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William C. Altreuter
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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

An interesting brush with academic dishonesty has caused me to muse on the question a bit. I am told that there are studies that show that 65% of American students* admit to committing an act of academic dishonesty some time during high school and college-- too broad a net, I'd say. Copying homework on the bus is not the same as submitting a plagiarized research paper. As indifferent a student as I was capable of being, I think I pretty much reckoned that my work was my own, for good or for ill. I think I also knew that the probability of getting caught-- by a teacher, or by an all-seeing god-- was pretty high. Still, I am privy to the law school's annual report on the issue, and am annually surprised at how common it is . Thirty years in law has taught me that if you haven't seen something yet, you will soon, so I suppose I should not have been surprised as I was to encounter a plagiarized paper. What actually surprised me was my emotional response. First I was annoyed that the student was going to cause me more work; and second I was annoyed that the student apparently believed I'd be fooled by such a bungling effort. I'm still not sure what part of it pisses me off most. Off I went to read the university's procedures, which were complex and prolix.The penalties are harsh, although they stop short of chopping off a limb or death by stoning, which goes to show that UB is more merciful than the Bible. As I reviewed it all I mused over what my life would be like today if I'd been called to task for everything  I did when I was 19... or 21, or 30.... That's no kind of world to wish for.

I was also struck by the pointlessness of it. This student comes to class, and seemed to have a handle on what we were talking about. The exam is a six day take-home, which, I suspect, most people manage to complete in a couple of hours. It is designed to elicit the best thoughts of the students on a subject that was sufficiently interesting to them seven weeks earlier that they were induced to sign up for the class, and I make a point of giving the exam when the students tell me they do not have any conflicting tests or projects due. I guess these may be reasons I haven't encountered the problem before, but I still come back to asking "why?" The student's response to that question was sufficiently shoddy for me to conclude that little more than shear stupidity was involved, but there is still the larger pedagogical issue presented.  Could it be that some students regard a university degree as a sort of credential awarded upon the conclusion of four years of tedium? How miserable! "I'm sitting here waiting for my ticket to be punched." What a way to go through life.
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*Apparently it is most common among students pursuing Management Degrees. This is weirdly comforting-- they may crash the world economy, but at least nobody dies in a bridge collapse.

| Comments:
I appreciate that you backed of from throwing the book at the student. I'm sure that failing your course plus the embarrassment of being caught and having only a dumb excuse is sufficient punishment. I'm kind of doubting that this student will manage to graduate with his class but maybe someday, he (or she), will come back and finish the degree with a maturity of purpose that is obviously not there yet. Sometimes I think we are none of us mature enough at "college age" to get all there is from it but that's how it works for most of us. I sometimes wonder, if we had you go out into the world for a few years before you went on to graduate school would that have been better for you.
 
If I were king of the law schools I would make a year or two out of school mandatory. That said, this situation is the first time I've encountered something like this in my now surprisingly long teaching career. For the most part my students seem to get when I'm teaching.
 
Oh, and I've decided that six days is too long. It'll be three days from here out.
 

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