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Academic Integrity

20 Jan Posted by in Academics, Observations | Comments
Academic Integrity

It’s too bad of course to add some comments about cheating and other academic misconduct to the greetings associated with an opening of a new semester. But the fact is we need to pay more nuanced attention to the issues involved than many of us are accustomed to.

It’s really unfortunate, and sometimes really annoying, that some students cheat, plagiarizing papers or copying materials on examinations of even using electronic devices to fake attendance in classes. Some students don’t know better, because of inadequate precollege supervision, and we do try to be appropriate lenient and flexible on many first offenses. But there’s no question that we have a problem — as do all contemporary universities everywhere.

In this context, a few additional points. First: faculty (particularly in the large courses that invite misconduct by their very size and anonymity) need to be clever to prevent misdeeds. Cleverness includes not reusing essay questions too often, and doing things like mixing up the order of multiple choice entries to prevent easy glances in crowded classrooms.

Second, faculty must be encouraged to use honor code procedures. It’s important to report student misconduct, even when the response is lenient, simply to be able to identify recidivism. It’s also important NOT to take the law into one’s own hands, to make sure that an accused student has a chance for self-defense rather than submitting to the dictates of a righteous instructor. This is one area where some real nuance comes in: an avenging faculty mood is not useful.

We also need to recognize, to ourselves but also to our students, that the problem is not just a student one. Faculty misbehave too, though we hope rarely, and we need to be able to assure all our audiences that we take this at least as seriously as we do our student issues. Here too, prevention is better than punishment: we need regular self-reminders about what constitutes scientific misconduct.

With all this, there’s no need to overemphasize the policing role. Most students don’t cheat. There’s no educational value in assuming the worst or in overdoing the monitoring role. There’s certainly no justification for trying to trap wrongdoers: we should be open with students about what measures are taken, for example, to check on possible plagiarism. Even admitting the problems we do have, it’s important to say the obvious: this is not the area that should capture our primary attention as teachers, and fortunately there are many more positive aspects to the process we’re about to reengage in.