Friday, January 05, 2007

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, Hester Prynne, and Student Cheating

Since BikeProf was nice enough to devote a post to CitizenSE, I want to say a word or two about the post that made me decide to put The Hobgoblin of Little Minds on my blogroll. In it, he describes the confrontation with a student other students of his had accused of cheating on the final exam for the course he was teaching. Over the course of the conversation he starts feeling more and more like Roger Chillingworth or Governor Bellingham from The Scarlet Letter (assuming they had the capacity to recognize that they might be judging Hester just a little harshly). Was the student just guilt-tripping him? Or was she guilty? His title, "The Opacity of Truth," says it all. I encourage my readers to put their two cents in on his blog (but read the earlier posts, too). I have three cents (or is that six?).

I don't give final exams in most of my classes to avoid this problem. You can look at my syllabi for the rationale and for the way I typically handle assessment in my classes (profile-->web site for those who need the direction)--I don't have time today to write about it. So if a problem comes up for me it has to do with plagiarism. But forcing students to formulate their own final project and check in with me at various stages tends to cut down on the opportunities for this. It's time-consuming to meet and correspond with my 70-100 students per semester to make this work, but the students generally do better work and you can really tell who's fired up about it and who's just checking it in. I've taught well over a thousand students and graded more than six thouand papers and only had to deal with a handful of plagiarism issues. I wonder what other people's experience has been?

I've thus experienced the pleasures of plagiarism mainly vicariously. The personal part has been the pleasures of wrangling as a department and university over how to stop it. Topics for future posts. Maybe I can get my fantasy football buddy to guest blog here, too. He has the worst two cases I've ever heard of and they both happened the first semester he escaped from adjunct hell and began to enjoy life as a tenure-track professor. Two stories from grad school I can pass on, though. Student walks into professor's office and says, "The grade on this paper is unacceptable." The professor, an earnest young tenure-tracker, agrees and launches into an explanation of what went wrong and how to improve it when the student interrupts and says coldly, "You don't understand. I said, this grade is unacceptable." The professor is taken aback and speechless for a moment (must have been a priceless moment if you happen to know the guy!). The student continues, "My father is a very important donor to this campus...." but before he can finish his tirade the professor kicks him out of his office. The next day, he worries that he just ended a heretofore promising career and goes to his chair for advice. The chair says not to worry and calls the alumni giving office to see just how important a donor the dad really is. The answer comes back, "Just six figures. Expendable." End of story 1. Story 2 is simpler, and I think just as true. A rumor was going around that a student turned in a senior thesis but left the receipt in it. Heh. The Ivy League. You gotta love it!

My third comment is simply to note that in The Scarlet Letter Hester's pregnancy is irrefutable evidence of her having had sex, so the case is somewhat different from BikeProf's. But given that her husband was missing and presumed dead--and that Mr. Prynne (i.e., Roger Chillingworth, or am I making an unwarranted assumption that Hester took and kept his name?) never came forward to prove otherwise--my students and I this semester were a bit confused as to why she was accused and convicted of adultery. I know as a responsible professor I should have looked this up, but for American Puritans did adultery include having a child out of wedlock? Yeesh, you'd think I'd have a good answer to that already....

May I add that right now the Spider-Man villain is winning out over Emerson as my mental image of BikeProf? How bad is it that ads for Spider-Man 3 here in Chiba are more influential than "Self-Reliance"?


BikeProf said...

I think I totally need a costume like the Spider-Man villain! That would do something to my classroom persona. This is a wonderfully smart amplification and clarification of my ideas on the Cheating Incident--thank you. I also am confounded by the legal question of adultery in Puritan times; it would be an intersting exercise to imagine and write out the courtroom scene that convicted Hester in the first place. I am, by the way, very excited about the summer Reynolds project--we'll start some great corss-blog conversations, I'm sure.

The Constructivist said...

Sweetness. Did you have any trouble posting a comment, BTW? It takes me five tries from this computer just to open up the comment box, then I have to preview my comment before it'll accept my password. We're back in Fukuoka tomorrow morning, so hopefully working on a newer computer and a faster connection will solve this problem.