No Fancy Name
Saturday, May 01, 2004
horrible students and the question of "why?"
A few years ago I decided to go back to school and learn some things I didn't know; not because I needed to jump up in a pay scale or get a better job, but because I had a bunch of time to kill and some burning questions on a few subjects. In California, we have a decent community college system, which means cheap classes. So, I started at that level just to get back in the swing of things. I hadn't been to school since I graduated from a teeny college in Virginia in '92 and wanted to ensure that school just wasn't a passing fancy. I took seven classes at community college, over two semesters, and it was well worth the $500. Five hundred bucks wouldn't have bought me a week's worth of tuition at my original undergrad institution, but lest you think I received $500 of crappy instructors, I didn't. At least the instructors I encountered at West Valley College were pretty darn good, and I have a pretty high standard when it comes to those sorts of things. The problem was the students.

The first class I took, during my first semester back in school, was Finite Math. I have a degree in English. I hate math (I thought I did, anyway). I made it through college the first time and only took one math class in four years. Needless to say, I came to class, paid attention and did my homework. Seemed reasonable, since homework was collected and was 20% of your grade. Next to me sat a boy just out of high school. He never did his homework. He was smart and got As on all the exams. But he gave away 20% just because he didn't feel like doing his homework. I asked him why, and he said "it doesn't matter, I only need to get a C- to get credit." While true, I fundamentally couldn't understand his answer. (Maybe the concept of a permanent record means a lot more to me because my C- in Modern Poetry pretty much nixed my GPA enough to toss me in the lower echelon of graduate schools way back when.) Then I realized that the only people doing homework in that class -- and in my other math class, and my economics class, and my political science class, etc. -- were students who clearly wanted to be able to pick which Univ of Cal or Cal State school they wanted to attend, rather than having their grades decide it for them, or they were older students such as myself who were attending school because we wanted to be there, and didn't want to throw the money out the window even if it was just 49 bucks.

I figured my experiences with lazy students was just something that came with the territory at community college. Then I finished all my general ed requirements and transferred to the local university, in the business department. This school has a good reputation for its business school, both undergrad and graduate. Not bad for having to compete with graduates of the other major schools in the area, little insignificant schools called Stanford and Cal. :) At this school, I have seen more cheating and plagiarism than at any school I've ever attended. I also have significantly worse instructors; I've had maybe four outstanding instructors out of fifteen, with a few being so completely horrible that I...well, I have no words for how horrible they are. Perhaps the two are related, but I've seen people cheat on tests and quizzes in the classrooms of the good professors. It's just that students cheat AND plagiarise in the really bad instructors' classes.

Beyond the cheating and the plagiarising, I am surrounded by really bad students. In classes of 60 or 80, it's easy to pick out the 10 people who really want to be there. We're usually all there early, and talk about how terrible the other students are, and how we just don't understand how it could be that way. These discussions, and the entry at In Favor of Thinking, prompted me to get all incensed in written form (this). The fundamental question is "why?" Why do people think it's ok to cheat, or plagiarize?

The aforementioned blogster and myself, we both went to schools with honor codes (although she went to a significantly better school than I did!) that meant something. You cheat, you're out. At both of our schools, you could take your final exam in a class anywhere and anytime you wanted. I took many exams in my school's library, surrounded by books that would have made the answers to essay questions a hell of a lot better. I remember take-home essay exams when the professor would tell us "this is not open book" and I wouldn't dare open a book. Not only did I care what the professor thought of me, academically and ethically, I had no interest in a fake A. I would much rather have a hard-fought B than a fake A.

I was having this same discussion with a few people from a class the other day -- a definite cross-section of students at this school. There's me, another person sort of like me in that we're the same age, already have degrees in English, and went to small schools in the east, a woman in her 40s who is in school for the first time, and a typical 20-year-old junior. The 40-year-old reetry student didn't seem to be as incensed as myself and the other person sort of like me, but did say that cheating and plagiarising was a bad thing and she'd never done it. The typical student said that she's never cheated but knows tons of people who have, and she's written other people's papers for them. She didn't seem to think it was right or wrong, just "the way things are" and that if we thought it was bad now, wait four more years for the current crop of high school students to come to campus.

As if on cue, Primetime Thursday aired a whole hour on just this topic. They interviewed high school students, teachers and the guy that built Turn it In. The common response from the students was "we have too many things to do so it's ok for us to use someone else's work" or "we have to get good grades to get in to good schools, so we have to use someone else's work". So let me get this straight -- you have no time management skills, so you have to cheat. Ever think of, oh I don't know, learning something about time management? You're high school students. Going to high school and learning should be your number one priority. Athletics, jobs and so forth are very important for various reasons, but they should be number two priorities. Learn a little about time management and you can actually accomplish all your goals--plenty of other kids your age do. The argument having to cheat so that they can get into a good school, well, I can't get over that one. Hey dumbass, the schools are "good" because they are academically rigorous and honor-bound. Think you'll last, even if you can cheat your way past the admissions office? Didn't think so.

I haven't even started on about the "real world". My B-school compatriots, they'll soon learn that Finance degree + cheating = Enron. Not cool. Software piracy, copyright infringment, so on and so forth -- yes, there's a connection between technology (which I love, and work with every day) and this new phenomenon where ethics are uncool. But there's also an even more interesting area where technology has made ethics an even cooler trait to have, which I'll write about some other day.


job / books / new blog

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