Yup, it's happened. The discovery took place almost by chance - I'm futzing around my computer at 11:30 this evening, I'm not tired, I decide to look at, perhaps even grade, some essays. I've quickly glanced over this one before - the student had a question about the placement of the thesis statement - and it looks promising. After reading the intro, I Google a phrase, since the style is more sophisticated than the student's earlier essays have been, but nothing comes up - great. I start commenting in the margins, generally in a very complimentary fashion, although there are one or two places that could be further analyzed. I get all the way through the essay before a hunch tells me to Google a phrase further down, and bingo - probably 2/3 of the essay is taken straight from an article the student cites as a source. (This factor, along with a misattributed citation, leads me to suspect that the essay was purchased, rather than fabricated, but I could be wrong.)
This student is taking six classes this semester (more fool they!), so if I had to have a plagiarist, I'm not surprised it's them. And the assignment was open-topic (it's a writing course), so it was much more feasible to plagiarize than one of the assignments directly linked to course readings.
I'm not furious, nor do I feel personally offended - I know these things happen, especially with over-extended students. But I'm angry at the student, of course, for wasting my time and those of their peer reviewers, who've already given detailed comments. And I'm somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed. My syllabus doesn't have a set policy for plagiarism, and I don't give final grades for any essay until the final portfolio, so this essay would have received only a provisional grade in any case. One option would be to simply require the student to complete the assignment and leave it at that. But the essay that I caught was supposed to be a revision; do I require a revision of the new assignment as well? Given that I wouldn't have assigned a definite grade to the essay anyway, will the student escape any penalty whatsoever, apart from having to write the essay they should have written in the first place? Or should I impose some kind of penalty on the final course grade, a solution that might be justified in the abstract but seems rather arbitrary, considering that I don't have a well-thought-out policy in place?
I wish that I could simply fail the student on this one essay, but unfortunately, the portfolio grading policy precludes that. Hmm... I could, however, factor in an F as 1/6 of the final portfolio grade (there are six total essays in the class), which would amount to about 1/8 of the final course grade - enough to lower it, but not to automatically fail the student. I'll have to consider this option. Any thoughts?
I'm going to talk through the situation tomorrow with the director of the writing program, who is generally a good resource on matters of student-instructor interaction, discipline, and grading issues. In the meantime, I'm glad that I encountered this problem at night, when I wasn't about to sit down for a hard-core grading session, since I've gotten the chance to work through it a bit without feeling as though I were wasting otherwise productive hours.