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Academic Culling

18 November, 2010 (09:34) | Social Commentary


“Art of Cheating: Plagiarism” by Allison Seiffer from the book The Art of Cheating by Jessica Jones.

“Some of you didn’t seem to understand what I was looking for when I asked for an introductory sentence,” she announced as she scrawled on the blackboard. “Here is one from this class that you should use as an example of how to do it.”

My jaw dropped. Those were my words displayed for everyone to see in all their chalky glory, my carefully chosen topic presented as an example without warning. I felt violated, laid bare.

The truth was that I didn’t even need to take this class. It wasn’t a requirement to graduate thanks to an exemption for my major, but it seemed interesting. The class, Satire and Rhetoric, seemed simply fascinating to me, though the course catalog blurb hardly prepared me for the true experience.

Satire and Rhetoric was a UWRP class (a program/department later relabeled WRIT). UWRP stood for Upper division WRiting Program and was required by all Arts & Sciences and most other students. The intention of the program was to improve academic writing for students from a high school level to true collegiate level. The majority of these classes are 20-25 juniors, often stumbling through their collegiate career. Journalism and English both exempt students from the program because their own writing styles and classes are better suited and more necessary.

Looking around, a 6th year senior, I was clearly the oldest and most experienced student in the class, and while this didn’t bother me, allowing the class to essentially plagiarize my work with authorization burned more deeply than I could’ve imagined.

I never said a word. I didn’t make a complaint to the teacher behind closed doors, nor did I express my displeasure through editorial within my assignments, as I had in the past. Even if I had, I doubt it would’ve made a difference.

—-

There’s many flaws with the American educational system, but the largest flaw is its inability to educate and it’s willingness to accept this fact. A passing grade can be obtained any number of ways, and most of them don’t require actual mastery or even comprehension of the material. Class sizes have ballooned to such a size that verifying the veracity of assignments and making sure that students don’t cheat or plagiarizer has become mostly impossible.

The entire pursuit of plagiarism has been outsourced, even while I was still matriculating. Universities, as well as individual professors, have begun subscribing to services that will check submitted papers against previously and concurrently submitted papers from schools and universities across the country. One of these services, Turnitin, has had its own share of controversy, having been sued for violating the copyrights of papers submitted by students.

That such steps are necessary is depressing, but even more depressing is that these services do not stop another form of cheating: custom papers for hire.

On November 12, 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled “The Shadow Scholar,” written by nom-de-plume Ed Dante, a self-professed academic assassin. His essay lays the blame for the pervasiveness of this form of cheating squarely on the shoulders of the academic-industrial complex that allows such an industry to exist. The comments on this essay are equally telling, academics attempt to blame the mercenary writers, students attempt to blame lackluster professors and teaching assistants, and other professional academic writers attempt to blame students.

One party, however, is largely ignored: the non-cheating students.

Throughout college, I cultivated a style, a passion and a work ethic when it came to my papers. I didn’t always receive perfect grades, but it was always my work, my ideas, and my choice that garnered the results.

All of these efforts are lessened by the fact that students who didn’t do the work, who didn’t care to try, could receive passing grades and graduate with the same degree. Perhaps, as Dante writes, the students who do this are “poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, [they are] acquiring all the skills [they] needs to stay on top.”

For those of us without the resources and wherewithal to do the same, let alone the desire, our degrees lose their power. For every buffoon and cheater who enters the real world, applying for jobs under the same false pretenses they graduated under, there are dozens of honest graduates who now have greater competition from their undeserving counterparts.

I’ve heard some say that the cream will rise to the top and those who cheated will find themselves unprepared for the jobs ahead, but who’s kidding whom? Most jobs that request degrees don’t actually require them, and while there will certainly be a few cases where someone is hired and then fired for their incompetence, there’s no way the HR department can tell the difference between a degree that’s been earned and one that’s been bought.

When I glanced around the classroom, it was clear that these were students that needed help. I may be called egotistical for saying so, but the only challenge in Satire and Rhetoric was that which I provided myself, and the result sought by the program was one I had already attained.

The more I considered my professor chalking my assignment up for all to see, the more I realized what good might come from it. She wasn’t considering how this act might affect me or my work, but rather how it might affect the others. If they looked at the argument I had put forth and improved their own work, however infinitesimally, it would help make the students that much more successful in the future. And in the end, isn’t that the true goal of education? Not simply a degree, but knowledge?

I don’t know how many of my classmates were large enough slackers and cheats to hire others to write for them. Nor do I know how many plagiarized or turned in simply bogus work. I can only hope that those who did eventually get their comeuppance.

Despite this, I know the plague goes relatively unchecked, and for each intelligent graduate that succeeds there’s another that falls by the wayside due to the diminishing value of his or her degree.

All I can do is try hard not to be one of them.

EDIT: The Telegraph reports that 200 students in a large lecture at the University of Southern Florida have been forced to reveal they cheated on a midterm. The professor offered leniency: the entire class will retake the exam, those admitting their actions exchanging a four-hour course in ethics for a true punishment and record of cheating.

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  • Sarahmarin

    I once had a teacher (middle school) who read the “funniest” and “most absurd” test answers to the class. I always laughed and enjoyed hearing them– until one day she read MY answer. And the whole class laughed at me. They didn’t know it of course, but it was humiliating for me anyway.

    Showing an example of good work seems like a much better idea. Still, I see your point. Why use a student at all? Can’t the teacher show an example of good work rather than pick on one person good or bad?

  • In middle and high school, I loved being the class clown and placing incredibly silly answers whenever I didn’t know and couldn’t fathom a guess. Still, I asked for that sort of attention, and relished it. I never judged others who did the same, short of admiring their wit. I can imagine how unwelcome it must have felt being singled out when you didn’t want to be.

    When the teacher continued doing it after that, did you still find the other answers amusing?

  • The Old Bear

    Nina Paley asserts that all art is derivative. Possibly the new paradigm for students is to “derive” their answers to assignments and tests from the work of others. Maybe the measure should not be whether or not one plagiarizes but how well and how creatively one produces recombinant output. After all, there is nothing new under the sun — a thought itself expropriated from Ecclesiastes 1:9.

    For generations, the scholarly model taught in high school and undergraduate education has been to produce “term papers” with properly formatted footnotes and bibliographies. More weight is applied to citation of the works of others than to any creative thinking which might be inspired by those works. (I guess it’s not plagiarism if you use footnotes.)

    Teaching is labor intensive and not easily automated. Papers must be graded — even if the grading is done by indentured graduate student “teaching assistants” working from a checklist or template. Creativity requires thought and grading creativity requires even more thought.

    So the students learn to produce what their teachers want and are graded accordingly. It’s reminiscent of an exchange at a car rental counter between a petty drug dealer and the rental agent: “I gave her a phony license and she gave me a phony smile. It seemed like a fair exchange.” (Quoted more of less from memory from the novel Dealing: Many fans do not even know that Dealing or The Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues.)

    It’s a sad commentary on modern education and, maybe, on humanity itself.

  • Different levels of academia are designed to teach different things.

    Kindergarten through fourth grade should teach rudimentary skills like
    reading and writing, basic math, and simple science and history.
    Creativity, art projects, games, and such are merely a conduit to teach
    these skills.

    In fourth through sixth grade, students should learn the basics of
    critical thinking, simple reasearch, and more advanced concepts.

    Middle school should provide students a firm grasp of critical thinking
    first and foremost. Beyond that, it should teach citations, advanced
    argumentative writing, advanced real world mathmatics and the scientific
    method.

    High school, unlike the previous levels, should be dedicated to honing all
    of those skills to an applicable level. It should also breed passions and
    encourage free thinking, and teach balance (and not Fox News balance) in
    argument and writing.

    Any education beyond that should have a trade or expertise in mind.

    The idea of regurgitation is a necessary one through middle school, but
    instructors should be praising free thought, even if it’s on well worn
    territory, in high school. Understanding how to apply the proper skills
    and force to a specific problem or target audience is important, but
    making that the foundation is not only a huge mistake, but a detriment to
    the education of those people.

    I can cram facts into my head and regurgitate them ad nausium for a short
    period, but what stays with me isn’t the facts I’ve learned, but the
    application of greater concepts on a smaller topic.

    Perhaps you’re correct and this is indicative of society at large, but if
    that’s true, this is one of the core issues that needs to be at the heart
    of the education debate.