Sunday, May 3, 2009

Getting Away With It

I've written this blog entry as a kind of "open letter" to good, honest students who get frustrated because they think cheaters, scammers, and BS artists are doing half the work and getting the same grades. Throughout this entire posting, I'm going to assume that anyone reading it is an honest, hard-working, ethical, concerned student, and that he or she won't take offense at anything written here about dishonest students, whom I hope are not reading. (It's usually a safe assumption, but I thought I ought to state it outright.)

Anyway ... Let's start with a story.

Several years ago, three of the best students I had at the time teamed up to write a paper together. The paper did well, and they were happy. But then a couple of weeks later, they were reading papers that other students had posted online, and they stumbled across one that had ripped off roughly three of their paragraphs.

Ticked and bemused, they came to me.

"Mr. Scott, we really hate to rat on another student, but this is really bothering us. Chuck* plagiarized our earlier paper, and we thought you should know about it."

(* No, his name's not Chuck. All the specifics here are tweaked, to protect his identity -- an issue that actually ties into the point I hope to make with this blog entry.)

"Really?" I asked. "Show me."

They did. They even went so far as to print out the two versions and highlight all of the similarities in carefully documented notes.

I called Chuck in for a conference, showed him the two papers, got him to admit that he'd copied their papers, had him fill out Student Judicial Affairs paperwork, and told him he was getting an F in the class. He asked whether he should keep attending.

I said, "Well, even if you do, you'll have an F in the class, so there wouldn't be a lot of point in it."

Usually, when I say that, students get the hint and take the rest of the term off (at least, from me).

Chuck, however, stuck around. He kept showing up to class, and participating, apparently hoping to change my mind by showing me that he wasn't so easily discouraged. After he'd done this for a while, one of the students who'd turned him in came to see me, looking simultaneously sheepish and rather annoyed.

"I know you're the teacher, and that what's going on with Chuck is none of our business at this point, but I just wanted you to know that we think it's really unfair that he might still pass this class, given that he was ripping off work from other students. We're doing our own work, and working hard, and for all we know, he's just stealing stuff from other students now, instead of from us. I guess we were just wondering why you're giving him a second chance?"

Well, I wasn't, of course. I'd already failed him. But I couldn't say so -- student privacy rules prohibit me from telling you that Bob got an F on a test, or that Susan got an A, or that Chuck cheated and is failing the course. (Interesting note: If your parents call me and ask me how you're doing, I can't tell them. The same laws kick in there. Naturally, there are weird exceptions, and there are situations in which there's no helping it -- when someone on a team paper contributes plagiarized material, I often have to talk to the whole team about it, which means there's some privacy leakage along the way.)

At any rate, what this meant was that I couldn't tell Concerned Good Student that she was wrong, that Chuck had failed the class, and that he was still showing up for reasons totally unfathomable to me.

Instead, I had to say, "Well, thank you for letting me know about that. I assure you I'm taking the matter very seriously."

She snorted, like what I'd just said was PR-ese for "I don't care at all; stop bothering me." And I don't really blame her. But I couldn't tell her. Those are the rules.

Here's another rule that applies to this situation: Unless Chuck threatened to knife someone (or did something similar), I couldn't tell him to stop showing up. He'd paid his tuition. If he wanted to put in all of that work for an already promised, guaranteed F, that was his business.

As far as the three Concerned Students know, Chuck passed the class with flying colors. He didn't, of course. But as far as they're concerned, he "got away with it."

This story is not at all unusual. I see this same basic narrative repeated several times a quarter.

Speculation by good students that such-and-such bad student is "getting away with it" is common. And it's almost always wildly wrong.

I've had students come to me all worked up because they're sure the team flake who never showed up to class and never contributed to the team project is going to unfairly get the same grade as the rest of the team. If I'm aware of the behavior, he doesn't. But I can't tell a student that Bob got an F on the project, unless that student is Bob. So I say, "Thank you for the information. I'll take it into consideration." And that's pretty much all I can say.

A similar story, this time about BS: I had a student -- perhaps the best writer I've had in a class all year -- write in a blog last term that, after reading material by some fellow students, she had decided many of her fellow students were BS artists who throw together long strings of big words in an attempt to impress, even though their sentences say little, or are vague, or are empty. She concluded that most of them would probably get A's, and she'd get a B, even though she was pretty sure she wrote better than they did. She figured she'd keep writing simply, even if it meant a lower grade, out of principle.

I knew which students she was talking about, and they weren't getting A's. In some cases, they were far from it -- and for many of them, long strings of BS were the primary reason they were struggling. She, on the other hand, was a fabulous writer (still is), and should have known it by then, since that was her second class with me.

I'm not sure where these "getting away with it" narratives come from, but they're persistent -- and they're so often wrong, that I finally decided to address the matter here. These narratives are wrong for several reasons, but I'll focus on three:

1. With very rare exceptions, we're not blind, stupid, or inexperienced.

Most of us can see the obvious. Most of us have been teaching for a while. All of us, before we taught, were students: We sat in those uncomfortable chairs; tried to figure out how to arrange things on those fold-out "desktops" so that our arms and notes and other gear could all fit; watched people pass notes in front of us; felt the person behind us kick our chair repeatedly; and watched the clock a lot if the lecturer tended to drone. Outside of class, we liked to think we were super-scholars, capable of acing classes without always showing up, doing the readings, or following instructions closely -- believing this sort of thing gave us more time for dating and playing networked videogames in the dorm hallways. We all had at least one buddy who liked to brag that the 6-page paper he just turned in was "total BS, with nothing comprehensible at all." We are full people, and have histories that are much like yours, but longer. Those histories include awareness of the sorts of things that other students do. Also, from the front of the room, our view of the scene has improved a lot more than you'd think, and we see a lot more than we comment on aloud.

2. "They" are bad at gambling.

Really. Maybe they're okay in Vegas, but they're lousy gamblers in a classroom. Dishonest students have a staggeringly high likelihood of getting caught, partly because most types of cheating are easy to catch, and partly because cheaters invariably (due to random chance) make some sort of dumb error after a while. And the payoff is limited: That paper from an online essay site probably doesn't match the assignment quite right, so it's doomed at the start to receive a low (and possibly non-passing) grade; all of the screwy citation habits that go into trying to "cover up" plagiarism stand out in a paper and can cost the author points even if the plagiarism itself isn't detected.

(Think about it this way: If you don't cite your sources, you can get nailed for not citing sources. If you cite the sources you plagiarized from, the grader will notice the crime if he or she looks them up. If you cite other sources as a smokescreen, you get nailed for fabrication -- for citing a source that really didn't say what you say it said. That's a kind of academic dishonesty, too, and every bit as serious as plagiarism. If you make up sources -- as I've had a few students do -- those are the easiest to catch of them all. The whole citation thing is designed to make verification of your research possible. Any attempt to mess with that verification makes it unverifiable -- and the paper gets a lower grade because of its unverifiability. This is a very hard game to win, if one treats it like a game, which is why I say these are bad gamblers.)

What about BS? We all know BS, pretty much, when we read it. (A quick definition: BS occurs when an author is so unsure of his knowledge, understanding, or ideas, that he fills his page with verbal fog, with sentences and phrases that mean nothing to him, but which he hopes will fool others into believing an idea was present.) Teachers tend to feel insulted when they see BS. Because they want to be fair to the occasional student who has ideas but is actually unclear, they try to give some benefit of the doubt, but they still grade the paper down for poor articulation, poor grammar, poor word choice, poor style, or any number of other features that tend to go hand-in-hand with BS. That is, the BS tends to punish itself, and most teachers will simply let it do so.

3. Long-Term Ramifications

Finally, there is something like a tortoise-and-hare effect involved here. The good, honest, struggling student, who scrapes by with an honest and bloody C, might have great reasons for resenting the flakey BS-er who managed a B- simply because he did a couple of assignments well, when he cared. But over the long haul, I'd bet my money on the C student doing better.

Why? Well, that brings me to another story.

Several years ago, while I was working on my Ph.D., I enrolled in a series of undergraduate statistics classes: three quarters' worth. The first class had about 350 students in it; the second 110; and the third about 30. I hadn't taken an undergraduate-level class, with undergraduates, for a very long time, and found the experience ... fascinating.

Just before class in both of the first two courses, if homework was due, students would be madly swapping answers with each other, sometimes in full view of the teachers, who pretended to ignore the answer market. These answer swaps seldom dealt with why or how the answers worked - they just involved trading of answers, blindly. When tests came up, similar trading produced community notes for last-minute cramming sessions. Shortly after tests and homework were completed, students forgot most of what they were supposed to learn.

But each class built on the one before it. By week two or so of the third class, there was this huge gap between those of us who had tried to understand the material and those who had gamed their way through. The latter students were baffled most of the time, I'd say, and did terribly. A lot of them dropped or withdrew. If they needed the third class for graduation, I don't know how they managed it, since they'd already "passed" the previous two and thus could not retake them to learn the stuff they'd missed.

A lot of the world works like this, particularly in a university setting. Bad habits smile at you now, but kill you later. Every once in a while, a former student asks me for a letter of reference. Not surprisingly, they're all hardworking, honest students who have some reason to imagine I'd say nice things about them. The bad apples that you kind, hard-working, Concerned Students worry so often about have limited options in similar situations -- they've burned those bridges. They're trying to figure out how to pass their upper-division classes with skills that atrophied while they were faking their way through lower-division units, and they're scrambling to find anyone to write them a letter. Many of them do find three letter-writers, but they never compare well to the letters and letter-authors of the honest students: The bad apple gets a vague and bland letter from a former TA ("I can confirm that I had Chuck in a literature discussion section during the spring of 2006, and that he showed up for discussion sections a few times"), while the ethical hardworker gets a letter that says she's an ethical hardworker, written by a recognizable name in the field.

In short, don't worry about the trolls out there -- they seem tough, but tend to quietly expire off-stage. In a few years, you'll look around, and wonder where a lot of them went.

1 comment:

  1. I think many students are still rooted in the whole high school writing experience, especially for those of us in their first year of college.

    Also nice use of "trolls". :)