As a rational human being, I try to espouse one of our nation's oldest mantras before tossing around accusations: "innocent until proven guilty." I think it is a beautiful notion that we, as people, should not be jailed or punished arbitrarily. Evidence must exist to incriminate us to such an extent that an unbiased jury of our peers decides beyond a shadow of a doubt that we must be held responsible.
This is all fine and good.
But I'm also a believer in common sense.
A few months ago, I was proctoring the Basic Writing Exit Exam at UCSD. Students who either do not speak strong enough English to succeed at the college level, or simply do not know how to organize their thoughts into coherent writing, must take this timed writing exam to prove they have acquired enough command of their own rhetoric to function at the university level in the USA. We can debate the merits of such an exam at another time, but one thing that appalled me was the story of a fellow colleague (whose name I will omit -- let's call him Socrates).
Socrates proctored the exam in a room that contained 30 students. As all teachers were instructed to do, he waited until 8:00 am to distribute the prompts and sat quietly as students completed their essays. Regardless of their level of completion, all written pieces must be collected no later than 10:00 am.
The Chair of the Basic Writing Department had also offered the following warning: "If a student goes to the bathroom early in the exam and then goes a second time late in the exam, be sure to hold their Blue Book. Odds are they have hired someone on the outside to write their essay." At the time, I found this warning ridiculous. Who would do such a thing?
Answer: One of Socrates' students.
Here's the thing: Socrates was ready. He caught the student red-handed. Instead of merely collecting the essay when his student departed for his late bathroom trip, he actually paged through it and read it. When the final products were collected, this student turned in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BLUE BOOK.
So, proven guilty, right? End of story?
Ultimately, Socrates brought the case to the department and was presented with two choices: 1) take this case to the Academic Integrity Board and plead a "my word vs. his word" account (sacrificing his own time, but also making him and the department vulnerable to a defamation lawsuit from the student!); or 2) let it go. Since he did not have video or a witness, the case of cheating was dropped. A student who BLATANTLY cheated and even got caught was able to pass through the course. ("I know you're not lying," said the department chair. "But what if you WERE?" This is the kind of logic that intellectual people must now use in such circumstances.)
Which brings me to my next point. Read the following excerpts from student papers:
A) "These words are even more meaningful to me today given the chaos presently occurring in America with regards to violence being perpetrated around race. The media is our conduit to information. Yet, daily TV shows, songs, news reports and ads shape how we feel about our society and our communities. One of the topics in the news today is that of equity and race..."
B) "I will help you leran differnet stageies for paper's. Make paper more in moner time period to suck in the students. the header the you the better writer you become."
The first example comes from a prompt that asks students to examine the rhetoric of media figures in manufacturing "truth" for a democratic society such as America. The second example is my personal course evaluation form, completed in class, and asking simply, "What recommendations would you give the professor to improve this course?" The responses came from the exact same student.
Now, I'm not saying the student definitely cheated. There might be other reasons at play here. Perhaps there is a learning disability of which I'm unaware. I admittedly do not understand a lot of processing deficiencies, so maybe for this particular student the act of writing is something that vastly improves when he/she is given the opportunity to take it home and revise. I also understand that many students have the benefits of tutors for longer papers. Those resources are wonderful and should be utilized.
But it's hard to deny the stark differences in those two products, no?
Listen, I want to help students. I don't want to zing anyone. I take my job seriously and I do my best to communicate as often as I can with my students in order to identify ways in which their learning process can be facilitated. But this student never once visited my office hours. In our few one-on-one encounters, our conversations had no more complexity than what I became accustomed to at the middle school level. Furthermore, this student also spent a considerable amount of class time prodding and swiping an iPhone (note: since the semester in question, I have gone from a "Be cool" rule about electronics to a "Zero tolerance" policy in present classes). I just cannot help but feel justified in believing that this student received more help than is reasonable on the outside papers.
I cannot see any way that a student who speaks to me at such an elementary level, struggles so immensely to compose a single sentence, and has not once interacted during class discussion can suddenly piece together coherent, sophisticated compositions for research-based papers. "Conduit"? "Equity"? These are words that show up on the SAT. Spelling/Grammar check also isn't as thorough as many believe. It doesn't add up.
Ultimately, I'm left between the proverbial rock and hard place. Making this an issue would require my time, effort, and patience. Without any evidence that the papers were borrowed (I've checked all reasonable websites and plagiarism outlets), it would essentially be an "I just have a feeling" defense that would likely fizzle in the face of our "innocent until proven guilty" protocol. More importantly, it would not be putting my efforts toward what I believe is my most important task: educating students.
My solution, at present, is to adjust my assignment sequence in the future. From now on, students will have to complete TWO major in-class assignments in addition to their outside work. This will force them to prove what they have acquired in a multitude of manners. My only hope is that students realize that my goal is not to punish them, but rather to truly assess if they are ready to succeed at the next level.
After all, education shouldn't be about "doing things to get them done" and "moving on."
It should be about learning.
At least, I think...
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