I was naive about cheating as a student, so I was also naive as a professor. Then one day a student complained to me about cheating during my exam.
That put me in an awkward position.
The culture of my university was not friendly toward “policing” the students, so I was not eager to be an “enforcer.” But the student noticed my ambivalence and said, “Looking the other way is not fair to students who do the work.”
She was unassailably right, so I decided to act. To define a course of action, I discussed it with colleagues. Their hostility was surprising. They said they could not interfere with students’ “access” to a degree. I heard almost the same words over and over: “I’m not a policeman. It’s their decision if they want to learn.” The tone of moral superiority implied that I was doing wrong by noticing the evidence.
But I couldn’t go back to that mindset because I had children of my own. I didn’t want their teachers to be “tolerant” of cheating, so I had to hold myself to that standard.
I decided to focus on prevention.
I spaced students out during exams and distributed different versions of the test. Some students pretended not to hear the rules, and if I turned a blind eye, I would be rewarding cheaters again. I had to take charge. Imagine all 5’2” of me standing at the front of a large auditorium instructing students on how to leave an empty seat on all four sides of them.
During the exam, I stared constantly into the room, even though it felt awkward, and I’d rather have been reading. But it wasn’t enough. Students reported cheating on one side of the room when I was patrolling the other. I started bringing a student assistant to help.
But cheating is like roaches: the more you look, the more you see. I kept stumbling on new evidence of cheating, and I devised new prevention methods.
Then a new wrinkle appeared. My university ruled that cheating charges could not be brought unless the syllabus defined cheating and enforcement policies. The administration believed that many students came from a culture that did not define it as cheating because their learning is cooperative. My colleagues agreed that such cultures are superior to our unhealthy individualism, and that anti-cheating measures undermine cooperative learning with a climate of fear. But I went ahead and defined cheating in my syllabus.
I felt shamed because I knew I was being “judgmental” from the perspective of campus culture. But the taxpayers of California were paying me to make judgments. I felt like I was doing the minimum necessary to collect my salary in good conscience.
My strength came from having tested the Rousseauian view of learning in my own home. I was taught that “learning is fun,” so children will naturally learn if you leave them alone. I tried this on my kids, and it didn’t work. I’d tried it on my students, and it didn’t work. I noticed that many faculty members had children who did not learn the way the theory suggested.
My colleagues insisted that having “books in the home” was the difference between students who learn and those who don’t. So, their children’s failure to learn proved the flaws of this theory. We professors tell the world how to raise “our children,” but it’s not working on our children! I lost faith in Rousseau, and in social science.
I started asking students for opinions about cheating. One answer froze me in my tracks. The student said that some professors organize “so you didn’t have to cheat.” I asked what he meant, and he said they give you a one-page sheet that you can memorize, and that gets you an A even if you do nothing else.
A cheat sheet! I was horrified.
I felt trapped in a system that was just going through the motions. Ironically, the same thing had happened to me in an earlier career. I wanted to work in foreign aid, but during my first few field assignments, I had no work to do because project funds had been stolen. Everyone pretended nothing was wrong while they did nothing at work each day. No one dared to seem “judgmental.” I decided this was not the career for me and went into in teaching.
I didn’t like being at odds with the culture around me but didn’t like living a lie even more. Whenever I needed strength, I remembered the comment of the student who started it all— a “mid-career” student about my age.
Looking the other way is not fair to students who do the work.
Loretta Breuning, PhD, Inner Mammal Institute