My friend Nick Kennicott was kind enough to post a penetrating question in response to my last post about the industry built around plagiarism. Nick pointed out that “Ed Dante” argued (towards the end of his article) that the academic system tolerates if not encourages plagiarism. Can a case be made that universities are to blame?
This strikes me as a complex subject, and one of those times where blogging helps me formulate and develop my thoughts. Here’s where I’m at for now, and I welcome any new insights:
1. The reward system for faculty at some schools is all about research, not teaching. At those schools, undergraduates sometimes get very little attention from the faculty, who have little motivation to get involved in the academic lives of students, let alone their personal development. Academically Adrift, for example, made the case (among other things) that the incentive structure of higher education too often ignores student learning – we don’t care enough to measure it, and grades are inflated to make life easier for faculty and students, many of whom are seeking a credential not an education. It sounds like Dante had a bad experience when he brought his novel to the faculty at his school. [The most important thing in choosing a college, I think, is this: What kind of people will I learn from? What motivates them? Will they actually care about my development, academically and as a person? Are they encouraged to do so by their management?]
2. In-class assessment (tests, essays) are important. The student is sitting in front of you and asked to perform. Plagiarism is not possible and cheating is difficult (provided the professor is present). I think every professor should have a significant portion of a student’s grade be in-class assessment, simply because (with the Internet) cheating has never been easier, and we can’t always catch them – nor should we have to spend an appreciable portion of our time trying to. If they cheat on the homework, the test will reveal that. If they cheat on the out-of-class report, the in-class essay will reveal that. If a student turns in A level work on out of class assignments, and D level work on in class assignments, there’s a good chance something fishy is going on.
3. I think it’s up to students to truly want to learn in college, not merely receive a credential (a piece of paper saying they finished the program). The credential is only worth something if the student receiving it has truly become a more academically capable, skilled adult, ready to use their intellectual abilities in a variety of paid and unpaid ways. But many students have a crass utilitarian perspective. They want to graduate with as little work as possible. They want as many As and Bs as possible for as little effort as possible. That mentality, if coupled with a lack of integrity, leads to plagiarism. Bottom line, the student bears responsibility for the attitude he or she brings to the classroom. What is he doing there if he doesn’t want to learn? College is too expensive to be undertaken for any other reason.
4. Some argue that the pressure of receiving grades puts “evaluation over education” and pushes students to cheat. They prefer we go to a pass/fail system where nobody ever gets letter grades. I think that’s a terrible idea. I take two chapters in Thriving at College to explain the importance of (a) working hard in the classroom, (b) understanding that your grade won’t necessarily be a reflection of your work ethic (any more than my best efforts could land me a spot on a professional basketball team), and (c) realizing that (b) is actually a good thing, not a bad thing.
In short, grades help people discern their calling. Joe failing calculus could be the means God uses to redirect him into history. Secondly, “grading” is a part of life. In almost every job, employees are evaluated by a supervisor – and this evaluation is usually in part objective (there are certain external metrics the employee is expected to meet) and comparative (“we deem you to be among the top 25% of employees at your level”). Comparison can be demoralizing or helpful, depending on how we do it.