21 January, 2014

The Vast Temptation To Cheat

Classes begin this week, and I post again my traditional admonition. Sorry, but you're getting this one for the last time. (Cheers) Here begins my last semester (my 78th) in the classroom at Utica College.

Before returning to happier topics, I'm compelled to comment on the cheating epidemic - much of which is driven by the laziness I characterized as a symptom of our lost learning ethic in My Inconvenient Truth.

"F for Cheating. It has a rather ominous ring, doesn't it? The faculty at the college where I teach are authorized to assign an "F for Cheating" as a course grade and with the phrase "for cheating" placed on a transcript for intellectual dishonesty - either cheating or plagiarism. In a community of scholars, there is little room for either. We come together each year to give and receive knowledge, to explore new ideas, and to grow intellectually. I might add that faculty and students alike ought to be expected to do the receiving and giving and the exploring and growing. As an academic endeavor, however, college just doesn't function well in an atmosphere of distrust and dishonesty. Life doesn't either.

Many students (and a fair number of faculty, I suppose) hold the belief that grades are the measure of academic success. Perhaps, but I could argue the point. What I won't debate is that our society encourages and reinforces that belief. Whether it be parents or peers or prospective employers, the exhortation for ever higher marks is strong, and that pressure undoubtedly tempts many students to try the shortcuts of cheating and plagiarism. Well, there are no academic shortcuts, and knowledge not now obtained must be acquired later and at a much higher price. That's a hard lesson to learn for it would seem that experience alone teaches the value of learning a difficult thing well as well as the genuine sense of satisfaction that comes with honest achievement.

Cheating, however, is rampant. We must find a way to get society to consider the gravity of such behavior - whether it's our own or that of another. Ignoring for now the ethical issues, how would you feel if you learned that your physician had made it through school by cheating? Or your accountant? Or the engineer who designed the bridge upon which you're driving? It really is a serious matter, and it is all too easily rationalized. We all – students, faculty, and others - need to examine how we feel about others who cheat and to engage each other in earnest discussion about it.

Now, I am a realist. I don't live in a Pollyanna world. I know that cheating is going to occur. I also know that a few of my colleagues will turn their heads. Thank goodness that while there are faculty who actually encourage cheating by providing easy opportunity and little sanction (the same faculty who will bemoan such behavior and label the students the worst group of cheaters yet), there are many more who are strongly motivated to do something about it. I am one of those – one who tries to make cheating difficult and does not hesitate to fail the student when I see it - whether it occurs on the first quiz or the final examination, on a one page essay or a forty page term paper. Can you say "twisted knickers?"

My own undergraduate years were spent at the University of Virginia with a student administered honor system envisioned by Jefferson himself - although he didn’t live to see it implemented. This famed system was built on the premise that there is no degree of honor; you are either an honorable person or you aren't. Consequently, there was but a single sanction; those who were not honorable left the institution. I earned countless grades in four years but only after signing the following: “On my honor as a gentleman, I have neither given nor received said on this examination (or assignment).” I acknowledge that was another time and another place, but there was essentially no cheating or plagiarism. The trust among faculty and students engendered by that system made for a delightful and fertile learning environment, and there is little more that one can ask of an institution.

So I ask my faculty colleagues to be demanding, but fair. Set high goals for your students, and hold them accountable for reaching those goals. At the same time be cognizant of the pressures on students and work with them to reduce them. Of students, I ask that you be demanding of yourselves by resisting the temptation to take the shortcut, be demanding of your fellow students by insisting that they work by the same rules as you, and be demanding of your professors by asking that they be fully engaged in their courses. For anyone, faculty or student, to settle for anything less is to tolerate a level of mediocrity that reflects poorly on us all. Let's not sell ourselves short.