Sunday, August 24, 2008


My former student DID call around lunchtime - she'd been out of town for work earlier that week, was having to re-pack for a trip she was going on this coming week, and "things were just crazy."

So she came in late in the day and did the stuff we needed to have done.

Because she didn't HAVE to do this for us, and because she drove her own vehicle some 50 miles (each way) to do so, I insisted on taking her out for dinner.

And we got to talking. And eventually the conversation came around to the classes I teach, one of which she had taken. And I told her about entitled-boy from this summer, the one who claimed the others were cheating, and so he deserved a higher grade. (I didn't name names but it wouldn't have mattered anyway; she doesn't know anyone attending the college right now).

She agreed it was a fishy strategy to try. And then we got to talking about cheating and plagiarism. And I talked about how much I hated the knowledge that some students were cheating but I couldn't catch it or prove it. (I do come down hard on people who plagiarize or who blatantly cheat on tests. They get a 0 for whatever it is, with no option for a re-do. And if they do it more than once - no one ever has - I plan to haul them up in front of the Student Affairs Committee. And their butts would very likely be bounced out).

Anyway, I talked about how much I hated it, and about how I felt like it hurt the honest students - like, if someone could get a B.S. degree having cheated their way through, didn't that take away from the effort of a person who came by that same degree by honest work?

And she told me a couple of things that made me think about it differently.

First, she asked me: did people cheat when you were in college? Yeah, I said, I suppose they did, though I never really paid any attention to it; I was so focused on doing my work that I didn't really care too much about what other people were doing.

Well, she asked, do you feel like your degree is any less because some of those people cheated? Do you feel like your accomplishments are any less?

No, of course not.

And she observed: she knew people in her graduating class at high school who were terrible cheaters. The guy who was slated to be valedictorian was not allowed to be after having been caught plagiarizing.

And she said: I didn't do that hot in high school. But I always knew that whatever grades I got, good or bad, were grades I earned. That I got it on my own merits and not by cheating. That even if I was a failure and a loser, at least I was an honest failure and loser.

(This is not someone who turned out to be a failure and a loser, trust me. She has a good career and she's quite brilliant at it.)

She also listed a whole bunch of names - kids I had had in my classes. All of them people who had gone to college with her. All of whom had gone on to good careers (or who are working on Ph.D.s now) in their field. And she pointed out: all of these are people you've continued to hear from and hear about. They're the ones presenting at the state Academy of Science meetings. They're the ones with publications. They're the ones winning awards. And they're all students I knew who would rather have ripped their right arms off than have cheated on something.

And then she said (without naming names this time) that there were students that were known (either to both faculty and students, or in some cases just to other students) to have been cheaters and plagiarists. And you don't hear anything about them now! They're not working in their field.

And while that's not always the case (she shared some hair-raising stories about a few old high-school classmates who were caught in major acts of cheating, one of whom is now a fairly high mucky-muck in a school system), in a lot of cases cheating either catches up with the person - because they don't have the chops to make it in their field. Or the person lacks the drive and motivation to do something with their life; that cheating is just a symptom, rather than the cause, of their problems.

So I don't know. Part of me, as I've said before, just kind of wants to throw up its hands and go, "It's THEIR souls," meaning, if someone decides to cheat it is not my fault and though I should try to catch and punish the blatant examples, I cannot stop someone from doing something that is wrong. But on the other hand, I do wish I could stop all cheating - or rather, I wish I could get the kids to LOVE the subject so much, to care about it, to have the necessary ethical feelings, that they don't WANT to cheat.

And realistically, that will never happen. I can't reach 100% of them...some of them won't be inspired because of my personality/their personality type issues. Some of them just won't be inspired because they're in the wrong field. Some of them may still be too immature. Some of them may be too far gone.

I used to have a little 3 x 5 card pinned up on the wall behind my computer, where only I could see it, when I was in grad school. It said, very simply, "You can't fix everything." Meaning, I could keep beating my head against the injustices of this world, against the Wrong Things that I'd like to fix, until I was totally done in, but not everything would get fixed. Not everything is fixable.

But there are some people I can reach. (I count this young woman - the one I met with yesterday - as one in the Win column. I think I was one of the first profs she had when she came back to school after a long absence, and she's told me about how she was unsure and insecure and didn't know if she had the ability to get her degree. And I saw that she did have that ability, and I guess some of the things I did and said helped encourage her, helped build her confidence). I just wish I were better at focusing on the people who go in the Win column - the people I managed to help, the people that I encouraged, the people I offered research to, the people I pushed to apply to grad school. And not worrying too much about the people in the Not-Win column - the ones who cheat, the ones who seem to show no enthusiasm, the complainers, the ones who take their degree but then go on to do little with it.

I'm not sure how to do that, unfortunately. I really DO wish I could "fix everything" or "fix everyone." But I know I can't.

1 comment:

nightfly said...

Catching the few may lead to a few of those few reforming and turning themselves into something through honest hard work, rather than trying to skate by. That seems worth the effort to me. Best of all, it leaves their success up to them, so you don't have to get caught up in worrying about the outcome. You're just giving them their opportunity back.