To Cheat or Not to Cheat, or is it Even Cheating? Ethics in the 21st century

I’ve been mentally toying with this topic for a couple of weeks now, where to begin, what “tone” to take; it now seems to be rising to the fore with this latest op-ed/Room for Debate piece in the New York Times.

I wrote a couple of months ago about the “children” of today (meaning teens and college students) and their propensity for stealing “downloading” their media from the internet, including their college textbooks, movies, and music. This saddens, frustrates, disappoints, and worries me. Jason Robert Brown, a popular and illustrious composer, posted this debate he had with a teenager regarding the impropriety of her offering his music for “trade” on the internet. It is a frustrating conversation, which he handles with grace, dignity and respect. I’m not hopeful that this particular argument was won, but I do hope that the attention this discussion has gotten will at least get these kids thinking, and maybe help prompt interested techies out there to work vigorously to create a solution. The alternative is that we end up in a cultural dark age because no one can afford to produce anything stealable “downloadable.” The problem is that it is now culturally acceptable to cheat, to steal, to justify it and believe wholeheartedly that there’s nothing wrong with it — nothing physical has changed hands, no one was “hurt,” “I” only wanted to “borrow” it or “use” it or “trade” it, and it is, ultimately, all about “me.” (Isn’t it?)

My husband and I both teach at the college level. It has recently been brought to his attention that there is a website called “Course Hero” which is touted as the “Number 1 Study Resource for College and High School Students.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? And haven’t we all been grateful for the ease with which information can be found via this wonderful tool known as the internet. Just the other day I was able to track down the exact procedure used in 2005 to remedy a pesky problem with the emissions system of my now very old and much driven minivan.  The problem is that this website is not a “study resource,” it’s a ginormous electronic arm with the answers written on it. Apparently one of the requirements for “tutors” to upload their homework answers and test answers and completed papers is that they provide a copy of the assignment without the answers filled in, so that cheaters students can test their own knowledge by completely ignoring reviewing the questions before stealing checking their answers against the completed work. Right. I can’t even comprehend why someone who has done this work themselves would want to give it away. Do they value their own efforts that little? Is that part of the problem? Is peer pressure so great that friend A can’t say to friend B, when asked for the answers to yesterday’s homework assignment, “Ummm, no, dude, but duh, do it yourself”?

One of the arguments put forward by the contributors to the NY Times piece is that students cheat when they feel that the teacher has set up a system (i.e. curving the grade) where they are being unfairly compared with their colleagues, or when the teacher isn’t adequately doing their job. This sounds, to me, an awful lot like it was written by someone who did some cheating of their own and wants to justify it by blaming someone else. Wow, that sounds familiar. Perhaps the real cause of this problem stems from the fact that the “children” of today, hell, even some of the adults, think everything that happens is someone else’s fault.  I don’t care WHAT the situation is, CHEATING IS WRONG. Your work should be exactly that, YOURs. Why is that concept so hard to understand, much less sympathize with? Besides, if that were the case, why are they not ALL doing it?

Another contributor points out that technology has also made it easier to catch cheaters. (It’s also made it a lot easier for them to text in class, play internet poker, or look up the answer to a question I pose in class on Wikipedia rather than trying to make sense of their own inadequate notes.) While I have routinely caught students plagiarizing their papers for the music appreciation course I teach — easy enough to type in particularly and unusually articulate sentences and then be lead immediately to the performing group’s website — how does one catch a student cheating on a test or exam? Right answers are right, often singularly so, and presumably we have talked about this material in class with the expectation, optimistic as it may be, that the students will study and learn it. And while we can all point out that “cheaters never prosper,” the problem is, sometimes, they do. Unless they are so foolish as to routinely perform abysmally and then suddenly ace an exam, it might not even occur to the teacher to call the student in to have an impromptu discussion about the topic to see if they actually know what they are talking about. There are also incidences where the student has been called in for exactly that, senses impending danger, and refuses to answer any questions at all.

I see two more key contributors to this epidemic: 1. The focus of acquiring an “education” has become more and more about getting The Grade (has anyone heard of Grade Inflation?) and then The Job than it is about advancing The Mind (Seen on a billboard for an area university: X State College in 2 words: You’re Hired), and 2. students have gained too much power.


A barely-earned C changed to a B+ after pressure from a student’s parent; despite FERPA laws which prevent US from talking to a parent, apparently parents can talk to provosts.

A student sends an email at 11:30 p.m. in a panic that I’ve included material on the review sheet that I said wouldn’t be on tomorrow’s exam. Not only am I expected to reply, sympathetically, but am subject to the student’s observation, ~ 7 emails into the discussion, that she “doesn’t like my attitude” when I point out that some things are just worth knowing, and ask her why her discovering something at the last minute on a review sheet that has been available for 3 weeks is suddenly my problem. If I don’t reply, helpfully and promptly, the student can indicate on her faculty-evaluation form that her professor is ˚unsympathetic to a student’s difficulties and/or ˚unavailable for help outside of class. These evaluations are given tremendous weight by those in administration, who see students as customers, tuition dollars as profit, and instructors, especially those of the adjunct persuasion, as dispensable if not downright disposable. There are also plenty of stories about perfectly qualified, articulate, and dedicated tenured professors forced out of positions because of the nature of their student-generated faculty evaluation forms.

What’s wrong with this picture?

So many things. . .

The first, and most obvious problem, is that we seem to be forgetting what the word STUDENT means — one who, through force of diligence and discipline, applies him or herself to a topic in order to learn something. Students who cheat cheat themselves out of this very thing. I would ask, if they’re only paying money to get the grade, and not really concerned about whether they actually learn something, why do they even bother? And something every administrator and teacher and parent and student should know and/or remember is this: part of what this student needs to learn is how to get along in the world as an ethical, diligent, responsible person, one who acts, in all events and circumstances, with integrity. I’ll even go out on a limb and propose that this might even be the most important thing.

The second most pressing problem comes from the idea that the STUDENT is qualified to evaluate the TEACHER. This premise is ludicrous, but routinely sanctioned through the actions of the administration. There are a great number of things I hope to impart to my students beyond the immediate topic at hand. I don’t even necessarily want to tell them what that is. Sometimes I pose a problem without giving any hints about the solution because the best way for them to learn what I’m trying to teach involves their wrestling with that very thing. (˚Professor does not provide guidance in problem solving. or ˚Professor does not explain topics sufficient for understanding. or ˚Expectations for the course exceeded that which was reasonable.) If I provide the powerpoint outline and the notes and the listening guide and the answers to the questions not only have they not invested anything of their own — time, attention, thought; the act of organizing their notes, constructing outlines, researching and pondering and solving problems themselves, the means by which they will develop complex understanding, has been taken from them.

Instead, I have been compelled to add to my syllabus, under the heading “Student Outcomes” goals such as that they will develop independence, self-sufficiency, and responsibility through RECORDING THEIR ASSIGNMENTS AND QUIZ TOPICS themselves. Apparently this is unusual, unexpected, and interpreted by students as evidence of my lack of concern for their success. I announce it in class, I write it on the board, but I don’t hand out little slips of paper (as they do in elementary school) nor do I post it on Blackboard (makes it too easy not to come to class; my philosophy: if you want to know what’s going on today, and what’s going to go on tomorrow, show up).

There are cultures where “cheating” is not a word or concept that’s discussed, not because it doesn’t happen, but because it is the norm — where plagiarizing is seen as paying the original author tribute, where The Grade is The Most Important Thing No Matter How It’s Attained. Unfortunately, I think that the path we are headed down is even more insidious, because it seems to involve all areas of our children’s lives: from how they get into college to what they do once they’re there, from how they access culture to how they’ll behave on the job. Junior wants to win the Pinewood Derby or the essay contest so dad makes the little car or writes the paper; what has Junior actually learned from this endeavour? All you have to do is look at the financial services industries, shortcuts taken by oil executives, the desire of every overpaid businessman to avoid taxes and incorporate their business on a “favorable” island — something for nothing, with the highest possible benefit to “me.”

The New American Way? At what cost? We should all shudder to think.

5 Responses to “To Cheat or Not to Cheat, or is it Even Cheating? Ethics in the 21st century”

  1. November 13, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    helo , im melanda , ime student of high school in Indonesia.
    im shocked what were happened in USA .
    i know thats so terrible , it can mke stupid all new generation. even in Indonesia, espesially in my school , that we do such like that .but, sometimes, we still scarried to our teachers. when the tes beginning, sometimes the teachers had been told about what we not allowed to do. he/she will give a point if we known brought something in a letter then, they will report it.

  2. November 15, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Hi. I was linked here today through your recent post on functional illiteracy, and started clicking through your archives. As a current student who has all too recently encountered incompetence in the classroom, I felt the need to ask a couple of questions.

    The first is, about Blackboard: how large are your classes? Is this a large lecture hall, where the only incentive for attendance is the lecture itself, and a student could conceivably pass without attending at all? (For that matter, does your college/university allow students to miss class as they see fit, provided assignments are turned in?) Or is it a smaller class? Are there discussions? Is it possible that by the end of the class people will know each others’ names? Because it is my experience, painfully recently, that Blackboard is wonderful, particularly in the context of remembering deadlines, and that it is not to anyone’s benefit that students, across the board, forget obscure deadlines, or lose syllabi, or the like. Though, of course, this comes in the context of a seminar class, where we were all motivated to arrive for reasons other than the draconian attendance policy at my university. (I will also note, I personally am keeping a digital record of all my course materials, yes, including assignments, which also makes Blackboard postings desirable to me.) I also, however, think some of this stuff is a valid educational experience and some of it is not. Putting together your own notes? Absolutely educational, totally the student’s responsibility. Remembering less major assignments, or ones where changes have happened recently, or that were not on the syllabus? I don’t see why. As a professor, you have the luxury of picking your battles, of deciding what your students are there to learn, and what you are going to do to get them to learn it. Perhaps they’d be more independent thinkers if you only handed them a syllabus, and told them to go research it all themselves. But you don’t, because there’s a point at which the value of learning to be independent thinkers, or learning to be responsible, is overcome by the value of them getting certain things done. Imagine you announce a quiz, or change the date of an assignment, but everyone forgets to write it down. Next class, as a result, no one is prepared, and you lecture to all of them about the importance of writing things down. Isn’t that a terribly empty victory for you? Isn’t that fundamentally missing the point of the class? Isn’t it worth it to post things of this sort, if only so that people can move along to the important part, the group presentations of readings, or the assignments, or whatever? Also, is there ever any such thing as an excused absence?

    However, perhaps more importantly, your comments regarding the role of student evaluations: how else do you propose that the administration of a university (an institution whose role is, putatively, to teach) filter out venal or incompetent professors who are otherwise adroit researchers? (The other role of universities is to produce research, which is how professors get hired in the first place–at least, once more, at my institution. Occasionally they hire geniuses who have no communication or pedagogical skill whatsoever.) Do the receivers of the education truly have no input? After all, as Neil deGrasse Tyson once put it, “being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s got to be an act of persuasion in there, as well.” I mean, I don’t know the circumstances of your teaching job, and frankly, it sounds like your students are people at the bottom of the rung (or, at the other extreme, people who think they’re paying for their grades along with their $40,000 education), but have you considered the possibility that perhaps those evaluations are correct? That if your students consistently have trouble at your class, it is because you fail to motivate them or to set tasks they can reasonably complete? Again, I can see this is perhaps an unacceptably low level for many of your students, but has this even crossed your mind? Some introspection might do you good, and as I’ve heard said before, when the team fails, blame the coach. Especially if this is a pattern you see semester after semester, if large groups of students consistently complain about the same things.

    As for cheating, while I would argue that intellectually motivated students wouldn’t cheat (see the success of, say, Reed College’s policy, where the professors leave during exams), I do sympathize with your particular position in terms of student quality. Which, however, makes me think it’s all the more pressing to try to engage your students, to meet them halfway, so to speak. This isn’t to say you should, as one of my high school teachers once did, give a bad student an A on an assignment “to encourage him.” But, perhaps instead of complaining about the worst in your students, you should appeal to the best of them, and try to find ways to draw them in, to make them WANT to walk into your classroom every day, not because if they don’t they’ll miss something important, nor because of a draconian attendance policy, but because it’ll be a good class, a fun class, a class that doesn’t make them feel sullen, bored, and like its not worth their time to be there. I have no way of truly knowing how this might work at your university–I attend a school which for the most part caps class sizes at 18, with certain exceptions capped at 32, and where (almost) everyone is highly motivated to learn–but I have NEVER seen people be completely disrespectful of the professor the way you describe: I’ve sat next to doodlers who quietly, and often in plain sight, drew intricate pictures during class discussion, or spent at least as much time working on their illustrations to their notes as on their notes. But they were never at a loss for words in the discussion. They visibly are learning, and taking part.

    Finally, I sense you deride most or all young people, and certainly teen culture. I can’t say I blame you: I think your calling teenagers “children” is an insult to children everywhere, who tend to display better judgment and common sense than most teenagers I know. (I also think of “teenage” not as an age category but as a cultural one, an age where people demand all the rights of adults, and all the privileges of children. Not an unreasonable request, I think, when administered correctly: it’s good to have a safe time in one’s life to mess up and not have full consequences, in order to learn for next time. But that time must end eventually.) That said, as a teen hater, I find your attitude problematic, if only because as an educator, it should be your job to reach them, not to deride them and leave it at that. Sometimes that means meeting stupidity halfway, true. But, again, that’s what an educator does.

    • 3 guardo
      November 16, 2010 at 3:05 pm

      You’re very passionate. I like that. Please allow me to make a few observations, and kindly accept them in the spirit in which they are offered.

      First Main Paragraph: I would like to comment, but you do not have a single coherent idea in here. No argument whatever. This is a flaw. The aim of this sort of writing is to persuade. Even your most sympathetic reader can’t locate what it is you’re asking him or her to accept. You may be familiar with the expression, “you’ve got to ask for the sale!” That applies here, as well.

      Second Paragraph: Much better. You ask a specific question: “how else do you propose that the administration of a university (an institution whose role is, putatively, to teach) filter out venal or incompetent professors who are otherwise adroit researchers?” Excellent. And you’ve got the thesaurus out. You get “putative,” “venal,” and “adroit” into the same sentence. Very good. “Venal” is a stretch here, but it’s a great word; I certainly sympathize with your desire to use it. To your point, which has to do with students evaluating their professors. Yes, students should assess the job their teachers do in the classroom. Yes, the administration should pay attention to these assessments. But an administrator who bases his or her view of a teacher’s work solely on student reports is lazy or stupid. Accountability and student contentment are important, but such a model bears a heavy reliance on the dubious notion that what students need is identical to what they want.

      Finally, Sheriji’s discussion of cheating and students’ evolving values and attitudes toward intellectual property seems to have eluded you entirely. To be fair, her treatment of the topics is nuanced, and the topics themselves terribly complex. But toward the end: “That said, as a teen hater, I find your attitude problematic . . . .” I think that you are trying to call her a teen-hater, which would make you petty and boorish. But, of course, you call YOURSELF a teen-hater. Which means you’re petty and boorish AND your grammar can’t shoot straight!

      Keep working. Keep your writing simple and direct. And always be clear about your argument before you put pen to paper.

    • November 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm

      Have just read your comment again and have a couple more thoughts I’d like to share.

      Firstly, it sounds to me like you think you have gotten a poor deal from one or more of your professors. And you might be right. But, maybe you’re not.

      To use one of your examples exactly, faculty make announcements to the class, and expect them to be listened to and remembered. If they’re not, it has nothing to do with “victory,” but to do with the fact that students don’t take responsibility for their own learning and deadlines. And yes, in the “Real World,” there will be times that your boss will tell you something, once, in passing, and expect that you remembered it. If he/she remembers saying it, you better remember hearing it.

      Secondly, my classes are always important — I make it a point not to waste my student’s time on “make” work, nor on things they can do for themselves. More often than not, though, the majority of students have NOT done that work for themselves. I don’t want to insult their intelligence by reading the syllabus TO them, but they don’t bother to read it themselves. I post study guides on Blackboard, they don’t bother to download them or use them. I ask them to prepare something for the next class. They don’t. Meanwhile, it is NOT my job to do a song and dance routine to keep them entertained; nor is what I am needing to teach them always going to be “fun.” Only the STUDENT can decide if they are going to be sullen, bored, or wasting their time, and trust me, if they’re feeling that way there isn’t a single thing I can do about it. Have you heard the expression “You get out of it what you put into it?” It’s 100% true.

      I invest myself fully in every minute that I am teaching, and a great deal of minutes that I am not, but am “merely” preparing my classes. Can you say the same?

  3. November 15, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    You seem to be making a lot of judgments and criticisms of me and my teaching based on a few posts. Yes, I’m frustrated by an overall attitude of apathy and disengagement. No, I do not deride most young people, and I believe if you read my post more closely you’ll realize that I refer to “them” mostly as “students.”

    I use Blackboard to post grades and syllabi. I do not post powerpoint notes or do my student’s work for them.

    Student evaluations are only a piece of the puzzle. And, for the most part, my student evaluations are quite good. That’s not the point. Students are not, actually, capable of objective evaluation of good teaching. If the administration wants to know how good of a teacher I am they should observe my teaching. (They don’t. Never have.)

    I appeal to the best of them every day. It’s the only thing that keeps me going. I had 50% of my students show up for my music appreciation class today; 2 of the 11 there looked interested. I talked to them. I structure every single class period in a way that should engage them, but I can’t do it for them.

    It’s interesting to me that you have also “encountered incompetence in the classroom,” but give the student the benefit of the doubt, and me none at all. I can only hope that your administration doesn’t do the same to your professors.

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