Imagine a hard-working college history professor, John Brayne, alone in his study at home late at night. He is hunched over his desk pushing his way through a pile of sophomore three-page papers on the Civil War, depressed because five out of the 20 failed to hand their papers in and three tried to hand them in late. He had told the class that absolutely no papers would be accepted after the class had begun, but he had allowed them to chew him down with stories about traffic jams and failed alarms clocks. The spelling and grammar were deplorable—unable to distinguish then from than, where from were.
But here at last was a well-written paper that seemed to suggest that its author, an athlete named Joe Hotz, had done his homework.
“In the election on August 1, Lincoln received more votes than any other candidate. He continued to have the strong support of his neighbors in New Salem, who were Whigs like himself. But the more rural neighborhoods, like Clary’s Grove, were Democratic, and even Jack Armstrong , who continued to be a warm personal friend, failed to vote for him.”
There were two problems. One, it wasn’t about the Civil War. Second, Hotz had flunked the last quiz and received Cs in his other papers. Brayne, reluctantly, typed the sentence into Google, and “Bingo!” there it was, page 60 in David Herbert Donald’s biography, Lincoln.
What happens now?
In “The Shadow Scholar,” a long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov 19, 2010), “Ed Dante” (a pseudonym), revealed to the American academic world that he had written 5000 pages a year of the term papers students had handed in to professors as their own, including 12 graduate theses of 50 pages each. His staff of 50 is overwhelmed with English-second-language students, hopelessly deficient students who shouldn’t be in college, and lazy rich kids who would rather buy a paper than write one.
Relying on Wikipedia and Google, he has never set foot in a library and can expand a four word sentence to 40 words. “A close observation of the events that occurred in blahblahblah during the blahblah demonstrate that blahblahblah.”
He confesses that, though he works hard for a living, he is the bad guy.
In the January 14 issue of the Chronicle, the faculty weighed in in self defense, blaming: the admissions office for letting in their low-motivated students, grade grubbing students who threaten to sue profs who mark them low, parents who pressure faculty, students who choose to cheat rather than work — as if the faculty had nothing to do with their decision to fake it, and the criminal author of the Chronicle article. In two pages of small print, only two faculty fessed up to the professor’s responsibility to out-maneuver the cheat. Some faculty solve the plagiarism problem by not assigning papers.
The alternative is to assign papers systematically, checking on each student’s progress every step of the way. What have you taken out of the library? Let’s see the books you’re relying on. Let’s see your first, second, and third draft.
This is where the kids can really wear you down — you work much harder supervising them than they work on the assignment.
Dante himself put it best. No client complained that the originality of his work had been questioned and that he had been expelled from school. Not one had been caught.
The underlying reason, of course, why the Hotzes cheat is that they have not settled into college and committed themselves to the work they are obliged to do. They might be in college physically — they have a dorm room and a seat in class — but they don’t see study as their priority. So when study interferes with their real priorities — football practice, frat or sorority life, an off-campus job, a romantic interest, or just hanging out and talking — they calculate that they can con their professors and get away with it.
They may be right, until they run up against a professor who actually cares about the quality of work his or her students do. If the college is any good at all, somewhere along the line Hotz will miscalculate and get caught.
What matters now is how Hotz interprets this reversal. If he says simply, “Damn it, I got caught,” he has learned nothing. If he can be made to understand that the worst thing anyone can do is to lie, to compromise his integrity, to accept “cheater” as his middle name. If he can’t see how that’s wrong, he has put a brand on his forehead for life.
In my judgment Frayne has to make him see this, fail him for at least the paper and perhaps the course, place a written report in the dean’s office of his offense, with the understanding that a second offense will expel him. This works, of course, only if the majority of the faculty do the same thing. As Dante says, they don’t. Frayne has weakened his credibility by accepting those late papers in the first place. It’s a signal to the class that he’s not serious. That he won’t check and follow-up on their plagiarisms, and if he does, he’s the exception. They’ll take their chances.
Raymond A. Schroth