Wednesday, April 10, 2013

There's One Book Clint Won't Be Selling Back. From Ron in Racine.

I offer 4 major unit tests a semester in my class. 2 are open book, as students become comfortable with certain theorems and equations. The last 2 (which includes the final) closed book.

We had the first of the closed book tests this morning. Students don't even bring material in the hall for this. They have calculators, graph paper, and blue books.

After getting them all started, I wandered down one floor to my office and on the way back to class stopped in the men's room.

Propped carefully behind the commode in one of the stalls was a copy of the text for my class. I couldn't help myself. I opened it up and saw Clever Clint, a student in my class, taking the test one floor away, had written his name and email address on the flyleaf.

He had apparently stowed the book here for nefarious purposes, or maybe, oddly, he left there, 80% hidden.

I used to be a nice man. I used to have a sort of understanding and compassion for students. That was a long time ago.

As I paged through his book, I found that he had "cleverly" marked several of the major theorem pages with paperclips. It's a gigantic book, more than 1400 pages, and the paperclips would indeed speed up one's retrieval of info.

I tore each of the paperclipped pages out and folded them up in my jacket pocket. Then, and I hesitate to say this out loud, dropped the rest of the book halfway into the clean water of the toilet bowl, leaving it soaking, just the top edge of it in the air, iceberg style.

I went back to my classroom and proctored the continuing test.

At about halfway through, Clint stood, stretched and walked toward me.

"Could I make a quick bathroom break?"

"Yes. That's just fine," I said.

He was gone a little longer than that sort of thing would normally take, and his face was white. Not once did he look up at the front of the room, and he had the student next to him bring up his test at the end of the period.

I sometimes wonder about who I am, what I've become, but there was a thrill of victory for me in this moment that I'm not entirely sure I like.


  1. Epic, as the little bastards would say.

    I don't care if you made that all up. It is an inspirational story for all of us. Thank you.

  2. This raises an issue that I have noticed trending on the site:

    Why do so many of us always feel bad when we catch cheaters?

    I think more of us should be THRILLED when this happens.

    1. Because then one is faced with the prospect of following up on said infraction, and all of the sturm und drang (with both student- and admin-flakes) that followup surely generates...


  3. Should have used the toilet before dropping the book in it.

  4. Something similar happened to me.

    During my first 2 years of teaching we had a group of students who people had long suspected as collaborating and cheating during exams. Often, one or another member of that bunch would take a bathroom break, though, at the time, I simply attributed it to coincidence. That group was divided over all the sections of the course and those breaks seemed to occur more often when more than one section was writing an exam at the same time but in different rooms in the building.

    There were rumours that those breaks were purposely timed so that one member of that group from each section just happened to be in the biffy at the same time.

    Several years later, I had a student who wanted to pull that sort of stunt on me though for seemingly legitimate reasons. He said he was a diabetic, which meant that he might have to eat something one in a while to control his insulin. I knew all about that sort of thing as my father has been one for over 45 years and he often had snacks with him for that purpose.

    The student, though, figured he would have to leave the exam room for that and tried to get permission before the exam to do so. I normally didn't have a problem with people eating while writing so long as they didn't disturb anyone else, so I said he could take his snacks in with him and eat at his desk. He wasn't happy about it but nearly turned white when I told him about my father. He hadn't counted on that.

    It turned out that the student was close to failing and this was a gamble on his part to pass the exam. He didn't and flunked the course.

  5. Racine Ron says:

    If I was making it up, the bowl wouldn't have been clean...

  6. Simple, yet elegant. Standing and clapping.

  7. That is so classic. What a great moment! I would have retrieved the book and kept it in my bag as evidence rather than leaving it in the bathroom, but you made a memorable statement and it was received.

  8. I agree with Monica that this response is inappropriate: unprofessional, unethical, and possibly illegal (though unprovable -- all the more so because the student isn't going to complain). I think I would have been more inclined to either retain the book myself and return it to the student at the end of the exam or decide that my chair's or the Dean of Students' office was an appropriate lost and found depot given the circumstances, and inform the student of where the book could be picked up. If I didn't want to deal with the emotion of confrontation and/or the bureaucracy of making official cheating allegations, just stashing the book somewhere and turning it in to the official lost and found (or giving it to the student in the next class, saying someone had found it) would also have done the trick, at least in terms of depriving the student of any benefit from cheating (the added fillip here, of course, is that the student knows, or at least suspects, that the professor defaced the book, and must spend mental energy weighing various possible scenarios that might play out from here. Of course the disappearance of the book would have a similar effect, but would be less likely to leave the student wondering just how far the professor -- or whoever trashed the book-- might go). Destruction of property definitely takes one into morally murky waters (and putting stuff in the toilet might result in said murky waters spilling all over the building -- another drawback).

    But given the undeclared arms race between students and professors over cheating these days, I'm considerably less inclined to wag a finger at Ron than I would be otherwise. Yes, we should hold ourselves to higher ethical standards than the students do (and I try to live by that motto, and mostly succeed), but I understand both the feeling of personal injury when students cheat, and the desire to respond in kind.

    Also, it's worth noting that Ron has, and reports, his own misgivings about his response. He doesn't even claim that the individual student, or the cumulative actions of students over the years, drove him to this action (which would, of course, be a copout; we make our own choices, regardless of others' behavior). He just observes, and shares, how he acted in the moment (or perhaps reports as fact what was in fact an unacted-upon fantasy). It's not a pretty picture, but neither is much of higher ed these days -- and acknowledging the nakedness of the emperor is what this blog is all about.

    1. Egads, I normally agree with you Cassandra, but you and Monica are not making any sense to me today. Ron's reaction was elegant. He STOPPED the cheating. And he sent a message.

      Were we all so "clever."

      And illegal? Putting a book in the toilet? Good gravy.

    2. I think it helps to imagine that Ron's response somehow became known (maybe Clint has also been using this bathroom as a drop in his drug-dealing operation, and the university police installed a camera; or maybe a student's phone-camera video goes viral after the student, attracted by the tearing noises and expecting to catch another student cheating, instead ends up recording Ron). Ron would probably find himself trying to explain himself to his chair, and/or a Dean concerned with "upholding the reputation of the university" (which is a tenure-endangering matter in some places) and "serving as a role model," etc., etc., etc., harrumph, harrumph, harrumph. I'm not sure Ron's response was illegal; it's probably a civil matter at most, and the damages would presumably equal the buyback cost of a used, marked-up textbook, which Ron can probably afford. Still, I think Ron would be squirming, mostly because he can't (and, in fact, in his original post, doesn't) really justify his response. It just doesn't come under the heading of fully responsible, grown-up behavior (and it is part of our jobs to be the adults in the situation, even when our students don't act like the adults they are). He probably wouldn't actually face a lawsuit, or the loss of tenure (assuming he's part of the lucky c. 30% of faculty still eligible), but I can easily imagine him being censured for not reporting the cheating via the appropriate channels, being required to take an anger management class, and -- worst of all -- having to apologize to Clint (and, probably, his outraged parents).

      Mind you, I enjoyed the story (and laughed, and thought "sweet"). I guess I'm just in "don't try this at home" mode, worrying that some impressionable TA or newbie assistant proffie might actually think this response is a viable option (it's also worth noting that if a member of the 70%, a contingent faculty member, got caught doing this -- and I realize that is key -- (s)he'd be straight out the door, just because it would easier than trying to weigh just how bad the offense was).

    3. This was too good to worry about consequences.

    4. Cassandra, I am with you. It is not that I really judge Ron for what he did (and this is also aligning with what you are saying), but simply that I would not have done it myself. What I would have done is to have grabbed the book and given it back to the student right there in the class. I would have said, "Hey, Asshole Student" (all concerned), "I found this in the bathroom and knew you'd want it back." Just like that. I would have known and the student would have known and any particularly observant/perceptive fellow students would have guessed. Or not.

      I did not read Monica's comment, but I have never reacted or responded to Monica the same way others here seem to do.

    5. I think saying "Asshole Student" is far worse than dropping the cheating device in the loo.

      You really CAN'T call students assholes, and if you did at my college, your ass would be fired. And I'd wave as you left.

    6. @Ben: quite possibly true. On the other hand, I'm envisioning consequences that might include listening to repeated repeated retellings of how Clint was so nervous about the test that he kept needing to go to the bathroom, and he left his carefully-marked (for studying purposes, of course) textbook in there on the last visit, and had no idea that he'd lost it until he needed to go to the bathroom again during the test, where he found it, completely by coincidence, in the toilet, not only soaked but deliberately destroyed, which upset him so much that he flubbed the rest of the test. . . .

      Of course, bringing an honor charge might well result in listening to repeated retellings of essentially the same story, minus the discovering the textbook in the toilet part.

    7. Kimmie, I called hir an asshole here just to fill in some kind of name for hir. It seemed as fitting a moniker as any other in the tradition of making up names for people on this site. Of course, IRL, I'd call him or her by name.

      I'm grinning a bit to myself, though, imagining if I really lost it one day and called all people who were actually assholes, assholes. Many of those people would be students, but some of my colleagues and all of the admin team would be in there as well. And if it ever happened, I'm sure I'd appreciate your wave as the door hit my tush on the way out!

  9. Excellent! Great graphic, too. Definitely a candidate for POW.

    Monica, the professor's actions were discreet, clever, and (quoting Beaker Ben) inspirational for us all. I bet Clint learned much more from the way the professor handled it than if he'd done the usual report.

  10. I've deleted a couple of comments in this thread. It was not done capriciously, but as a result of a series of complaints for a certain kind of behavior.

    This is nearly always a move of last resort. Had there not been a pattern of other behavior I would never have gotten involved.

    This is a very rare occurrence here, so please know that I'm making choices that I feel are in the best interests of the largest number of members.

    The RGM

  11. Hahahahahahahahaha! Student can't prove that the professor did anything to the book. What is the student going to do, report back that he found his book mysteriously in the toilet? That would raise more than a few suspicions.

  12. I am imagining the student paging through the soaking wet book, looking for his paperclips.
    Illegal? How?

  13. Ron! You da man. This is my favorite post ever on CM.

  14. I vote POW.

    Elegant. And I would be willing to bet that the little fucker won't try it again, and that word will get around that you are a ninja and nobody should even TRY to put one over on you.


  15. Everything about this is beautiful.

  16. What a great story. I will absolutely emulate this if I ever get a chance, but a question comes to mind. You left the room after giving them the test, suggesting your school has an "honor code" system. Now, honor code or not (my U may have one, I'm not sure), I never leave the room during a test. And much as I'd gladly visit every men's room in the building looking for hidden textbooks to deal with as described, worrying that, in the meantime, wholesale information exchange and textbook lookup would be going on in the test room would overwhelm the pleasure of the operation. Come to think of it, while you were teaching Clint a lesson, who knows how many other students were taking advantage of your absence? "Honor code"--Hah!

    1. I wondered this, too. But maybe there were TAs or other proffies involved? It sounds like a big class.

  17. As much as I love the story, this never would have happened in one of my classes.
    Pat from Peoria's Rules for Test-Taking (abridged):
    1) Pat from Peoria must be able to see your eyes at all times. No sunglasses or hard-brimmed caps over your eyes.
    2) If your cell phone gets Pat from Peoria's or anyone else's attention in any way, shape, or form during an exam, you are done with your exam.
    3) If you leave the room during the exam, for any reason, you are done with your exam.

  18. I wonder whether Weber State University knows their job is being advertised on CM. At least they're not looking for a proffie to teach calculus (or physics, or anything else that involves giant textbooks containing theorems). In any case, it should make for an interesting (and strong) applicant pool.

    But don't we all already work at Weber State (presumably as the result of some odd 4-way hire -- unusual, but, then, Utah has a history of recognizing relationships involving more than 2 people. Not sure what to make of the participation of the priest, however)? Or is this a way to gather in some of the strays who are still wandering around Oxford?

  19. I don't have any problem with what Ron did with the exception of leaving the book in the toilet.

    Someone, and probably not Clint, had to clean that up. Clint would have just left the book in there. So, the housekeeping staff would have been left with a wet book to pull out of the bowl.

    Less messy, and just as effective, would have been to just rip the pages out and put it back. Maybe clip a note..."looking for something?" under one of the paper clips.

    The whole notion that the professor would ever have to answer for that is ludicrous. A student could have done it. And Clint never would report it anyway. What on earth would he say?

  20. I thought about this all afternoon, wishing I had the huevos to come up with such brilliance on the fly. I agree with Stella and others about the toilet mess, and being the good little ex-Catholic that I am, would have done the requisite confrontation and paperwork.

    But oh, the vicarious sweet pleasure of Ron's act. Ron's the new Ferris Bueller.

    1. What paperwork? There's no way the student gets officially busted for cheating in this situation. He needed to take a piss and had earlier forgotten his book in the bathroom. That's all he would say, and that would be that.

      Which is why some other method of prevention and punishment makes sense.

    2. HPP is dead on in assessing what the outcome of an academic charge would be. And I speak as one who has already spent several years sitting on the tribunal that prosecutes students for academic offenses of all sorts. 'Balance of evidence' (leaning towards either acquittal or conviction) in this quasi-judicial environment has now moved wayyy over to the more judicial 'beyond a reasonable doubt', in which case you'd need fingerprint analysis, surveillance cameras, hidden microphones (approved a priori via a warrant), a forensic accountant, witnesses who were fellow conspirators who turned, etc. We now need to have a lawyer on retainer to sit in on our proceedings. It is ridiculous.

  21. Echoing many others, I personally would not have taken such action myself, but it MAKES MY WEEK to hear that Ron had the cojones to pull it off. Nicely done!

  22. I suppose he could also have secreted the book back into the classroom, let the boy use the bathroom, and when the student brought the exam forward at the end, pull the book out from under the desk and say "Oh, I found this; you must have left it in the bathroom before class. I hope you feel better; you look a little pale."

    But tearing out the pages was a nice touch. I would have torn them out, then moved the paperclips to other random places in the book and left it exactly where I found it.

    So many possibilities...

  23. I would have simply taken the book, thrown it in the dumpster, and replaced it with a sign that said "Thanks for the book. I'm taking the course next semester and I really didn't want to buy it."

  24. Late to the party, but bowing down low with respect. Also, let's add the law Monica cites to be one of the many, many things wrong with Wisconsin.


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