Instead of comments on hippie culture or Madonna, American studies professor Michael Denning began a few of his Formation of Modern American Culture lectures last month with a more somber topic — plagiarism.

Three or four FORMAC students have been reported to the Yale College Executive Committee for plagiarizing essays, said FORMAC teaching assistant Elaine Lewinnek GRD ’05.

Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said he had not heard of the FORMAC cases, but said that he would be surprised if there were more than a handful of cases in the popular lecture class.

“It’s very rare in a class to have as many as four or five cases,” Brodhead said. “I would consider that to be an epidemic.”

Denning and a number of FORMAC teaching assistants declined to comment on the matter for privacy reasons. Members of the executive committee also declined to comment because it is the body’s policy not to have external conversations about individual cases.

Lewinnek said the accused students had obtained significant amounts of information from the Internet, which made the plagiarism easy for TAs to recognize.

“If it’s that easy to find Internet papers, then it’s that much easier for the TAs to catch,” Lewinnek said. “There are differences in tone, facts that would’ve been hard for someone to find out, dramatic differences in the quality of work [from one student]. The times I’ve found plagiarism, it’s been surprising to see how glaring it was.”

The accused students allegedly plagiarized an assignment to write an analytical essay on cultural works or texts from 1920 to 1960.

“These weren’t cases where someone forgot to cite,” Lewinnek said. “They were cases where very few sentences in the five page paper were original to the student.”

Brodhead said plagiarism is taken very seriously by the University and that in such cases, suspension is a very real possibility.

According to the 2000-2001 executive committee report, eight of the ten suspensions last year were related to plagiarism. In addition, plagiarism accounted for three probations and two reprimands.

Brodhead said because of the nature of Yale classes, he is surprised that students would try to plagiarize Internet essays.

“The thing about Yale is that a lot of classes are not taught out of textbooks,” Brodhead said. “Most Yale courses are much more tailored than that, so when you get a paper that has nothing to do with the class, it becomes obvious that it is not the student’s authentic work.”

Tamar Schwartz ’04, who is taking FORMAC this term, said that because of Yale’s course structure and the competence of Yale students, she was slightly surprised that plagiarism could happen at Yale.

“It’s surprising that it would happen at a place like Yale,” Schwartz said. “But I don’t think it’s surprising that it would happen in college.”

Lewinnek said after the cases were revealed, Denning told his teaching assistants not to overly scrutinize students’ work.

“One of the things he told us is that we don’t need to be paranoid about every single paper now,” Lewinnek said. “It’s not an educational way we want to be.”