Wednesday, May 25, 2011

“Ethical Cheating,” Indeed!

I’m warning you in advance: this one is going to be long.

There’s an article entitled “'Ethical' Cheating in Formal Education” in the journal On the Horizon. I confess the essay has been out for about a year, but I just became aware of it when Jack Marshall wrote about it on his Ethics Alarms blog. I’m not sure whether the above link will indeed take you to the article—I was able to access it through my work computer, probably because my university library subscribes to the clearinghouse or something. But yesterday I couldn’t get the article from home without paying for it (trust me, it isn’t worth whatever price they charge). You could also “rent” the piece instead of buying it… I have no idea what that means, but the implications of prostitution are certainly apt. But now I seem to be able to get to the article from home, too. Go figure.

Anyway, I stray. So… the authors, Arthur M. Harkins and George H. Kubik, both of the University of Minnesota, argue that there are two types of cheating: Type I and (you guessed it) Type II. The former represents “obsolete educational delivery systems whose purpose is to prepare students with fixed knowledge sets for life-long careers in traditionally defined occupations…. it tends to be practiced by education systems with poor competitive prospects, regardless of their present status or prestige.” Don’t worry, I don’t know what the hell that means, either, except that it’s not intended to be very complimentary to those of us who expect our students to know something at the end of a course.

Type II cheating, or “ethical cheating,” “is reviewed in the context of digital-era learning that involves open-source collaboration and the ready sharing of ideas, knowledge, and information…. it can be proactively practiced by students–the future leaders of change and competition.” The authors then attempt to justify their support for what ethical and intelligent people would regard as an indefensible position:
This brings about two related forms of failing pedagogical practice: over-emphasis on routinized individual work, and over-use of testing and grading systems. Education continues to rely on these legacy approaches in a failing attempt to measure and compare individual student achievement within very narrow boundaries, while largely ignoring the properties and outcomes of creativity and creative collaboration. While the development of digital technologies is occurring at breathtaking speed, education continues to apply draconian restrictions that structurally restrict collaborative group performance. While education talks about the importance of collaborative innovation and social creativity to the future of global competitiveness, it continues to rely on the easy metrics of standardized testing and individual achievement.
See, it’s not really cheating, it’s… um… creative collaboration.

But wait, there’s more. For example, here’s a nifty little hypothetical text-message conversation between three students, cited with approbation because it “incorporates the 11 motivators for cheating outlined in detail by [P.] Choong and [B. S.] Brown in their article on the future of academic honesty.”
Student A: Thanks for texting me the answers to the examine questions today in biology class. It was a tough test.

Student B: It was a boring test anyway. There's no sense in everyone wasting their time memorizing useless materials that no one will remember next week. Besides, everyone's doing it, and we need the grade.

Student A: Well I didn't study last night. No time at all. I got excited about a blog on cloning, and got involved with some neat people – including a real-life biologist that works with cloning at a research company. He actually listened to my ideas on the subject. How cool is that?

Student B: Just don't tell anyone that I gave you the answers. I got some of them from others in the class and I don't want them to get into trouble.

Student A: No problem. I just wish the teacher would listen to us, rather than droning on from his lecture notes. My sister told me that those are the exact same notes he used six years ago when she had to take his class. What a joke!

Student C: I wish we could tell him that he's boring. I kind-of-like him – he's really smart; but I am afraid he would get mad at me if I said anything.

Student B: How about joining us tonight? We're getting together on the internet to do some quick cutting and pasting for our papers that are due tomorrow. With six of us working together, we should have more than enough for everyone to complete their papers and get an “A.”

Student C: Great! By sharing our search results we can fool the teacher into thinking that we each spent the last two weeks working on it. Actually, we found some interesting stuff on the subject, but we'll need to disguise how much we learned so we don't get caught!
What’s abhorrent here isn’t the reasonably accurate description of the reasons students cheat: they’re not interesting in working, would rather be doing something else, don’t seem to understand that meiosis might not have changed much over the past couple of years, and besides… “everyone’s doing it.”

What’s really problematic, of course, is the completely nonsensical argument that “students cannot compete globally within the current strictures of academic integrity, and that they cannot employ networking, collaborating, knowledge producing, and innovation actions in timely ways without cheating.” Moreover, because “[many] of these students have no serious ethical problems with the matter,” everything is apparently just peachy. Ultimately, the argument is two-fold: cheating is rampant, and many students don’t think that obvious cheating is, well, cheating. The solution? Certainly not to train teachers how to better recognize cheating when it happens, nor to instill a moral and ethical sensibility in students. No, the solution is not merely to accept the status quo as a Sisyphusian reality, but indeed to try to spin this crap into some sort of exemplary situation in which students who cheat are somehow better prepared than those who don’t.


Apart from manifesting a cynicism too virulent even for me, this argument collapses in manifold ways. Let me briefly sketch out five of those failures, any one of which ought to be enough to reject this particularly specious brand of codswallop.

1). It endorses unethical behavior. This is, of course, the most compelling argument against this policy. The notion of “ethical cheating” is as euphemistic as it is oxymoronic. There’s nothing ethical about giving or receiving unauthorized assistance, and pretending otherwise doesn’t change that ontological verity. I think I may have mentioned at some point in the past that one of my favorite riddles goes like this:
Q: How many legs does a dog have if you call a tail a leg?
A: Four. Calling something a leg doesn’t make it one.
Similarly, justifying that which is prima facie unethical doesn’t change anything.

Importantly, we’re not talking here about the sort of oxymoron made popular by the late, great George Carlin: “jumbo shrimp,” “military intelligence,” and the like. These word pairings become “oxymoronic” and hence comical only because of a pun on one of the terms: a shrimp is no longer a crustacean, but a term for someone or something very small. Here, however, we have terms that really are in opposition, more like the “mandatory options” car makers tried to foist on us a few years ago: the base sticker price was low, but they literally didn’t make the car without several hundred dollars’ worth of “options.” No, “ethical” and “cheating” will never go together in any coherent way.

2). The argument itself is dishonest. It suggests a disjunctive dichotomy which doesn’t exist. You don’t have to cheat, or to condone it, to have a classroom which is well-distanced from memorization and standardized testing. But those classes, emphasizing guided discussion and a variety of communication modes and media, still have a need for structure and for assessment (not in the nonsensical terms that state legislators and accrediting agencies employ that term, but rather as a means of determining a given student’s progress). Moreover, memorization is often legitimate. If you fail to memorize what to do at a red light, I don’t want to be on the roads with you; if you fail to memorize (a.k.a., learn), who David Garrick was, I’m not going to think you know anything about theatre history.

3). Its projections are pragmatically ridiculous. The idea that students who cheat are somehow better prepared for the workplace is risible. Who’s going to hire them, after all? If you think it’s OK to cheat on a test because you had more interesting things to do than study last night, it’s a fairly short step to thinking it’s fine to take a few dollars out of the till because you’re a little short on cash, to sell the company’s secret formula to the competition because they offered you a job with a big raise, or to compromise the missile defense system because the spy who asked you to do so is kind of cute. In this economy, try arguing that you ought to be hired because you cheated (ethically, of course).

4). It creates considerable socio-cultural damage. This is two-fold (at least). First, it de-values actual intellect, actual talent, and actual work ethic. It might not seem so to some post-adolescents, or to idiots like Harkins and Kubik, but these really are the raw materials of success as an individual and, at least as importantly, as a member of a larger community. It is in all our interests, for example, that a doctor actually knows how to diagnose an illness, not merely to plug the symptoms into a search engine and hope for the best. In crisis situations, it is imperative that confidence be placed in people who know the answer, not just where to find it. Ultimately, de-valuing the work of the people who really do have those essential Wizard of Oz qualities of a brain, a heart, and courage by granting equal status to those who succeeded only by co-opting the efforts of others will destroy our society. And no, this isn’t an Ayn Rand argument. It is, however, an unabashed endorsement of the notion of a meritocracy.

Of course, tied up with this analysis is a fundamental truth, one lost on Harkins and Kubik: both left-brain and right-brain activity matter. There are plenty of courses at the high school level and above on which creativity is indeed valued. But that doesn’t mean creativity employed towards a fundamentally dishonest end. And the only way I can catalyze or assess a student’s creative impulses is to have confidence that the creativity in question is the student’s, not that of his friend in an earlier section. Of course, in the arts it’s a little easier to recognize skill levels, too: you can’t cheat when it comes to hitting that high note—you either do or you don’t, and no smuggled-in cell phone is going to help.

Associated with this is the notion of standards, both in the classroom and in the wider society. Don’t tell me today’s students can’t or won’t do good work. I know better. When I came to my current position, I was skeptical about how well the students here would do in my classes. The first theatre history test I gave wasn’t pretty. I had a choice to make: lower the standards, or do what I could to raise the students. I chose the latter course, and the overwhelming majority of students for the last decade have risen to the challenge. Not all excelled, but some did, and it would be asking too much to have expected them to do so if they could get an “A” without breaking a sweat. I’ve had more than a few students over the years who have thanked me for making them work, even thanked me for busting them for academic dishonesty: “a lesson learned,” said one. (The first student I failed for plagiarism at my current university invited me to her wedding two years later.) That doesn’t make me special. It makes me a teacher. Mssrs Harkins and Kubik might like to try it sometime.

Of course, the lowering of standards is endemic. There’s a movement afoot to address the perceived shortage of college graduates by reducing the graduation requirements. You see, then it would cost less in time and money to get a degree. More people would get them, and our problems would be solved. The logical extension of this argument, of course, is that the best possible solution would be to give everyone a Bachelor’s degree at birth. Then we’d truly have an educated work force, right? No. As I said recently in a different context, the Taoist concept of the yin and the yang resonates in the modern world. Educated employees are a legitimate taxonomy if and only if there’s such a thing as an uneducated employee. Moreover, it is no doubt true that there are a lot of people in college who shouldn’t be there: they lack the intellectual rigor, the work ethic, or the interest to prosper. It’s fine that they don’t have a BA or a BS: I really don’t care if the person who fixes my car has a PhD in engineering or dropped out of high school—did my car get fixed right and at a fair price? If so, I’m happy. If not, not.

5). It devalues real creative collaboration. This is one I’m passionate about, largely but not exclusively because I’m a practicing theatre artist as well as an educator. How dare these yahoos from Minnesota suggest that “creative collaboration” is little if anything more than a euphemism for a conspiracy of deception? No, that’s a term that’s precious to me, and these smarmy little pseudo-educators can’t have it. Creative collaboration is what happens every time out of the gate in what I do. When it’s functioning at its best, no one can remember after the fact whose idea it was that got kept; the only thing that matters is that it worked. Mine is a profession in which everyone contributes but everyone has a specific job to do. Ideas fly, are pounced on, massaged, tweaked, or rejected. But everyone knows if someone—an actor, director, designer, choreographer, whatever—isn’t pulling his/her own weight. And because none of us wants to be the one responsible for something not being right, we tend to obsess. This is a hard business. News flash: they all are.

If you want to survive, you’d better have real problem-solving skills, not just the ability to glance at your iPhone when the prof isn’t looking. You’d better be able to create and shape an idea truly collaboratively, not just cobble together a report that you and your buddies worked on together, culling from other people’s work. Above all, if you want to pass my course, you’d better not try any of that crap in my classroom.

I freely admit that the odds are very high that someone out of the literally thousands of students I’ve seen over the years has successfully cheated in one of my classes. I can’t stop them all. But what I can do is to make the likelihood of getting caught and the severity of the punishment for it sufficiently high that the cost-effective thing to do is simply to do your own damned work. Here’s what appeared on one of my most recent syllabi. First, the most important paragraph of the School of Theatre policy (which I wrote):
The School of Theatre expects students to maintain the highest standards of academic conduct. Misrepresenting someone else's work as your own or knowingly allowing someone else to represent your work as his/hers constitutes academic dishonesty. Such behavior is antithetical to our work as scholars, as artists, and as members of a community founded on trust and mutual respect. It is an insult to faculty and an affront to honest students.
Then, my addendum:
I am going to trust you not to cheat. That means I won’t be hovering over your shoulder during tests, etc., but it doesn’t mean I won’t be vigilant. It also means that if you do get caught cheating or plagiarizing, I will treat it as a violation of personal trust. You won’t like the result. If innate honesty isn’t enough to keep you from plagiarizing, let my reputation for detecting and prosecuting plagiarists fill you with dread.
I have a gradebook and I’m not afraid to use it.

This, by the way, is what creative collaboration actually looks like. Adam Blain, Jonathan Garcia, Hannah Peaker and Lamar Jefferson in The Breasts of Tiresias by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated and directed by Rick Jones. Choreography by Juanita Finkenberg, scenery by Dana Gloege, costumes by Angela Bacarisse, hair and makeup by Tori Fields, lighting by Nikki Johnson, original music by John Konderla, sound by CC Conn. Assistant director: Katrina Tarson; Stage manager: Janette Bauer; dramaturg: Marissa Harding. (And that leaves out the contributions of about 30 other people...)

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