HONOR SYSTEM

Posted in Rants on April 14th, 2011 by Ed

Several weeks ago I caught three students cheating on an exam. In a mandatory, arena-sized Intro class of 325 students it is not entirely unexpected. Many freshmen who will not be in college for very long pass through such classes as do all kinds of students more interested in partying than anything academic. Unfortunately for them, auditorium classrooms are well designed to catch cheaters. Because the students' seats are elevated it is quite easy to use the angle to observe students looking at one another's papers, looking at concealed notes, or passing information back and forth.

I will spare you the details but the sharing of information by these three gentlemen was blatant, a technique they no doubt considered very clever and learned from their elders at the frat house. After watching them clumsily cheat I asked four different TAs to watch them and verify that I was not imagining things. All four agreed that they were attempting to cheat.

Upon informing the students that they would receive an F for the course due to academic misconduct, I assumed the matter was closed. Anyone who teaches for more than a short while deals with this. No big deal. Soon I was contacted by a university administrator and informed that professors at this school are not allowed to fail students for cheating or plagiarism. We have to report them to an academic affairs office and go through an administrative process. OK, I thought. Irritating but ultimately irrelevant.

I was then told that the first step in this process is "mediation", wherein the professor and students meet with an administrator who would…do something, I guess. This irked me. I did not appreciate having to waste an hour of my life on these sad excuses for students. The meeting consisted of an endless legalistic preamble about students' rights and an admonition that we "come to an agreement" about what happened and what consequences would result. What was supposed to take an hour took about 30 seconds. I informed them that I have no intention of negotiating with students and seeking their permission to fail them for cheating, and even less enthusiasm for negotiating a lesser slap-on-wrist punishment. We can skip this and go directly to the next stage of the process if the students insist, I said.

The admin was decidedly upset by this. It became apparent that the entire point of this process was to mildly scare the students until they Learn Their Lesson and then let them off the hook with some sort of minor punishment. In my case, the admin didn't even want to go that far. Despite written statements from five people – me and four teaching assistants – she was aggressively implying that this could be a big misunderstanding. Are you sure that you actually saw them cheating? Why don't you have any proof? (to which I responded "What would you like, surveillance camera footage?") Can't we come to some kind of agreement to put this behind us?

No, we can't. This isn't kindergarten.

We now move to some sort of quasi-judicial procedure with a five-member panel that will make the decision. The outcome is obviously going to favor the students. It's clear what the university is doing but not why. I honestly can't figure out their motives here. Are they afraid of lawsuits? Worried about the school's reputation? Pandering to parents? More "the customer is always right; he paid for an A, give him an A" nonsense?

What I do know is that it makes absolutely no sense for a student at this school not to cheat. A rational person who understands how this process works – certainly word gets around – realizes that he has nothing to lose by trying to cheat. If this is the university's position, faculty might as well leave the room during exams and put everyone on the honor system. The worst part about this state of affairs is how it reinforces the paranoid "Let's tear down the ivory tower" view of academia most often found on the political right. I mean, it appears that your angry uncle and loudmouthed coworker are right. Between rampant grade inflation and lax attitudes toward enforcing the most basic rules of conduct, every student really does get a trophy just for showing up.

Tags: