This semester, not for the first time, I've had a student I've charged with plagiarism who remains in my class for weeks or months while the charge makes its way through the university's courts of appeal.
Some students respond by slinking into back-row seats and avoiding eye-contact at all costs, while others (pathological liars, sometimes, or just really fucking ballsy) show up every day determined to perform their diligence and sincerity. One of them wrote me a RMP.com review in which she accused me of being a power-mad egomaniac who goes around charging students with plagiarism with absolutely no proof--and then showed up in class the next day and spoke all period long, smiling shyly and winningly at me from beneath her bangs.
As awkward and occasionally enraging as such a situation can be, it can also be perversely fun: there's my plagiarist in the front row, hand continually raised, and there I am being smiley and affirmative, both of us engaged in a performance whose falsity only we know. It's a kind of brinksmanship.
But although our motives are different--I'm mostly just trying to keep the class running smoothly, and I'm as happy to have smart comments from a plagiarist as from anyone else--I wonder whether our temperaments are so different: aren't we both showing off and taking pleasure in our own power (of self-control, if nothing else)? And aren't we both displaying a spectacular capacity for deception?
I know, I know: the motives matter. But when I wonder whether my plagiarists haven't, somehow, convinced themselves of their own virtue, and cluck my tongue over the bizarre mental malfunction that permits this--I have to acknowledge that I, too, have a powerful ability to make myself believe what I want to believe. I don't lie often and I don't lie about big things, but when I do rearrange the facts a bit, whether to save someone's feelings or to excuse and explain a minor misdeed, I almost never feel that I am lying; I guess I have to believe that what I'm saying is in some sense true, or I couldn't say it.
White lies aren't something I'm prepared to worry about, but I wonder whether it's a slippery slope. Just a few days ago I was skimming my archives and came upon a favorite post from last fall, one that begins with a brief autobiographical anecdote. I smiled as I read it, reliving the event--and then stopped. Oh, right: that detail I just "remembered"? It's fictitious. The real story wasn't much different--I needed to cut down on explanatory backstory, so I switched a few facts around--but in rereading that post I vividly recalled the event in a way it had never actually happened.
Rearranging details to paint a more understandable, agreeable or simply useful version of reality--well, that's what writers do, and I'm a frequent invoker of "the larger truth" of a situation. But I also believe in the importance of knowing the facts. And I guess I'm wondering whether my ability simultaneously to know certain things to be true, and yet convince myself they aren't, makes me so different from my front-row, gold-star plagiarists.