Monday, May 3, 2010

May 3

I am writing this on Monday afternoon at the start of the last week of classes. Angie’s prediction has come true. Today Briggs struck back at me—-hard.

I knew that I would have to see him today since I was in his graduate international political economy class which met Monday mornings, and I had to go to class to pick up the take-home final exam he would be passing out. I dreaded seeing him, but nothing untoward happened in class. He was very witty and even highly solicitous of me—going out of his way to ask me my viewpoint and complementing me on my thoughtfulness. I assumed that he was trying to flatter me so that I wouldn’t file a sexual misconduct charge against him. I felt reassured that I had him at a disadvantage, and that he was too afraid to try causing trouble for me. I would soon be disabused of these comforting notions.

Shortly before 11:30 a.m., I arrived at the student judicial affairs office for the honor code committee hearing on the African-American male student whom I had caught cheating. The student was already there. He was dressed in a dark blue suit, and looked remarkably calm. I looked sort of shabby in comparison, dressed just in jeans and a T-shirt, but I knew that wouldn’t make any difference as to the facts. The hearing was late getting started since we had to wait for all the committee members to arrive. I was surprised when Prof. Briggs suddenly appeared. “The professor of the class always has to attend these things,” he said in response to my obvious puzzlement. That, of course, did make sense.

The hearing soon got started. The chair of the committee (a short, overweight white male who was taking this hearing—as well as himself—extremely seriously) outlined the procedure, indicating that we would begin with the complainant (me) outlining my charge against the defendant. I basically read the statement which I had submitted to the student judicial affairs office, and referred to the photocopies of both the student’s paper as well as the published book review it was identical to. I finished by saying that it particularly pained me to have to make such charges against an African-American student, but that the rules against plagiarism applied to everyone.

The chair of the committee then asked the defendant how he responded to these charges. Instead of doing so directly, the African-American student declared that what he had done was not really cheating (he didn’t elaborate what it really was), and that it didn’t justify this formal hearing (which was only taking place because he had not pleaded guilty). He also said that the charges I had made against him were racially motivated, that “this entire thing” would have been handled very differently if he had been white, and that he could prove it.

Everyone sat up a little straighter when he said this. “Please proceed,” said the chair of the committee.

“Professor Briggs,” the defendant began, “are you aware if Mr. Vining here suspected any other students of plagiarism on this assignment?”

Briggs looked thoughtful for a moment. “I recall him saying that there were a couple of other students whose papers he was suspicious of, yes.”

“Is this correct, Mr. Vining?” the defendant asked.

I acknowledged that it was.

“And did the students who wrote these two papers happen to be white?” he asked accusingly.

I acknowledged that they were, but that I had not singled him out. I had tried to find the original sources for these two papers also. I had failed altogether to find it for one, and had only found it for the other after the honor code committee’s deadline (which I had not been aware of) for filing a cheating charge against a student from the date he or she had submitted an assignment.

The defendant then declared that I had just proved myself to be a racist. “Why else would you move so fast to concoct a case against an African-American student before the passage of the deadline for doing so on the one hand, and so slowly in the case of one white student that you missed the deadline for on the other, and didn’t move at all in the case of another white student on a third hand?”

I indignantly denied that I had singled him out because he was black and repeated what I had said before.

“Why didn’t you have any difficulty finding the original source for my paper? Why did you focus so much attention on me, the African-American, before the deadline for filing a complaint had passed and not on the white students?”

I reiterated that I didn’t focus on him because he was African-American. It just so happened that I had quickly been able to find the review he had copied from on Google. And besides, I was intimately familiar with Prof. Briggs’s book, which the defendant had done his book review for the class on, due to my own previous research. The books that the white students wrote on were ones that I had read, of course, but was not as familiar with the scholarly response to as I was with Briggs’s book.

It was at this point that Briggs made his move. “May I interject something here?” he asked the committee chair.

“Please do,” was the response.

“You mention, Jonathan, that you are familiar with my book through your previous research. Are you referring here to the senior thesis you wrote last year at Cal State Barstow and the paper you wrote for Prof. Saltz at Harvard last semester?”

“Yes,” I answered hesitantly.

“Then I’m sorry to say, Mr. Chairman, that irrespective of whether or not the defendant committed plagiarism, for Jonathan Vining to accuse him of doing so is truly an example of the pot calling the kettle black.”

I was stunned by this statement, as were the members of the honor code committee. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” Briggs said to the defendant. “I meant no offense by that expression.”

“None taken, sir, none taken.”

Briggs continued: “It just so happens that Brendan Cohen (Jonathan’s former professor at Cal State Barstow whom he wrote his senior thesis for) gave a talk here at Charles earlier this spring. I had occasion to read Jonathan’s senior thesis some time later, and also the paper he did for Professor Saltz. I was dismayed to find that the ideas expressed in Jonathan’s two papers were virtually identical to those expressed by Professor Cohen.”

My God! This Brendan Cohen business was still haunting me! “I did not lift anything from him!” I declared indignantly. “He was the one who plagiarized from me!”

Briggs shook his head and smiled. “A tenured professor plagiarizing the work of an undergraduate?” he asked rhetorically. “Although some students may entertain pretensions about the quality of their writing, I have never read anything by an undergraduate that a professor would consider worth plagiarizing!”

Several members of the honor code committee as well as the defendant snickered at this. “But Jonathan, I understand, was a particularly gifted undergraduate, at least by the standards of Cal State Barstow,” Briggs continued. There was more laughter at this.

“I considered that it was possible that his former professor may have plagiarized from him,” he went on, “since both of Jonathan’s papers were written before the presentation made by Professor Cohen here this spring. Indeed, I was forced to consider this possibility since Professor Cohen has applied to be a guest scholar in my department next year. We are seriously considering extending him an invitation. But we obviously wouldn’t want him if he was the sort of professor who plagiarized from his students.

“I felt I had no choice but to ask Professor Cohen to explain the similarity between the presentation he made here on the one hand, and the papers written by Jonathan on the other. I am truly sorry to say this, Jonathan, but Professor Cohen was able to satisfy my colleagues and me that he did not lift anything from you. He sent me an enormous quantity of his lecture notes, draft articles which had never been published, and even old diskettes with files from years ago showing that the ideas he expressed at his presentation here at Charles were ones he had been talking about long before you wrote your senior thesis.”

I was dumbstruck. But there was more. “Professor Cohen also sent me a letter concerning all this. May I read from it?”

I started to object, but the committee chairman nodded for Briggs to go ahead.

“`I was truly dismayed,’ Professor Cohen wrote, ‘when Jonathan viciously accused me of plagiarizing his work shortly after I made my presentation at Charles. But I believe that the enclosed material demonstrates that these were ideas I have been expressing for many years. Although he himself might not realize it, Jonathan actually got these ideas from me.

“`In retrospect, I can see that I was at fault for mistaking Jonathan’s repeating my own ideas back to me as a sign of brilliance. I doubt, though, that I am the only professor who has ever done this.

“`Surrounded mainly by low quality students who cannot understand the simplest argument presented in a lecture or textbook, and who cannot write a coherent sentence, I endowed Jonathan with superlative qualities he does not actually possess.

“`Let me make one thing clear: Jonathan is not responsible for misleading me about his abilities. I succeeded in deluding myself on this score. Worse still: I succeeded in deluding Jonathan about himself too.’”

Briggs paused. The room was dead silent. I was devastated. “There’s more,” Briggs said, “but I think I’ve read enough. I did, though, make a copy for you, Jonathan. I think it’s only fair that you should have one.” I took the sheets of paper he handed to me and folded them in half so I couldn’t read them.

“Any response, Mr. Vining?” the honor code committee asked.

I wanted to shout out how Briggs had stolen my girlfriend from me, how he had obtained my two papers surreptitiously, and how he had deliberately set out to malign me for threatening to file a sexual misconduct charge against him. But I knew that none of these things would be believed or seen as relevant. I could barely even talk anyway. “None of what Professor Briggs has said about me has any bearing on the case at hand,” was all I could manage to say.

There was a stir among the committee members. It was clear that they didn’t agree with me. “The committee will decide that!” snapped the chairman. “Does the defendant have anything further to say?”

“Except for noting that Professor Briggs has shown that Mr. Vining seems to think that plagiarism is okay for whites—including himself—but not for blacks, no.”

The chairman then asked the three of us to wait outside while the committee deliberated. “It shouldn’t take long,” he promised.

Ten minutes later, we were called back into the room. The chairman said that although there was strong evidence against the defendant, it had voted unanimously to find him not guilty due to “extreme mitigating circumstances.” It recommended that the student be given the chance to write the book review over again, and that only Prof. Briggs—not me—grade it and any other course assignments which the defendant had yet to complete.

“Further, the committee unanimously recommends,” said the chairman, “that an investigation of Mr. Jonathan Vining’s unprofessional behavior be initiated.”

The defendant nodded in approval. “I didn’t come here to cause problems for Jonathan,” Briggs said piously, “but only to prevent him from causing problems for others.”

At that point, I practically ran out of the room. Despite his final statement, I knew that word would soon spread about how Briggs and the letter from Cohen had convinced the honor code committee that I was nothing but a loser who should never have been admitted here. He had convinced me of it too.

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