This incident happened a little later in the final term of my BA. It took place in a class that included some graduate students. There were a lot of these mixed classes at my school, which was a state flagship. I went to college with a fair number of people who, like me, grew up in the same town, and in some cases were professors’ children or had grown up with professors as friends of the family. “Jill” was an MA student, a couple of years older than I, whom I had known in high school as the older sister of a friend. “Jane” was a Ph.D. candidate, who looked to me like a returning student, mid-thirties or even forties.
Something weird happend today in NX’s class. Jill, a grad student who did her undergrad work here and has a certain reputation already for being good, as well as having a lot of friends, did a presentation in class. It was a pretty straightforward explication de texte, or so it seemed to me (I admit I spent part of the time reading [novel], because I’m so behind). After class, several people, including me, hung around to try to talk to NX. Jane, another grad student, whom I knew from last semester in [other class], was talking to Jill; nobody was paying much attention. NX moved us out in the hall, since another class was coming in.
A few minutes later, Jill came out, in tears, and squeaked at NX, “You’ve got to help me!” Jane had been accusing her of plagiarism, claiming that she had taken ideas from her, Jane’s, thesis, insisting that, since Jill has known the prof Jane is working with since childhood, Jill must also have worked with this prof. I guess the prof is an old family friend. I was trying to melt into the woodwork and not listen, so I didn’t hear all that much. I heard Jill say, “She’s sick,” and heard NX being very soothing and conciliatory, assuring her that she’d done a good job. “I suppose it’s a compliment,” Jill said after awhile. “Take it as such,” NX told her.
And I thought, “This is what I’m getting into?” It won’t stop me, of course, and I even think I might be able to take such a thing happening better than Jill did (I hope: perhaps we’ll see), but it upset me. It’s naive, I know, because of course I know about plagiarism scandals and know that academia is highly competitive, but I thought the competition was just about how good you are, not whether you and someone else have had the same idea. I mean, this situation is ugly any way you look at it. Either Jill did plagiarize, which is wrong, or she didn’t and Jane is being unduly suspicious. People often do come up with the same ideas. Surely part of being good is how you develop your ideas, not just that you’ve had them? I don’t know either Jill or Jane well, but I liked them both; I’d talked to Jane a few times and found her very nice. I don’t understand. I don’t even understand quite why I’m upset. I guess I wanted to think I was going into a reasonably clean field, but anything with people in it can’t be clean. You can’t spend all your time in a library with books. There are people there to be dealt with, and they’re not all nice all the time.