The problem with cheaters.
[Finally I'm actually healthy again, and not in a hotel charging $10 a day for internet access. So, on with the blog!]
It must be a law of nature that when past and current graduate students dine together at the end of December the conversation turns, sooner or later, to cheaters. First, of course, you discuss the head-slappingly stupid techniques cheating students employ. ("If they thought we wouldn't notice them doing that, they must think we're really stupid!") Then, you recount a sting operation or two (like planting someone next to a habitual cheater during an exam and having the plant spend the exam period writing utter nonsense -- all dutifully copied by the cheater onto her own exam). Finally, there is the wringing of hands over how the graduate students' efforts against cheaters are for nought given the policies at certain universities that, basically, don't let you do jack to the cheaters.
It's that last part that's been sticking in my craw since the cheating cheaters discussion of which I was a part on New Year's Eve.
Maybe I just lack the necessary perspective here. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a university administrator. I do not grant degrees, nor do I take in tuition money. I've just been in the trenches teaching. From my point of view, assignments and exams are tools for assessing how well my students have learned the material I have tried to teach them (and, therefore, of how effectively I've taught the material), and of how well they're reasoning about this material. Cheating, therefore, is a subversion of the communication that's supposed to tell us how well we've done with the process. What it ends up communicating, when detected (and detection is far more frequent than students seem to think it will be), is that the cheater doesn't actually care about learning the material on offer. And, I get that there are lots of things about which one may legitimately not care, but it seems like it's a good idea then not to take a course on them. Or, if one must take a course on them (as a requirement, say, for a major about which one does care), it seems like a better strategy to try to find something to care about in the material -- how is it connected to the thing I do care about, for example.
Indeed, part of what I find most offensive about cheating in my courses is that it is an attempt to appear as if one cares about the material that reveals the absence of actual effort to learn the material. Cheaters care about my course instrumentally, as a means to get a necessary requirement filled or to get a desired grade. And, they seem to think that I won't feel ill-used by their cheating.
But I'm not ranting about the students today. I'm down on systems that let cheating persist unchecked. On New Year's Eve, I heard tell of policies at three major research universities that make it next to impossible to do anything to a student you've caught cheating. One where a student isn't "caught" without multiple witnesses to the act -- one of whom has to be the professor of record for the course. (Teaching assistants, the prof always sticks around when the exam is being administered, right?). Another where professors and TAs are expressly forbidden from being in the room while students are taking exams (which leaves witnessing and reporting the cheating up to students ... who are not always so invested in taking up this responsibility). For all three of these institutions, there seems to be serious pressure from the administrative forces in the system not to impose sanctions (like suspension, or even failing grades) for even habitual cheaters. And the lack of institutional will to take a stand against cheating seems to have made some of the profs just ... give up trying to do anything about it in their own courses. (Who wants to take on the procedural nightmare involved even in administering a slap on the wrist?)
What the hell are these administrative forces thinking?
I'm sure much of their thinking is informed by legitimate concerns for the rights of the students to due process. If I were cynical, I might suggest that their thinking is also informed by the likelihood that the parents of the cheaters, the captains of industry paying upward of $40K a year for junior to get a name-brand diploma, may be inclined to call those administrative forces to lobby for junior to get a second (or third, or fourth, ...) chance. Certainly, it would be a problem if the system were set up in such a way that profs and TAs could merely allege cheating, without proving it, and thereby end a student's college career. But that's not what's happening. Rather, we seem to have a situation where habitual cheaters are not held to account at all, except for perhaps having to repeat a course.
This at universities where, occasionally, faculty members are booted for fabricating data.
My gut says the root problem here is the model of the university that the students and the administrative forces seem to have in mind. The operative assumption is that the student is a consumer and the university is providing a product. (I paid my money, whaddaya mean I don't get my degree?!) On this model, exams with the right answers are just the necessary paperwork you have to turn in to get the degree you came for. How much, really, should it matter how you got that paperwork filled out?
A better model, at least from where I sit, is one of community. While each of us has our individual interests, we have certain interests in common (like the honest exchange of information and ideas, or the creation of conditions that foster learning). This is why cheating is an abomination -- it strikes at our common interests, and makes it impossible for us to function well as a community. Administrative actions that don't recognize or address this aspect of cheating further undermine the community. When administrative forces don't get that cheating hurts the community, they reinforce the cheater's sense that the community doesn't matter.
Community may be the key to dealing with cheaters in the world of science, too. In many of the high-profile cases of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, it comes out that the cheater is a habitual cheater -- someone who has been cheating for some time, and who may even have been caught doing so but let go with a slap on the wrist. I've heard it said (and it seems reasonable to me) that the tendency to let scientists go with a slap on the wrist is reinforced by a lack of intermediate-level penalties for cheating; if all you have is the scientific equivalent of a death penalty, you may look for reasons to let people off. But, having been let off, sometimes repeatedly, the cheaters may start to get the message that cheating doesn't really matter all that much. Their "youthful" offenses are kept quiet, lest a promising young researcher's career be ruined.
Wouldn't it be better to bring the "youthful" offenses out into the light so the scientific community could make it clear how these kinds of behavior hurt the community and undermine the project science is trying to do? Shouldn't the community, in the process of training new scientists, take an active role in keeping these new scientists honest? Mercy comes from an understanding that people sometimes falter in their judgment; working together as a community to help members exercise good judgment seems like a better approach than leaving someone who has screwed up on his own with just the warning not to screw up again. The community ought to know about "prior bad acts", not so it can isolate the actors or consider them evil (because if that were the goal, you'd just boot them from the community on the first offense), but so the community can help the actors interact with the community in better ways and earn back the community's trust.
Truly evil actors will need to be booted, of course. But it seems reasonable that only a small proportion of cheaters are irredeemably evil. One of the strengths of community is that it can help bring you back after you've gotten off track. The trick, it seems, is understanding that you're part of a community in the first place.