shakespeare said, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” and no doubt got a roar from the groundlings – and it feels superficially legitimate condemnation of people who seem to pull dirty rabbits out of sordid hats. And yet perhaps this boils down to simply shooting the messenger. Perhaps I’m just avoiding the daunting fact that the law is all-powerful but almost entirely opaque to me; that, when I stand before its impenetrable surface, all I have is assumption and emotion. And the most dangerous assumption I have is that the law always serves the outcome I believe to be just.
First published in The Times and TimesLive