Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why I Don't Care About Cheating

First, a few caveats about this post, just for clarification:

(1) By "cheating," I mean academic cheating. Plagiarism, mostly. I don't mean relationship cheating, or sports cheating, or cheating on your taxes. I do actually care about those... well, two out of three of them, anyway.
(2) The title of this post is (obviously, I hope) hyperbolically stated. By "don't care" I don't mean that I won't still enforce the rules. So, if you're a student of mine and you've happened upon this blog, don't get any ideas.
(3) I'm not absolutely committed to my position on this. I would say that I'm about 80% committed. I can be dissuaded, but it's going to take some convincing. That's what the comments section is for.

Next to grading, one of the things that my colleagues complain about the most is cheating. The details of the complaints differ, of course, but they usually come down to some variation on: Students are so LAZY! It's a frustration that humanities profs know very well, since not only is it disappointing and disheartening to read a plagiarized paper, but also a little insulting. Badly plagiarized papers are usually pretty easy to spot: the prose style changes dramatically mid-essay, or the level of insight demonstrated is beyond the capacity of the student-writer, or there are references to works/ideas/thinkers that were either not included in the assignment or obviously a part of some other pre-fabricated essay. Often, there are truly epic mistakes that basically serve as big, flashing, red-hot neon signs that read: I DID NOT WRITE THIS! (True story: I read an essay from a former student that included a paragraph that began "Thirdly,..." The problem is there was no "firstly" or "secondly." Oy vey.) But not all plagiarized papers are badly plagiarized-- in fact, most aren't, I would say-- and it's those in the gray area that are the most frustrating and time-consuming to identify.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, plagiarism is not only on the rise... it's big business. Pay-per-page "paper mills" and other one-stop-shop CheatMarts are readily available to students on the Internet (or, if you're a student at Penn State, just across the street from campus), allowing students to skip the whole tiring process of actually researching, studying, going to class, and doing work by "buying" papers, exams, lectures notes, and a variety of other products-of-other-people's-labor. What's more, these CheatMarts are no secret. We all know they're there, and we all know what they do. So, the poor, beleaguered Professorate has been driven to slowly transform itself into a police force, spending inordinate amounts of time tracking down and rooting out intellectual criminals every time they assign a paper.

Why do student's cheat? There are lots of reasons, of course, not all of which amount to laziness. They're under a lot of pressure (especially in an age of so-called "grade inflation"). They're often underprepared by their high schools for the rigors of higher education. They're over-committed and don't have the discipline or time-management skills to handle all of their commitments. Or they've actually bought into the total commodification of knowledge and education and just don't see cheating as a significant ethical concern. There are the "lazy" ones, of course, but there are far more who would be better categorized as "confused" (how DO you cite Wikipedia?) or "sloppy" (what DOES count as common knowledge?). There used to be an old-saying that went: as long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools. I say: as prayer goes, so goes cheating.

Why do profs care if students cheat? Seriously, duh.

So, what does Dr. J mean when she says she "doesn't care about cheating"? That's complicated, but here's a go at it:

(1) Let me begin with a truly old-school answer: cheating hurts the student. At the end of the day, this is still the reason (I hope) that we all care so much that students cheat. If they're cheating, they aren't learning... and that's what they're in our classes for, after all, right? The reason we have honor codes and academic integrity policies and the like is because we want to create an environment in which students actually have to do the work of learning, without shortcuts or cheatsheets or undue assistance. If a student plagiarizes a paper in my class, gets an "A," but still learns nothing, who is really hurt by this? Not me. Not really. At the risk of sounding way-too-Ward-Cleaver-ish, that student has really cheated him- or herself. They've robbed themselves of a chance to learn something, and they've exchanged that invaluable opportunity for something that in the long run matters very little (i.e., the grade they got in a philosophy class in college). And, the truth is that, for most of them, they also had to suffer the stress and pangs of conscience that come along with cheating in order to get that (mostly insignificant) grade. So, their loss.

(2) My next answer requires a slight reformulation of the original claim. It's not so much that I don't care about cheating itself, but I don't care enough to spend a lot of time tracking down cheaters. Why? First, because it takes a LOT of time! But, more importantly, I'm not sure that the time invested is equal to the supposed benefits. I have colleagues/friends who read every single paper with suspicion, assuming already that it is plagiarized or partially-plagiarized, and they describe this vigilance as a "real commitment" to academic integrity. At my college, where we operate under an Honor Code, I feel like it's crucial that not only the students, but the professors too, hold our collective commitment to the Code in good faith. That means, for me, that I ought to trust that students are not cheating. If I don't, if I read all my students' papers as if they're plagiarized, then I might as well be teaching at an institution that doesn't have an Honor System. Of course, that doesn't mean that I should (or do) simply look the other way when there is obvious evidence of an honor violation, but I don't know how I can honestly expect the students to take their Pledge to be honorable seriously when I don't take it seriously. If I catch a student plagiarizing, then the penalty for that violation ought not to be merely a failing grade, but also the shame that comes along with dishonoring oneself and betraying the shared values of a community that relies on honorable people acting honorably. When I approach my student's work as if it is already suspect, I'm dishonoring those values and that community, too. So, whatever satisfaction I may find in my "real commitment" to academic integrity comes at the cost of creating an environment in which my actually honorable students are treated the same as my dishonorable ones. That's a lose-lose, in my view. And a very time-consuming lose-lose.

(3) I'm not the police. I'm a philosophy professor. I care about students learning philosophy and, more generally, learning how to think. If they don't learn philosophy because they don't care, or they're lazy, or they cheat, then I'm disappointed in myself as much as I might be in them. My job, as I see it, is to teach courses in which students don't want to cut corners because cutting corners doesn't seem like a net gain... NOT to carry around a big, threatening bad-grade-gun to scare them into being honest. Even more than that, my job is to create an environment in which students can actually experience the joy of learning, especially learning something "hard," in which they can see the value of honing otherwise tedious skills like critical reading/thinking/writing, in which they can take pride in their work more than their grades, and in which they can decide for themselves, in a mature and informed manner, which ethical rules they are willing to break and which they aren't.

(4) Twenty years after the average non-major student leaves my class, I don't expect that they will be able to recite the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative. What I do hope, however, is that they will care to know why people do the things they do and whether or not those actions seem rational. In the long view, the difference between a student who turns in a plagiarized paper on Kant's categorical imperative and a student who turns in an honest paper on the same topic is very little... at least in terms of what they know about Kant. But, of course, there IS a difference between these students. The first never learned to ask or to think about questions of Kantian morality, and the second did. My (admittedly idealistic, possibly naive) belief is that the first student suffers something far worse than the failing grade s/he might have received from me. S/he suffers a paucity of reflection, a diminishing of his or her deliberative capacity, an incomplete and crippled world-view. Again, see (1) above.

(5) Finally, I worry that constant and ubiquitous surveillance actually weakens students' ethical sensibilities, rather than strengthening them. My (admittedly idealistic and possibly naive) approach to students' work probably does allow more offenders to slip through the cracks unpunished, but I think it also raises the bar for the whole. Treat students like adults, and they act like adults. Treat them like children, and you will spend all of your time trying to corral cheating, whining, grade-grubbing children.

In conclusion, I'm not losing any sleep over the alleged spike in cheating and plagiarizing. The students who do it are already losing, and the time it takes me to google every suspicious sentence is not worth the mostly-insignificant punishment they will recieve. What's more, my pandering to the kind of hyped-up fearmongering of Academic Integrity Vigilantes forces me to alter a lot of things that I believe are sacred in the classroom. Sure, I could make my tests and paper-assignments more cheatproof, but then I would be handing out assignments that have no hope of accomplishing the kinds of learning experiences that I want them to accomplish. Does that make it easier to cheat in my classes? Probably so.

But frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I was totally planning on agreeing with you (and I still do). But then I read one of the obvious and stupidly cheated plagiarisms and now I'm in a bad mood.

So here's why I do care: Because I don't really care but when you do it I am required to care...

emma b. said...

I've been blessed at my current job to have not encountered even one suspected act of plagiarism (touching wood as I eye the huge stack of papers to grade). I know this will change at my new job, and with it my blissfully pollyanna-ish attitude. But I think/hope the way one sets things up at the beginning of any class CAN make a difference. I am very big on reminding students that they are adults, entering into a contract. I don't like to moralize about honor codes and violations of community ethics (the panopticon of the institution is wonderfully functional on one level and totally creepy on another), but focus on the more pragmatic facts: (plagiarism only hurts you; it's a huge amount of work for everyone to deal with - honor council, you, the professor; I know it's tempting but if you're faced with a last-minute crisis please communicate with me rather than resorting to it).

UNCC will be an entirely different ballgame... oy.

anotherpanacea said...

I want to agree, but I find that I can't. I want to disagree, but I find that you've responded well to all my arguments. So I'll settle for this: rightly or wrongly, I find it personally insulting and hurtful when my students cheat.

I understand that it's not about me, but that's not how it feels. I pour a lot of my time and energy into grading. Perhaps this is a mistake. I develop a relationship with my students on the page, through their writing, my comments, and their developing style and ideas. When I discover a plaigirist, it feels like a betrayal, like they've cheated 'on' me rather than 'at' or 'for' me. There's crying involved, and not just for the student. Is this wrongheaded? Probably, but the feeling is there. It's something I work on. helps a lot.

CBR said...

As if the prof/student relationship is a freely entered, equally balanced situation where projects are embarked upon jointly and any deviation is a 'betrayal.' As if they're not mostly there because of a thousand external pressures, and you don't get paid to be there. The emotion of feeling betrayed is totally understandable, but that doesn't make it any less ideological.

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Rocky said...

Well ...

I teach physics, often to a room full of budding engineers. When a mechanical engineering major cheats, he/she is risking the lives of everyone who will cross the bridge that will be designed by a poorly trained engineer.

This is not merely a matter of honor or trust.

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