Winners Never Cheat (And Cheaters Should Never Win)

About 8 years ago, I was in a conference session discussing academic honesty. The general consensus, as the session began, was that our student’s willingness to cheat was largely our fault as professors and a sign of the general disintegration of America. (That and since it was an educational conference, I’m pretty sure someone blamed George Bush and wikipedia.) ((That was a joke by the way. No one blamed wikipedia.)) (((That was another joke. Everyone blamed wikipedia.))) ((((A few people still blamed George Bush.))))

The guy in the back, you know the one because he’s always in the back and always the expert, made it clear that if we created better assessments and inspired our students they wouldn’t cheat.

“People who assign multiple choice tests or ask students to write an essay on Humor in Huck Finn,” he proclaimed in that condescendingly superior tone, “are just encouraging cheating. If the student can find the answers online, we aren’t asking the write questions. Our job,” he paused for dramatic educational impact, “is to inspire students to value the information so much they don’t want to cheat.” Blah, blah, blah.

Some days I know why higher ed gets criticized so much.

Never one to sit quietly on the sidelines, I pointed out that the assessment shouldn’t matter. There is no reason, I argued, that I can’t expect or even demand that my students behave with integrity and honesty regardless of the assessment technique. “I mean, no offense,” (because that’s what you say when you don’t want to say anything ugly), “but perhaps, we should blame the students for cheating not the person asking the question. After all, we don’t excuse people from speeding just because the car can go 120. Plus, If we stop asking questions found on the internet, we might as well stop asking questions.”

Unfortunately, this conference session and cheating is much on my mind today since one of my students plagiarized his major, out of class essay. In the 15 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only had two semesters without a plagiarist.

Admittedly, I have some sympathy for my students. On the one hand, they could have had the goofball at that conference for a teacher. On the other hand, as public education increasingly emphasizes collaboration and group work, the line between cheating and working together gets increasingly blurry for our students. Additionally, far too few public schools punish students for infractions and when they do, far too many parents race to rescue little Suzy from punishment.

In essence, many students come to college without a clear sense of what academic integrity actually means.

Unlike my colleague, bless his innocent and misguided heart, I find myself teaching in the real world. I’ll give him some credit: in an ideal world all our students would be so inspired by every subject and they would all recognize the inherent value of reading, writing, science, and math to their future brilliant selves they would never consider cheating.

And in that dream world, my teaching would be the light that brightens the dark rooms of their mind. (I would also make a lot of money and be really good looking in that world. I mean, if it’s a dream world . . .)

Meanwhile, on planet earth where I have 45 animal science students, football players, physics majors, and various other students who haven’t quite managed to recognize why knowing Huck Finn is important to their future careers, perhaps we can take an approach that demands integrity and honesty from our students and holds everyone accountable for such things.

That includes faculty. Last year, I had a faculty member call me to ask what he should do after he caught a group of students cheating on a quiz.

“Give them zeros this time. Fail them next time,” I said with a kind of incredulous lilt to my voice.

“That seems harsh. I mean, no one else in my department fails students who cheat so I’m not sure they knew it was wrong to share answers.”

Sigh.

But I don’t want to bash on teachers or professors. My colleagues are working with students confused about issues of integrity and they, including the professor from the conference, are genuinely concerned about student learning. They recognize that zero tolerance policies are often unfair if they punish ignorance as harshly as iniquity. We are often trying to balance our expectations with our student’s abilities and understanding.

I just think sometimes we can over complicate things.

My student failed the course today because he cheated and because I spent valuable class time discussing academic integrity and defining plagiarism. The consequences are clearly outlined on the syllabus, on the essay assignment, and in every discussion of the essay assignment. I warn them that some faculty members won’t hold them accountable for unethical behavior. I’m not that faculty member.

And he still cheated. And, like most of my colleagues, it saddens me.

I’m not upset because he doesn’t find sophomore American literature valuable to his future as an engineer in the oil field. I tell my students that knowing literature and literary terms isn’t a sign that they will be poor surgeons or build bad bridges. I know plenty of people who don’t know an allegory from a parable or a metaphor from a simile. They are still my friends and many of them are pretty successful people.

I know people who have never, gasp, read a novel in their lives. And they are my friends and great workers. I even trust some of them with my children.

Reading literature or writing a paper (or taking the test) isn’t the issue.

The issue is, and here I do pause in my class, what kind of person will you be when you grow up? If you are willing, I tell my students, to cut corners in a class that doesn’t seem to matter, if you are willing to take credit for things you didn’t do, if you are willing to steal other people’s ideas, I pity your co-workers.

I fear for the patients who don’t inspire you.

I worry about the building design you don’t care that much about.

I’m concerned about  the report you will write on days when you are tired.

In simple terms: if you are willing to cut corners now, you will be willing to cut corners later.

And that is dangerous. To me. To others. And to you.

It’s certainly not true that cheaters never win. But, I tell my students, they shouldn’t. And neither should you.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

4 Responses to Winners Never Cheat (And Cheaters Should Never Win)

  1. Gwen says:

    John, you raise so many valid issues here. As an educator (at the elementary level), it saddens me, too. One of the fundamental problems with education in America is the issue of “accountability.” Nobody, except the teachers, are held accountable for the state of education in this country – not the parents, not the politicians, and certainly not the students themselves.

  2. lsurrett2 says:

    It saddens me, though perhaps it shouldn’t, to know that those students who do go to college, will contemplate and follow through with cheating.

    Like you, I shake my head at those who would shirk the rules set before them and then be shocked to find the consequences of which they were warned. Once upon a time, I taught high school English to an academy-oriented program and I gave a mid-term project. One student did not turn anything in and I let him know that it would bring his grade down. I let the program coordinator know and the principal (small school). They encouraged me to give him an extension. I did: no project was turned in. After he failed, the principal asked me to allow him to turn it in after Christmas break. Despite my better judgement, I relented. I received a half-completed project that did not meet 25% of the requirements. The student was told once more that he would be removed from the program if he didn’t do it correctly. I never received a revision. He was removed and actually failed other classes.

    As long as students are given unlimited chances, we can continue to expect them to take advantage. Your story seems to confirm this trend has infected higher ed. But you’re ultimate idea is correct–these are dangerous habits to allow and I commend you for sticking to your guns.

    • John Wegner says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid the story you tell isn’t unusual. I get pretty frustrated with the teachers at my son’s school when they move dates or adjust assignment requirements. Deadline is not a dirty word.

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