Adventures in College Teaching – Plagiarism… Again

(Via) You must read this disheartening and dispiriting account by Panos Ipeirotis on his discovery that over 20% of his students plagiarized. Bottom line? He busted them, but that took an enormous amount of time (45 hours… which incidentally is the number of hours of instruction in my classes for a 3-credit class). It got him lower scores on his student evaluations (duh, you must them, they make you pay for it, but where I work, student evaluations are critical for promotion and tenure, and essential for adjunct faculty), which hurt his salary and not much support from his administrators.

“When 1 out of 5 students in the class being involved in a cheating case, the lectures and class discussions became awkward. For the rest of the semester there was a palpable anxiousness in class. Instead of having friendly discussions, the discussions became contentious. Not a pleasant environment.

This, of course, had a direct effect to my teaching evaluations. Instead of the usual evaluations that were in the region of 6.0 to 6.5 out of seven, this time my ratings went down by almost a point: 5.3 out of 7.0. Instead of being a teacher in the upper percentiles, I was now below average.

The Dean’s office and my chair “expressed their appreciation” for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my “teaching evaluations took a hit this year”.”

His chasing down the cheaters also destroyed class morale and atmosphere:

“Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Not only I paid a significant financial penalty for “doing the right thing” (was I?) but I was also lectured by some senior professors that I “should change slightly my assignments from year to year”. (Thanks for the suggestion, buddy, this is exactly how I detected the cheaters.)

Suggestions to change completely the assignments from year to year are appealing on the first sight but they cause others types of problems: It is very difficult to know in advance if an assignment is going to be too easy, too hard, or too ambiguous. Even small-scale testing with TA’s and other faculty does not help. You need to “test” the new assignment by giving it to students. If it is a good one, you want to keep it. If it is a bad one, you just gave to the students a useless exercise.

I also did not like the overall teaching experience, and this was the most important thing for me. Teaching became annoying and tiring. There was a very different dynamic in class, which I did not particularly enjoy. It was a feeling of “me-against-them” as opposed to the much more pleasant “these things that we are learning are really cool!””

Will I pursue cheating cases in the future? Never, ever again!”

I may have mentioned it before, but where I work, plagiarism is epidemic. So, in a way, I am somewhat “glad” to realize that it’s not “my” students. It’s all over the place. Why? A variety of cultural and institutional reasons.

Degradation of the meaning of education and higher education not only in the culture in general but from within academia itself, where college president and administrators are all about the bottom line: boost enrollment, high retention, maximize tuition, education as job training, a bunch of hoops students should jump through to get that degree (or even better, that vocational certificate… takes less time, costs less money) for higher income.

In that context, there is limited interest in education as, you know, education. Certainly, all colleges and universities have student codes of conduct, but the actual enforcement is just trivial. Administrators usually dislike doing that kind of work and institutional sanctions tend to be of the “slap-on-the-wrist” kind.

As Ipeirotis’s account shows, chasing down cheaters leads to one thing: one major headache and time-sink for the faculty. And I agree that the ” me-against-them” mentality that necessarily develops makes teaching difficult and painful as some basic trust between faculty and students has been broken. A mistrustful environment is not conducive to good teaching or learning as assignments become designed not necessarily to achieve some specific educational goal but to be cheating-proof (not that these two things are necessarily incompatible).

So, is the solution NOT to chase down cheaters? Personally, I think that any student who cheats takes me for an idiot, cheapens the institution I work for and debases the knowledge of the discipline I work hard to convey to them. They should not be rewarded with academic credit. And, of course, every grade not earned contributes to grade inflation.

I should also note that plagiarism also seems to ride the wave of online instruction with their standardized courses, but these generate so much money that there is no real concern about the amount of plagiarism going on there. After all, which college of university would accept a lowering in enrollment as it tightens its standards? Would parents accept to have their children thrown out when caught plagiarizing?

I would have to say that, right now, the cultural climate favors cheating and its tolerance.

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