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If I Had College-Age Children, I Would Give Them This Advice for the Final Weeks of School: Don’t Cheat

December 7, 2011, 8:32 am

I imagine this conversation would occur sometime during Thanksgiving, perhaps as we were washing up the endless number of dinner dishes and de-greasing the kitchen.  No, no: let’s put it in a neutral location, as Tenured Radical and the returning college student are having a final cup of coffee at the airport while waiting out a flight delay.  This is how it would go:

Spawn of the Radical: Esteemed Parental Unit, you have taught at a selective liberal arts college for two decades. What advice do you give for the hellish, final weeks of school?

Tenured Radical: I am so glad you asked, Spawn.  (Ruminates briefly.) OK, here goes.  First piece of advice? Don’t plagiarize, buy a paper off the internet, pay someone else to write for you, or retype an ancient term paper secreted away in the files of your Greek organization.  I will be far more sympathetic if you simply fail the class, or get a bad grade, than I will be if you are hauled up before a disciplinary board and hung out to dry for preventable a$$hattery.

Spawn: Why?  It seems like such an easy and obvious solution to not having done the work for the course. Besides, so many of my friends get away with it.

TR: True dat.  And yet, if your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and managed to live, would you do it too?  My point is this: because cheating is evidence of rank stupidity, many people do not get away with it.  In fact, many people are no better at cheating than they are at doing the work for the course.  Others spend time that might have gone into conventional studying devising elaborate systems for cheating (Profs, follow these links and track what your students already know.) It would be far better to fail a course, take an incomplete, or throw yourself on the mercy of the professor than to be expelled from college.  As my dear friend Flavia Fescue points out, even though it “breaks her heart” she catches one or two plagiarists every semester and she takes them down.  It is part of our job to take you down (think, selling crack on the steps of a police station, ok?)  Historiann concurs. “Message to students,” she writes. “We care. Please don’t f^(k up. But know this: we will work you over if you f^)k up, and it will hurt you more than it hurts us, for realz. In my experience, it never pays to give a plagiarist a break. Hang’em high, regretfully if you must, but hang’em high, friends.”

Spawn: Parental unit, have you ever caught a plagiarist?

TR: Indeed, and those who cheat on exams. Even though there are some who slip through my net, even before Turnitin.com I have always known when I have snagged a plagiarist that I was right, even prior to being able to prove it. And I can always prove it because I am a far better at research than an undergraduate is at covering up plagiarism.

Spawn: How do you know before you can prove it?

TR: It’s all in the confrontation. The almost uniform response of a guilty plagiarist is to deny the offense with a kind of astonishment and disbelief that is meant to simulate innocence.  Students who are actually innocent (and this was certainly the case when one student had copied from another on an exam, and the challenge was discovering which one had copied and whether the other had permitted it) get genuinely angry.

Spawn: (taking notes furiously) Wow.  So, if accused of cheating and innocent, do not defer — let it rip?

TR: I would advise so.  You will end up in a disciplinary procedure anyway, so you really have nothing to lose.  And here are some precautions worth taking, from my perspective. Sit away from other students in exams, and don’t leave drafts of your papers and notes for papers on campus computers for anyone to find.  There are a fair number of students who cruise around looking for digital work that has been abandoned in computer labs. Even if you are unaware that this has happened, you will be implicated.  And if you are aware of it?  Most honor codes require you to notify someone, and if you don’t, you could be disciplined anyway.

Read over your college’s policies about plagiarism, so that you are clear about which of the things that your high school teachers turned a blind eye to, and might have even encouraged you to do, constitute plagiarism.  Using commercially available outlines rather than reading and using the books for the course is cheating. Having someone help you with your paper (for example, the fact that you send your papers to your mother for a final edit just like you did in high school) is acceptable: not acknowledging that you had help is cheating.  Using research that you found on your roommate’s desk is cheating. Copying things off the Interwebz or directly out of books is cheating.  Make sure you know how to write a good citation and use more of them rather than fewer.  As Flavia points out in her post, when in doubt, cite, cite, cite.

Spawn: Is there anything I might not recognize as cheating that actually is?

TR: Glad you asked that question clever Spawn.  What few undergraduates grasp, given that dollars are paid in exchange for their heads being cracked open and education poured in, is that you don’t purchase ideas with tuition.  The people you read actually own their ideas, and deserve credit for them.  Think of it as idea rental:  you are free to use any ideas you want, but you must distinguish between an idea, or point of analysis, that is actually yours and one that has been offered up by someone else whose book you have read.  For example, to announce in your opening paragraph that the workers have nothing to lose but their chains may seem like common knowledge to you, particularly given the Radical home where you have been raised.  But actually, we must credit this phrase to Karl Marx, even though he never made a nickel off of it and never will.

As another example, you might note that I credited two of my colleagues in the blogosphere for inspiring this post in the first place by linking them.  This is not only respectful, it allows someone to follow up an idea to its point of origin, evaluate the idea and address how you made use of it.

They are calling your delayed flight, Spawn.

Spawn: (Gathering bags and an extraordinarily expensive airport snack.) Is there anything else I absolutely need to do during exam period?

TR: Yes, Spawn.  Don’t stop bathing.  I know it will be tempting, but have mercy on the faculty and wash diligently.

(This advice, of course, will not be taken. Spawn grabs bags of clean laundry that will be returned at winter break in a deplorably funky condition and reeking of cigarette smoke and rushes towards security.)

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