To Catch a Thief

Or Not…

Many years ago, but in a galaxy not that far distant, I taught physics and astronomy to undergraduates at a decently large university (perhaps you remember my name in the course catalog – I was Prof. Staff…).  Mostly it was a great job, with no heavy lifting.  My memories of those days are pleasant.

But (you knew a “but” was coming, right?) there was one incident.  I caught a student cheating, red handed (he scored near perfectly on a multiple choice test, if I used the wrong key).  And it was not the first time (the first time involved the use of a symbol for a capacator that I had never seen before, except two minutes earlier on the sheet handed in by an A student.  Funny how a good number of other answers were the same, too).  My department chairman was made aware of the situation.

I flunked the student on that test (it was one of five grades I gave, outside of the final exam, and I gave him a 0 on this one).  I watched the student.  For the final exam the person came in, holding a handkerchief and coughing.  “I’m not well.” came the claim.  “May I be excused?”

“Sure.” I answered.  Just don’t expect to pass the class.  The student left.

Grades were turned into the registrar, and sure enough, I was called into a meeting the next week with the department chairman and the school’s ombudsman, who was there to plead the student’s case. You’d think it would be open and shut.  Even without the proofs (plural) of cheating, which I had in hand, the history of warnings (records existed), and the fact that the course was not completed (no final exam), I was essentially told to give the student the lowest possible non-failing grade (in this case, a D).  There was a reason given.  The student faced deportation if I did not.  Pretty serious stuff.

Ugly situation.  In one sense, I had no say in the matter.  I was not on a tenure track, so my career was not on the line.  But if I flunked the student it was made clear to me that the chairman would change the grade (and that if he did not, the school would, and he would no longer be chair).  A lowly adjunct prof. one year out of grad. school has no standing to even know the outcome of these things, much less have a say.  “There are bigger issues to be considered here.” you’re told.

The attititude about cheating has changed since, thanks to the internet. But not for the better.

The universal lament that the Internet makes it a huge challenge to catch cheaters is the opposite of the truth. Any college, department, or individual teacher who takes cheating seriously can easily obtain the means to catch cheaters.

And that’s the rub. Catching cheaters is easy — if you want to catch them.

But colleges nationwide have made a decision that cheaters aren’t their problem.

As it now stands, the schools (universities and colleges) have insulated themselves by saying that detecting and punishing cheating is the sole responcibility of the instructor.  They’re not involved.

The abdication of dealing with cheaters from the administrative to the individual teacher level is just another defensive measure. When a student flunked for cheating sues, the college isn’t responsible.

And the fear of lawsuits only compounds the difficulty of what is already a difficult decision. Even with the strongest possible intellectual conviction that it’s the right thing to do, actually imposing a punishment on a fellow human being takes a certain amount of moral courage. It takes some guts.

The isolation of the teacher as the lone defender of honesty in the classroom only makes it much more difficult to do the difficult but necessary thing when the time comes.

It sort of looks to me that some students consider a passing grade to be their right (it’s somewhere in the constitution, right?)  And why not?  “They paid for that damn grade.” (They paraphrase Reagan alot).

Greg Forster, who wrote the article I’m quoting, says that in the face of lawsuits and academic pressure, many in academia are chickening out.  He did.  I did.

[D]oes anyone think that this is the optimal way to determine the punishment for cheating? Cutting teachers loose from all support and then seeing how far their individual moral courage holds up under pressure?

Naw.  But someone has got to make a stand.  I was thinking just yesterday about the tragedy in Mumbai, and how it’s so necessary for someone to find the courage to make a stand.  I could have made a stand but didn’t, thirty years ago.  It would have taken much less courage than in India last week, and it probably would have not changed the outcome one wit.  But maybe one school would have been changed, a school that has graduated a few thousand cheaters since.

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2 Comments on “To Catch a Thief”

  1. Dharma Says:

    Disheartening. The mitigating circumstances always make things so complicated – the threat of deportation, the chair’s position, et cetera. Even though I don’t actually care about those details, I know those things must also be weighed. Does it take a village to fall on one’s sword? It seems so.

    I work with someone who is politically tone deaf and does the right thing seemingly without regard to the consequences. It fascinates me but I keep waiting for it to come full circle.

  2. joe Says:

    Yes, disheartening is a good word to describe both the situation in academia and to describe how hard it is to find courage. Most disheartinging because, for me, so little was on the line. I can only blame youth now.

    Isn’t it odd that we fail the test so often, without even realizing we’re taking it? We need to be aware of the little tests we take daily, so that when the big one comes we’ll be ready.

    The term “politically tone deaf” is not often used as a compliment. Your co-worker is probably seen as foolish by some. However, I know that Pontius Pilate was most emphatically not politically tone deaf. And how do we seem him now?

    Thanks for reading, Dharma!


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