Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, by James M. Lang

The academy is turning a blind eye to plagiarism, an anonymous professor warns

September 5, 2013

A professorial friend was forced to tell one of her most indolent students that his attitude to her course was negligent and irresponsible. “Indeed,” she went on, waving the evidence in front of her, “this essay is so poor you are wasting your time.” “But”, responded the student, “I paid good money for that essay!”

Another friend was teaching level-one Italian to the racial equivalent of Jack Sprat and his wife: he was tall, Germanic, blond with blue eyes; she was Asian, diminutive and had dark skin and eyes. Like many couples, they sat next to each other. On this particular day they faced a surprise test and were asked to write a short impromptu essay in Italian about themselves. Upon reading their papers, my friend discovered that the boy (rather like his girlfriend) was Indian, short and had long black hair. More amazing was that when confronted with the accusation that he had been copying her script, he insisted that his real hair colour was dark, but that his currently blond locks had recently been bleached.

So far so laughable, but the story turns sour when the university’s panel on academic misconduct chose to accept his explanation that he had panicked rather than cynically cheated. My friend was made to feel that she had overreacted by daring to challenge him in the first place.

Prosecuting plagiarism is about as popular with senior management as inviting Jimmy Savile to oversee graduation

My own experience bears out this feeling of being hung out to dry. A colleague reported to me that four of his students had “collaborated” on their assignments. As course leader, I was responsible for investigating: armed with all the evidence, I emailed the students to summon them to a meeting. Since the allegations were as yet unproven, my email was polite but did insist that attendance at this meeting was compulsory in order to get to the bottom of what had happened.

They did attend and they all confessed, but not before I had received a blistering email from a personal tutor of one of the students (let’s call him Charlie) – that is, one of my colleagues – saying that I had caused Charlie no end of grief by sending the email on his birthday. It was made very clear to me that the most appropriate course of action was for me to email him and apologise! I didn’t. (It later emerged that Charlie’s mother was a rather high-profile barrister.)

In Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, James Lang wonders “about those faculty members who are not blessed with colleagues and an administration that will fully support…efforts” to identify and punish cheating. The truth is that prosecuting plagiarism is about as popular with senior management as inviting Jimmy Savile to oversee graduation. Now that students are paying top dollar, now that the tail of student satisfaction is wagging the dog of their education, and now that the tyranny of league tables has turned the most brazen vice-chancellor into an acquiescent coward, those of us who strive to maintain rigour or intellectual probity are considered to be dangerously obstructive to the idea of the university as an incarnation of Voltaire’s “best of all possible worlds”.

Accusations of academic irregularity – oh, go on, say it, plagiarism – are as alarming to universities as an outbreak of meningitis, and if they can be “dealt with” without litigious parents ever finding out, so much the better.

Given that the sheer hard work of tracking down the various sources cut-and-pasted to produce an assignment is not only thankless but likely to be met with disapproval, the preferable course of action is to turn a blind eye. Under such circumstances, the university becomes an accessory after the fact. Perhaps the subtitle of this book should not be Learning from Academic Dishonesty but  rather Teaching it.

Lang’s account of student cheating is rather too upbeat for my liking: indeed, at points it is plain naive. Students have difficulty determining how much citation is reasonable “in part because of the rise of intertextuality in their lives”. Isn’t this special pleading of the worst kind? One entire week of my undergraduates’ syllabus talks in no uncertain terms about citation, acknowledgement, footnoting, bibliography and the perils of passing off someone else’s work as your own.

Elsewhere, Lang shows himself to be ignorant of the exponential rise in pressure upon academics facing increasing student-to-staff ratios and a barrenly utilitarian university culture. He suggests that the student ought to be able to redo essays or retake examinations in order to alleviate their “performance anxiety”. Well, yes, that’s fine, but what about my marking anxiety? How many times does a first-year intake of 400 get to resit their exams?

Granted, Lang is talking about the situation in US universities, and this may account for his easy-going tone. He prescribes for classroom teaching “the kind of unstructured, open-ended problems or questions that we all address in our own research”. That’s marvellous, of course, but how can we foster such imaginative freedom within the philistine constraints of a “syllabus matrix” (to use the kind of jargon that typifies the university’s insistence on fulfilling “learning outcomes” and meeting “benchmarks”)? In the US, academic faculties are completely autonomous – no external examiner, no set syllabus, no peer examination of teaching or marking, no Quality Assurance Agency. In the UK we are hamstrung by the necessity of keeping our “clients” (those who were once “students”) happy. If that is achieved by inflating their grades or overlooking their cheating, so be it.

Although its heart is in the right place, this book is more than occasionally anodyne. Lang tells us that “students in large courses typically cheat more than students in small courses” – unsurprising given the relative sense of anonymity felt by one in 400 as opposed to one in eight. Unfortunately, reducing a group of 400 to groups of eight would necessitate the employment of an additional 49 tutors. Elsewhere, Lang describes how cheating may be encouraged by “a strong emphasis on performance” (his emphasis): “The more pressure you load onto an exam or assessment of any kind, the more you are likely to have students who respond to that pressure with academically dishonest measures”. But my students are training to take exams for a degree, not a pub quiz. The stakes are high and there is no way around that.

I have no doubt that Lang is a popular tutor and colleague, but this is all a bit too Dead Poets Society. “I hope [these hints] will inspire you to push yourself a little further with each new semester”; Lang talks of his desire to “nudge” his students “toward a mastery learning orientation” (getting them to finish Inferno would be nice); “students are both less likely to cheat and more likely to learn when they see the course material as intrinsically fascinating, useful or beautiful”.

The worst instance of this naive optimism is Lang’s gushing delight that his Catholic college’s “religious language” addresses his students’ “ethics and character formation, and I think that’s perfectly wonderful”. In the 19th century, those caught cheating on the exam to enter the Chinese Civil Service were executed. Now, those were the days!

Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty

By James M. Lang
Harvard University Press, 2pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780674724631
Published 26 September 2013

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