Like parents reluctant to discuss sex with their pre-teen daughters, faculty members have always seized with relief on any way to escape the need to address the sensitive issue of cheating in college. But concerns over the incidence of academic dishonesty have been growing in recent years and it is surely past time to bring this subject out into the light of day.
For many professors, of course, the environment in which they work has changed -- and not, in this respect, for the better. There was a time when cheating involved glancing at a neighbor’s test answers or laboriously copying passages out of books in the library by hand. But with the advent of cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet, cheating in college has become more widespread and harder to detect. Students can now purchase online papers on topics from astronomy to zoology, locate research on even the most arcane topic almost instantaneously and submit text in English to be automatically translated into any of a hundred foreign languages.
This, then, is the background against which first-year students have been arriving at colleges and universities across the country over the last month. And on those same campuses, faculty members and administrators have been wrestling with the challenge of introducing them to their new and unfamiliar academic environments. Prominent among the topics they have been addressing, albeit unwillingly, is “academic integrity” -- the kinder, gentler obverse of … well … cheating.
Some of this year’s freshmen will have taken online tutorials, others will have received pocket-size how-to booklets on avoiding plagiarism in their papers, and still others will have attended orientation meetings where faculty members alerted them to their institutions’ honor codes, or policy statements, or the online tools used to detect plagiarism.
Some of my colleagues, to be sure, adopt the ostrich defense, refusing to “waste valuable class time” talking about academic honesty. Cheating is cheating, they contend; students should recognize it for what it is and “just say no.” But this approach fails to take into account the world of college study as contemporary students see it. A recent national study, after all, showed that two of every three college students fail to recognize that downloading copyrighted music and video constitutes stealing -- a judgment call far less complex than those they will encounter when they tackle lengthy term papers drawing on multiple scholarly sources.
Instead, we should openly admit to our students that even experienced professors frequently confront moments of indecision in their own work that lead them to consult their colleagues or their consciences. Like most truly worthwhile activities, studying and writing with integrity demands sophisticated ethical reflection not the blind application of a set of rules to clearly defined circumstances.
We should also frankly acknowledge that instructors at the college level differ markedly in their expectations of students, all too often without making those expectations clear in their course syllabi. Some encourage group work on projects; others prohibit it. Even those who encourage group work may or may not take time to define what individual contributions are acceptable. Some expect students to cite all their sources in a paper, including even the textbook assigned for the course, while others see this as unnecessary. We appropriately respect the rights of individual instructors to set such parameters in ways that best support their goals, but students deserve to understand exactly where the lines will be drawn in each class, just as they need to know the due dates for papers and the rules regarding the use of calculators in tests and quizzes. In clarifying their guidelines, professors simply help students to develop an important life-skill: the ability to analyze and respond to the many and varying demands that will be placed on them in their future careers and in their personal lives as adults.
Above all, we cannot ignore the fact that today’s students are the targets of highly sophisticated marketing that explicitly undermines the messages that conscientious faculty members are trying to inculcate. The Internet offers an unlimited array of information free for the taking and all but encourages students to take shortcuts. The sober-seeming Web site of an organization that claims to “provide a top notch writing service for all … clients across the world” also asserts that “[all] our work is guaranteed not to be plagiarized and we give a money back guarantee for that.” This hardly helps a student unclear on the concept to see that the very act of ordering up a “model essay” from this outfit itself violates the canons of academic honesty, virtually whatever one’s definition of that contested term.
So what strategies can a diligent faculty member adopt to combat student misconduct? First, offer students a forthright, unembarrassed explanation of what constitutes the work you expect in a course or an assignment and of what help they may and may not seek from others in completing it. Second, take reasonable care to design assignments and examinations in such a way that cheating on them will be difficult and could only result from a conscious effort on the part of a student to deceive. In a literature course, do not invite students to select their own texts to compare and contrast; pick works that the paper-mills are unlikely to have anticipated. When assigning a term paper, require at least one draft and insist that the final text demonstrate that its author has responded to your suggestions for improvement. And make it clear that you will be expecting all students to check their handheld devices at the door on each and every exam day. Third, always offer a sympathetic ear to students with honest questions. Denying that this is a key element of the responsibility we owe our students, by contrast, is poor pedagogy and will only buy additional trouble -- for us or for our unfortunate colleagues -- as our students move towards graduation four years hence.
Timothy R. Austin is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at the College of the Holy Cross.