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Letter to the Editor


Dean Jennifer Berenson

The school year begins with predictable rituals—getting settled into a new room, finalizing class choices, meeting new people, reconnecting with others. In the midst of all this comes another familiar ritual:  Every August before classes begin, RC students are required to show their assent to the College’s academic integrity (AI) system by clicking a “pledge” button online.  First-year students must jump through an additional hoop—an online AI quiz—to make sure they understand the kinds of violations and the seriousness of their consequences.

Last year 35 students were reported for suspected AI violations; 34 of the charges were upheld through formal hearings. More than half of the students charged were in their first year at RC.  The violations were split nearly evenly between cheating—mostly unapproved collaboration–and plagiarism.  Nearly 70% of those students were given a penalty of an F or an XF in the course. For some students this will mean additional coursework during summer school or even a delayed graduation date.

Cheating and plagiarism are extremely common in high schools—so common, in fact, that many no longer really see these acts as wrong in any significant sense.  It’s just what people—and not only students—do.  RC students ought to take the time to consider whether cheating and plagiarism are simply convenient strategies for getting by in a busy world or whether they are actually wrong and should be studiously avoided.

I would like to suggest that it doesn’t take a PhD in philosophical ethics or a life of piety for all of us to recognize three reasons that cheating and plagiarism are wrong:  the harm it can cause others, the trust that it destroys, and the unsustainable deception it puts in motion.

While not every instance of cheating or plagiarism directly harms someone else, many do. When an instructor calculates grades using a curve, even a single person excelling beyond their peers can “ruin” the curve and lower grades for other students. But even when grades are not explicitly based on a curve, the range of student performance on an assignment influences how an instructor assesses each student’s work. If you excel through cheating, it is quite likely that another’s achievements through hard work and dedication will be devalued. So you win by throwing your classmates under the bus.  Think about it. Might as well just be honest and de-friend them on fb or stop following them on twitter now.

Cheating has the potential to destroy relationships in another sense as well.  Professors entrust their knowledge, gained through years of hard work, to students; in return students are asked to demonstrate their comprehension through various kinds of assignments.  Grading—a task generally despised by professors—is a labor they endure in order to assess that level of comprehension and mastery. Finding out, after hours of designing assignments and grading them, that what has been handed in does not reflect a student’s own work is crushing. Not only has precious time been wasted, but the trust and respect that make possible a productive relationship between student and professor is damaged, sometimes irreparably.  Trust between individuals makes communities prosper, makes life enjoyable, and makes genuine learning possible. Don’t squander it.

Last of all, cheating sets in motion an unsustainable deception. Passing classes is not like collecting demitasse cups that simply look good on display; it is more akin to collecting merit badges that demonstrate the acquisition of survival skills.  After being awarded a set of these badges, you know that you can survive a stay in the wild. Completing the work of academic classes is also about improving skills and gaining knowledge that will help you succeed in life. Cheating and plagiarism short circuit that process. And while one professor may not uncover the deception perpetrated, another professor—or worse—a future employer will. The skills you gain through coursework are essential for life after college, and acts of deception now cannot be sustained forever. And even if you are lucky enough to avoid detection for a while, you will always know the uncomfortable truth.

When the pressure ramps up—and it will—make the choices that honor your friendships, the community, and the learning process in which you are engaged. You’ll sleep much better.

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  1. Thank you for this, and let me second just one of your assertions: on those few occasions when I’ve found out that one of my students has cheated, I really have been hurt by it, much more than I ever imagined I would be.
    The relationship between a teacher and a student is just that, a human relationship. I put a lot of myself into what happens in a classroom. When a student cheats, it is a slap in the face and a dismissal not only of that work but of my values and of how much I care about the people I teach. I cannot imagine what would be worth it.

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