Sunday, November 06, 2022

The stories we tell should be our own

Back in the day, before there were “essay mills” online that offer to sell prewritten school essays to college students to pass off as their own, cheating still existed, though it was decidedly of a more low-tech variety. Some fraternities or sororities would keep files of papers that had been written by members. Sometimes the files were passed off as resources for students to use in developing their own ideas, but too often they served as a way for a student to pass off someone else’s work as their own. Since the filed papers had been returned with grades and comments on them, the cheating student could even take a moment to improve upon the stolen work by addressing any shortcomings a professor had noted. Such practice was cheating then, and it’s cheating now in the new form it takes where students can buy a paper written by someone else.

One of my professors at college had been an undergraduate there as well about 15 years before I attended. He had been a member of a fraternity, and shortly before our first paper was due for class, he liked to tell the story of how a recent student had submitted quite a well-written paper that seemed awfully familiar to him. “A brilliant piece of work,” my professor said (or something akin to that), “but the problem was that I had written it.” The student had simply retyped a paper he found in the file cabinet of papers up at the fraternity house.

The message was clear: “Don’t try to cheat. I will catch you and you will fail.”

What I was never sure about was whether the story he told actually happened, or if it was one of those apocryphal stories teachers sometimes tell to try to set their students on the straight and narrow. At the time all that mattered to me is that I was given fair warning not to cheat, something I’m pretty sure was already embedded in my psyche anyway.

Does it matter if the story happened exactly the way my professor recounted it? As long as it happened and he wasn’t making it up out of whole cloth, I’m not convinced a little embellishment crossed any ethical line. Does it really matter, for example, that it was not likely “a brilliant piece of work”? Not so much.

Over the years that I’ve been a teacher, I have never had a student turn in a piece of work I had written years earlier. But I do tell them in the past I’ve found articles I’ve written among the samples being sold by online essay mills. I don’t tell them this to scare them out of cheating, though they know I’m against that too. I tell them to let them know they should never be OK with someone else stealing their work. I also tell them that because it’s true.

We might embellish the stories we tell. We might not remember everyone who was involved in the stories we tell. But if we are using stories to make a point whether we are teaching or doing anything else, the right thing is to make sure those stories are true.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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