Man, I wish this was about pumpkins. Then I wouldn’t feel quite so bad about the time I’m wasting thinking about this when I could be finishing my MG novel I was hoping to get done before Thanksgiving. (Vain hope, there. Ah, well. It will be better for the additional time I took, right?) This is not about pumpkins, but about cheating, or as we called it in my undergrad college, academic dishonesty. (I do love a euphemism.)
A very recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, allegedly written by a “Shadow Scholar” who writes admissions papers, term papers, theses papers and dissertations for college and university students, got me thinking about my own educational experiences. Whatever you might think of the article, which is about the writer’s experiences in churning out these papers, he or she brought up a point that resonated with me — and reminded me of my own teaching days. He wrote that he’d hated high school, and had hoped that college would be the free exchange of ideas, blah, blah, blah, but it turned out to be the same thing – grubbing for grades, pressure, etc.
No, I have no sympathy – but I kind of understand. A little.
I’ve said before that when I was teaching high school I thought teaching English would mean that I would have those Brilliant Exchanges, and that I’d have a mini Dead Poets Society thing going on. While I had transcendent intellectual moments (hah!) in college, thanks mainly to a couple of really personable professors who led me to think, mostly high school and college was just a lot of work — I learned stuff, and sometimes it was exciting to discover things. But it was work, with long stretches of drudgery in between.
The Shadow Scholar seemed to resent that.
When I was little, I remember my Dad coming home from work, generally in a ratty mood. Granted, that’s somewhat of a permanent state with him (!), but right as he drove into the driveway, we kids snapped to and got the heck out of his way. And my mother, with her gift (?) of interpreting some of my father’s more incomprehensible moods used to say, “Well, he’s tired. It’s called ‘work’ for a reason.” Somewhere along the line, people have gotten the idea that nothing should be work, maybe. Nothing should tax us, or make us irritable or tired. And when it does, we should be able to pay someone to alleviate the pain. After all, it works with doctors — if we eat too much, there are umpty-hundred pills on the market to make the stomach pain/indigestion/fat go away. Just ask your doctor!
I wasn’t that great of a student. I was mediocre at everything, neither that great nor that bad. I have a mediocre soul as well, I’m sure, and I don’t want to appear self-righteous as I say this — but it never occurred to me to cheat – to buy a paper from the campus go-to geek for writing everyone’s stuff, or from a company. First off, I would never have been able to afford it — those things cost between $500-a grand. Second — it was foreign to me to trust someone else with MY grades. No way, no can do. I am putting my ethical base, the thing within me which would simply rise up and shriek, THIS IS SO WRONG third, because I don’t want to judge. I know people did this – I must know people WHO did this, although they never said. Unlike a lot of brainy and less-than-socially adept people in high school or college, I was never approached to write people’s papers, or if I was, I was too dense to know they didn’t mean they just wanted a few pointers, or to study together.
Which is a kind of laughable synopsis of my entire educational/social experience right there…
Graduate school was an amazing experience. I took an 18th Century Lit course from a professor who had just published a book on the topic. I found out after the class had started, and I muttered a lot of, “Oh, crap,” going in. And yes, it was grueling. Not only was I required to turn in three peer reviewed drafts of every single paper at whatever random time the professor announced a paper check (this was probably to prevent that term paper purchasing, but I didn’t realize that at the time), I was required to take over the class one day and lecture on one of my paper sources, and endure a fifteen minute Q&A session afterward, in which the professor was also invited to ask questions.
I thought that I might die.
It was intense. There was sweat and blood involved, and possibly weeping and gnashing of teeth. It remains the most cherished memory of my time at Mills. I. was. awesome. I fell in love with the topic (how much do you know about female 18th century poets? How much does anybody?!), and I have the props from my Vessels of the Poets lecture still to hand, thankyouverymuch. (Yes. I used props. Come on – I once taught elementary school. Be nice.) And it was almost an afterthought that I passed that course with distinction in that course – because I loved the experience of having to ride out on that edge where it was up to me whether I stood or fell. (I even took another class from that professor, knowing how she worked. Glutton for punishment? Maybe. But truly: it was amazing.)
Last year, Tech Boy had the immensely frustrating experience of catching a student copying great swathes of work from online articles without giving credit. He worked with the student for weeks, trying to explain why this was unethical and unacceptable, and when he made no headway he finally met with his university supervisors — and the student passed anyway. Apparently this happens a lot. Plagiarism, academic dishonesty – call it what you want – it’s prevalent in not only academia, but in fiction — remember our outrage at Kaavya Viswanathan, or more recently, the German girl who wrote a novel based on someone else’s blog and claimed she was merely the forebearer for a new generation of writers?
Is this …really who we are? No, seriously. I am asking. I’m a hermit – I can’t claim to know what people are like in the mainstream. Is this us?
I find that I want to talk to the Shadow Scholar. I want to discuss cheating with anyone who has ever cheated. I want to sort of …get what it is to need to do that. And I think I want to look at that against the larger background of who we are as a society. Are we all thieves and liars now? Are we all moving toward a place where “cheater” is no longer a game-ending, fists-flying, schoolyard taunt?
Who are we now? And, where does that leave those of us who don’t cheat, and don’t know how?