On Thursday, November 18th, I attended “How Should the University Evolve?: A Conversation About the Future of Higher Education” at Baruch College. Anya Kamenetz and Siva Vaidhyanathan debated the deterioration of higher education, and the conversation centered around economics. The inflated cost of both private and public universities, along with the emergence of for-profit colleges and online programs, sends students a strong message: You must pay for your education.  The economic structure of higher education leaves faculty members in a tenuous position. We are the gatekeepers of this prize, and we implement rigorous obstacles that our students must conquer to attain their goal. However, society rewards the result, not the process. This leads students to seek out ways to surmount these obstacles without meeting the demands of the coursework. They cheat. The digitization of the university has increased access to new modes of academic dishonesty, yet, as John Purdy discusses in “Calling Off the Hounds: Technology and the Visibility of Plagiarism,” it also provides faculty members with tools to detect plagiarism. However, academic dishonestly is not a result of technology, nor can technology solve the problem of plagiarism. It is our responsibility as teachers to foster an appreciation for the hard work it takes to attain knowledge, and to advocate for the widespread change that needs to take place at all levels of education to ensure that the next generation values learning.

Kamenetz and Vaidhyanathan argued over whether the digitization of the university is alleviating or inflaming the economic pressures facing both students and institutions of higher education. Kamenetz, the author of Generation Debt and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, was quick to suggest that online collaborative learning decenters the role of the instructor, eliminates the need for the institution, and eradicates the need for formal assessment, potentially fostering the desire to learn for the sake of knowledge, instead of a degree. Conversely, Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control Is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System, and The Googlization of Everything — And Why We Should Worry, rightfully defended the “sacred ground” of the university and praised its effectiveness throughout history. Both authors agreed that the cost of education in this country has changed the politics of matriculation and accreditation in our society. Everyone in the audience agreed that problems arise when students become consumers in the system of higher education. While many questions were posed by audience members, no one addressed issues of academic integrity in the new consumer driven education marketplace.  In my experience, it is clear that both students and their parents feel entitled to get what they paid for, and administrators are blithely facilitating the transactions even in cases where acts of academic dishonesty have occurred.

I have used both TurnItIn.com and Blackboard’s SafeAssign to intimidate students who may be inclined to engage in acts of plagiarism. In support of Purdy’s conclusions, I have found that these programs palliate potential plagiarism, but they do not prevent it. More importantly however, these programs can be a powerful pedagogical tool. First of all, they elicit a reaction and as a result, a conversation about cheating in the classroom. When I explain how these programs work, I am met with faces full of shock, disappointment, and sometimes anger. Unlike the example of Jesse Rosenfeld in Purdy’s article (309), my students do not consider the retention of their work to be a threat to their privacy (a subject of continued debate among faculties).  Instead, my students worry about getting caught for something the majority of them freely admit to doing on a regular basis; cheat. I have my composition students write exemplification essays addressing the need to restrict teenage technology use, and suggest using “cheating” as a topic to narrow their focus. In these essays student reveal stunning acts of academic dishonesty, and many of them admit to cheating at every level of education. One student described a group of fifth graders who cheated by writing answers in invisible ink and shining black lights on their notes during the test, while another divulged that they knew precisely how many words to change when cutting and pasting from Internet sources so that his essay would could not be detected by a Google search. Many students mention the use of cell phones to exchange answers, and most claim teachers do not care enough to monitor these actions. The most shocking example comes from this recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers” tells his story. In this article Ed Dante, the author’s pseudonym, reveals his extensive experience writing academic essays for “dispirit” students willing to pay thousands of dollars for a custom made paper. This harsh reality makes me sick to my stomach. I honestly believe that some students feel that by purchasing papers, they can claim ownership of that work. After all, they did pay for it, and as the author of this article claims, he provides more guidance and reassurance than their instructors. The three groups Dante mentions in his article, “the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid,” are the marginalized members of higher education. If what he says is true, and I cannot deny his validity, teachers do need to accept responsibility for the desperation of these students.

No detection program will ever be able to combat this type of academic dishonesty.  The only way to recognize that a student has not turned in original work is to get to know the student personally. This was my main argument against Anya Kamenetz’s online learning communities. I need to see my students physically putting words on the page. I not only ask them to write revealing narratives, but I request that they discuss their personal lives with me on a regular basis. I demand that all of my students learn each other’s names, engage in collaborative projects and peer review, and they read aloud in class. Some of these activities can be administered through the use of new social media sites and educational technology, but nothing can replace the power of human interaction These activities help me assess their communication skills, so that when a Whitman-esque musing on the fleeting beauty of a leaf in fall graces my Blackboard assignment dropbox, I know without a doubt the name attached did not compose those metaphors.

It is a combination of knowing my students on a personal level, and mastering modern technology that has enabled me to address academic dishonesty in my three years of teaching at the college level. For example, I had a transfer student in my 300-level Early American literature course at a private, four-year university turn in a paper on a philosopher we did not cover in our coursework. Because I insist that all students turn in electronic versions of their work, I was able to look up the ownership information on his Microsoft Word document, and found that the paper had last been modified by a female with the same last name. I also happened to know that he had a sister who was close in age, and through a simple Facebook search found that she was a philosophy major at a nearby university. (Thank you Mark Zuckerberg!) It is a mistake to blame technology for the rise in plagiarism. This student would have stolen his sister’s paper regardless of its physical form, and Ed Dante’s clients would find someone to write their papers even without access to online paper mills and e-mail. The important lesson here is to understand how and why students misuse technology, and to understand as teachers how to use the technology in order to teach students how to use these resources responsibly.

Yet, even that is not enough. In an online conversation concerning Ed Dante’s article, my fellow graduate student, who is in his first year of teaching composition, wrote:

Our big problem in the academy, it seems to me, is that we reprimand the students for responding quite reasonably to the economic pressures of society. We tell them to work hard according to our beliefs, and they will be rewarded. They look around and see this not to be true. So we punish them for trying to get around our process. As a result, they get better at fooling us, and we get better at fooling ourselves into believing our goals align with society’s goals. But, of course, they don’t. And students know that as well as we do. So do we change our goals and stop caring about the value of critical thought and education, or do we change society’s thoughtless valuing of quantifiable achievements? Or do we just try our best to affect the small sphere we personally influence and say everyone else–those who cheat, the world that demands cheating, so on–can fuck themselves? I’m not sure. The last option seems easiest. (Andrew Lucchesi)

To which I replied, “The last option seems to be the only attainable goal.”

Works Cited

Dante, Ed. “The Shadow Scholar.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 12 Nov. 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Shadow-Scholar/125329/#comments.

Purdy, James P. “Calling Off the Hounds: Technology and the Visibility of Plagiarism.” Teaching Writing, ed. T. R. Johnson. 3 (2008). 305-324. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Print.

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