Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Is snowflakes' selective integrity a chimera?

A recent comment reminded me of the very first time I saw a particularly annoying snowflake excuse ("I would never cheat on something important") that I'm hearing more and more often these days.

It must have been about ten years ago when I caught a student blatantly cheating on a measly little low-stakes multiple-choice reading quiz worth maybe 5 points. He sent me this long e-mail screed (and if he'd put half as much effort into his classwork as he put into that rant, he would have done much better in the class) making the usual excuses ("Why do I even need to know this stuff, it has nothing to do with my major, my major classes are so demanding that I don't have time for this irrelevant garbage, you should be grateful that I'm taking this class at all") but included two I had never heard before:

1. The quiz was poorly designed, demanding rote memory rather than critical thinking skills.
2. It was only five points--I would never cheat on something really important!

As to complaint #1, it's true that the quiz didn't require critical thinking, but that's the nature of the beast--sometimes I want students to show some thinking about their reading but other times I just want to know that they have read the assignment, which task this particular quiz performed admirably. The salient point, though, is that a student who has not done the reading isn't going to perform well on either kind of quiz--and besides, the student who complains that a quiz he has failed is "poorly designed" strikes me as the kind of criminal whose defense rests with the words, "Your Honor, that gown makes you look really chunky."

Complaint #2 really floored me, perhaps because at that point I had never heard it before. My firm belief is that a person who will cheat on a five-point quiz will cheat on anything, but perhaps I'm mistaken. Are there really students out there who will cheat on small, low-stakes assignments but behave with integrity on major assignments? To judge from the number of times I've heard this excuse in the past few years, this selective integrity must be on the increase. Or else they're lying. Why should I believe a cheater's word about the frequency of his cheating?   


  1. This makes perfect sense to me. "Will the professor catch me?" is always a thought that a student must consider. Knowing that the penalty is a zero for the assignment, then a zero on a small assignment won't have much of an impact on the student's overall grade. Given the low penalty, the student is tempted. A high grade (from cheating) on the quiz would have similar low impact, but they might not consider it in such detail. We never claimed they were smart, after all.

  2. Rote memory is underrated. How can you think critically about something without knowing some facts about it?

    The assessment portions of our official course outlines are supposed to include words from the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy (which, by the way, Bloom never intended to be taken for dogma). When I say my goals are for students to "know" or to "clearly state the basic facts . . . " I'm told to substitute words like "evaluate" or "analyze."

    So I do it. But it's bullshit. These are introductory classes I teach, and, dammit, the students need to master the facts before they can analyze squat.

  3. I think many (but not all) students who claim they would never cheat on anything "important" probably believe it, but I also think you're right: cheating is a bad habit to get into (into which to get?). I'm not much for slippery-slope/gateway-drug arguments in generally, but somehow, in this case, my gut says that failing to act with integrity can all too easily become a habit. There might be some evidence in the confessions of repentant white-collar criminals, but I can't think of any concrete examples at the moment.

  4. This might be a good opportunity to confess the two occasions when I cheated.

    I was a straight-A undergrad, working full time to pay my own way through school. Before getting into school, I was kicked out of my house (I came out to religious parents. Big mistake) and spent 4 months homeless. I finally found a job and a friend who let me couch-surf until money came in, and qualified to get into the local state college a year later, took a combo of loans and worked 40 hours a week. School was very important to me because it symbolized climbing out of the shit hole that was being tossed out as a penniless teenager by my "moral" parents.

    But two situations arose when I could not take it and could not perform well. Both times, I panicked and I cheated.

    The first was a class on ethnic history. The teacher was a blatant racist who expected us to take multiple-choice exams on how history upholds racist stereotypes. I cheated because I could not figure out the racist stereotypes that were supposedly being proven. My parents were homophobic, but not complete racists. I didn't have the racist background to know the specific stereotypes. I copied blatantly off my neighbor. Our prof was a little deaf, so we all whispered answers to each other to pass the test.

    (side note: the professor was asked to leave the next year, because he was 85 at that point and pretty obviously losing his mind)

    The second time: I had broken my arm and missed a bunch of school during midterms. I had to take them late, alone, in an atmosphere where my profs had learned to trust me. I was overwhelmed and, in a fit of panic, used their trust to sneak a peak at my notes during an essay exam.

    The first was because the material was indeed arbitrary -- and totally offensive. The second instance was desperation. If I woke up 20 years old again tomorrow, I would probably cheat again on both of those instances.

    Now that I have my MA and PhD and years of teaching and plagiarism-busting under my belt, I often hold my students to these two examples. Are they being frivolous? Do they feel overwhelmed? Are they just being assholes? Are they genuinely confused? (looking at you, returning students who have forgotten what "research" means)

    There are many things that bring people to cheat. I'm sympathetic to two of them.

  5. One problem with "cheating on the small stuff" is that doing so can help to take pressure off the big stuff. In this case, let's say the student cheated on all the quizzes over the course of the semester and thereby earned a free X% of his grade. Now he's that much closer to whatever his final target grade is and has thus fabricated a dishonest cushion on his other assignments. That's a cushion that can be used to take extra time on a paper even while incurring a late penalty, a cushion on test grades, etc. In effect, he's cheated on the whole course by cheating on that small stuff.

    And Monkey, what do you mean by "sympathetic"? That you can relate to caving to certain pressures? That you can relate to caving to those pressures so you treat cheating under some circumstances different from other cases of cheating?

    1. I rather lost the thread of what I was saying because confessing to such crimes can feel intoxicating.

      What I meant to say is that there are, in my mind, two kinds of cheaters: the wandering in the wilderness types that think finding anything online and turning it in constitutes "research" and the "I am invincible!" types who cheat throughout the course. The former can be saved; the latter are assholes.

      I suppose I was being an asshole... but the first example was something we should never have to do (a test on being racist) and the second only happened because I had spent 3 years being an over-achieving, straight A, trustworthy type -- the type we would give allowances for during an emergency because they have already proved themselves versus the slacker who just keeps feeding us excuses.

    2. Yes, I do think there are differences in motives, and effects. The last time I cheated was sometime in early elementary school (looking at a neighbor's math test; math was harder than other subjects for me, and I was very frustrated by the "new math," because my father had taught me the old). After that, some combination of the fear of the humiliation/shame that would come with being caught and the knowledge that the worst case scenario really wasn't that dire kept me just doing my best, even when I was seriously underprepared (and usually doing better than I expected. It probably also helps that I'm not driven by grades, nor did my parents drive me to get As, and the schools I attended didn't stress, or often distribute, straight As, though they certainly were challenging. Though all evidence suggests I'm pretty smart, and I have always had some inkling of that, "straight A student" was never part of my identity; I got into an Ivy League school with a B+ average).

      I remember being shocked and horrified when my freshman-year roommate at college said she was going to claim to be sick rather than take an exam for which she felt unprepared (I didn't say so, but I did, at the time, think less of her for it). In retrospect, I'm considerably more sympathetic. We were probably paired as roommates because both of our mothers had died. I, however, had a fully-functional, if somewhat distracted/workaholic, tuition-paying father, and a family home I could retreat to in crisis; her father was a veteran with PTSD and schizophrenia who most often had no fixed address (but periodically sent her very odd care packages). She did have other supportive family members, but she was on her own financially, and the stakes of passing any one class, and of succeeding in college in general, were much, much higher for her. She was also coming from a much less challenging high school, and struggling with adjusting to college work, though she was fully capable of doing it. I'm not sure whether she cut any other corners, but, almost 30 years later, I'd describe her as someone with strong values, and strong bedrock integrity; she's one of those poorly-paid lawyers who defends the most vulnerable (including mental patients; yes, there's probably some influence of family history there) not because she couldn't get a higher-paying job, but because she believes they need an advocate. I admire her.

      Do I still think it was a bad idea for her to plead sickness to get out of the exam? -- yes, but as much on practical as on moral grounds. The exam was in a class she absolutely loved, taught by a professor she absolutely loved, and I suspect she would have done just fine (if not quite as well as her perfectionism, or her love for the class, demanded).

      Maybe that's the/a difference -- perfectionists who cheat because they take some things *too* seriously, in the great scheme of things (and who have long memories of each such occasion -- see Monkey's confession above), are different from those who are in the habit of minimizing the importance of things on which, truth be told, they just don't want to expend effort (but don't want to pay the consequences, either)?

    3. [exceeded the character limit; continuing. . .]

      I'm not sure where I'm landing here, since I still think cheating, for whatever reason, is a bad habit to get into. But I also think the answer(s) has/have something to do with value systems, and learning the actual worth of things, and that they're not determined by points, or other external markers of worth. I'd like to say that what counts is developing a sound internal set of values, but I suspect that many white-color criminals (and rapacious capitalists who take profit as their God) have a coherent, and, in their opinion, sound internal set of values.

      Aargh. Human beings are complicated, aren't they? But, oddly, I think my answer to Zora's question, especially after thinking about Monkey's story, is that cheating on low-stakes assignments may actually be a particularly bad sign, precisely because they *are* low-stakes (which means that acting with integrity and failing miserably would have very little real consequence, except perhaps to one's ego, which is not, or at least should not be, the same as one's bedrock, internal sense of self-worth).

      Of course, the above assumes that students notice which assignments are low- or high-stakes; many of mine seem to exist in a perpetual state of overwhelmed anxiety in which "losing points," no matter how trivial, is a cataclysmic event. But presumably students with that attitude aren't constructing rationalizations for cheating that involve labeling particular assignments "unimportant"; the anxiety-ridden students' problem is that they really don't seem to be able to distinguish between important and relatively unimportant assignments (even when the information is on the syllabus).

  6. I agree with HPP. In a points-based class, all points are fungible, even if you weight them differently. X points gained by cheating on a quiz has the same influence on the final grade as Y points gained by cheating on the final.

  7. The only time I ever cheated was in a high school chemistry class. It was an advanced class, but made up of students from the visual and performing arts magnet programs. The teacher declared: "none of you will need this or care about this" at the beginning of the semester. I believed him.

  8. a reader sends this in:
    My private SLAC has a church affiliation, so the punchline to a parable that I've found useful in these types of cases is this:

    "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with a lot. Whoever is dishonest with very little is dishonest with a lot."
    Luke 16:10

    It really helped to un-gray the line for me. And when dropped on a churchy little hypocrite, it really makes hir fume!

    1. Fuck, yes. Get this reader a google account and avatar so s/he can post more comments.

      When I see a colleague stealing a few sheets of paper from the xerox machine for personal use, I think he's the one who will (if given a chance) become the school's next embezzling president. If they rationalize stealing a hamburger, then they'll rationalize stealing a million dollars.

    2. I almost quoted that passage myself on this post. Yep, it's true.

  9. My first big cheater, one who plagiarized everything he submitted -- including diagnostic, not-for-marks exercises, stated at his hearing that he didn't consider what he did "really cheating." For him, that term was reserved for cheating on final exams.

    My mother, who taught uni level for decades, told me that she liked to include the odd rote memory test to encourage students who were never going to shine at analytical work. A good grade on one of those tests wouldn't be enough to boost a D student to a B, but it allowed those students a chance to feel some sense of accomplishment.

  10. According to Greek mythology, a chimera is a monster with three heads. The first head is that of a lion. In back of it is a second head, that of a goat. The third head is that of a snake, and it is at the tip of the tail of the creature. All three heads breathe fire. So to answer your question, Zora: YES, snowflakes' selective integrity is indeed a chimera.

  11. While I am sympathetic to the "I cheated because I panicked" argument, I always wonder: why not contact the professor in advance and explain your difficulties? As to the "it's not important so it doesn't count," I am much less sympathetic. That's 5 points other students had to *earn.* So I'd be likely to ask the cheater to explain to the class why they were required to study to get their 5 "unimportant" points but the cheater was allowed to get them for free. I've found that a useful antidote to students who argue that they should be granted exceptions.