You’re not a scapegoat if you actually did it

Last week, Harvard announced it had a wee huge cheating problem in one of its classes.

Almost half of the 279 students who took assistant professor Matthew Platt’s Introduction to Congress class in the spring are under investigation for cheating. [source]

One of those accused cheaters is talking to @Salon and it’s illuminating.

I can personally attest that my TF [teaching fellow] collaborated on every single exam with me. [The TF] pointed me in the right direction, gave me some answers, gave me some insights, and some quotes to use. Why? Because no one went to section or lecture. You didn’t have to. Professor Platt said on the first day of the course that he “didn’t care if you went to section” or lecture, and that he “gave out 120+ A’s last year” and would do the same this year. There was absolutely no incentive to learn any material.

In a phone call with Salon, the student went further. “That’s why people took the class in the past: fun lecture, goofy class, you go in and go out you know….we took the class with the same assumption,” [source; emphasis added]

According to our accused cheater, we’re got an easy class with an over-helpful TF and an instructor that doesn’t require you to clutter-up your schedule by attending class. Oh, and we have a student with no incentive to learn.  Because, you know, learning for learning’s sake, actually earning one’s degree, and being prepared for one’s career or graduate school just aren’t incentive enough.

How about an incentive to not cheat?  Oddly, a few of our incentives to not cheat are also incentives to learn!  Like actually earning one’s degree and being prepared for one’s career or graduate school.  Of course, another incentive to not cheat is that cheating is a violation of an institution’s Code of Conduct or Honor Code or Code of Ethics or whatever-they-call-it. Such violations can lead to many negative consequences like suspension or expulsion – at the very least, failure of the class and a tarnished reputation.  There is also the incentive of not wanting to be a no-integrity-having cheating bastard and instead, wanting to be a trustworthy grown-up.

I feel like I should make two disclosures here.  First, I am an instructor of college courses.  Second, I don’t think grown-ups have to be reminded that it’s not acceptable to cheat or plagiarize.  They know.  It’s kind of a standing order.  But just in case some folks forget not to cheat/plagiarize, or forget what is considered cheating or plagiarism, instructors often include reminders and/or instructions with assignments.  This is what Platt did.

Platt gave his class a take home final which was “completely open book, open note, open internet, etc.”.  Platt’s one explicit no-no? ” Students may not discuss the exam with others – this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.”  I say “explicit no-no” because Platt’s “completely open book, open note, open internet, etc.” directive implies the requirement that students properly cite all sources and not pass off other’s work/words as their own.  Platt had two rules for his final – (1) utilize published work (online or offline), but cite it properly and (2) do not seek the input of any other person.  It appears Platt’s two rules were too much for 125 students.  These 125 students are being investigated for committing “…acts of academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism…”.

What does our accused cheater have to say?

Asked what he thought would happen, the student said: “I’m not sure. I hope that many students are exonerated” and Harvard will decide  “that they can’t punish students because of the flawed nature of the course.” The student’s fear is that Harvard is “out for blood” to protect its reputation.  [source]

In all the words from our accused cheater, I’m not seeing the words “I did not cheat/plagiarize” or “I followed Professor Platt’s directions for the final” or the like.  Perhaps my eyes deceive me… let’s hear more from our accused cheater…

Harvard chose to go public with this story to first and foremost save their own asses. They wanted to get the version that they wanted out to the public first. Why did they do this? A large number of the students involved had threatened to go public with this unfair process and an even larger number of students have already lawyered up and are preparing to sue the college, professor platt, and every single TF in the course. Myself included.  [source]

Hmmmmm…. still not seeing the “I did not cheat/plagiarize” or “I followed Professor Platt’s directions for the final”.  What I see is an adult that got caught breaking the rules who isn’t taking any responsibility for breaking the rules.  What I see is an adult making a lot of noise in an attempt to confuse the issue.

The issue isn’t that the class was supposed to be easy (anyways, “easy” is in the eye of the beholder).  The issue isn’t that TFs helped with previous exams (anyways, this might have been acceptable given the rules for those previous exams).  The issue isn’t that class attendance wasn’t required (anyways, this is college not high school).  The issue is this:

  • Platt had two rules for the final.
    • Rules followed = positive consequences.
    • Rules broken = negative consequences.

If you broke Platt’s rules and Harvard holds you accountable, Harvard isn’t “out for blood” or to “save their own assess”.  Harvard is simply treating you like a grown-up. If you broke Platt’s rules, you’re not a scapegoat – you’re actually to blame.   Stop blaming everybody else and start taking responsibility.  It’s time to be the grown-up Harvard thinks you are.




Editorial Materials & MethodsmMedium levels of righteous teacher anger and sarcasm were used to write this post.

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