On July 5, the New York Times offered “To Stop Cheats, Colleges Learn Their Trickery.” Exactly one week later, it was “Cutting and Pasting: A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name).” Thus does the Times publish two stories that, while they have been circulated widely among educators, actually set back the cause of good teaching. Like most media coverage of issues of plagiarism, cheating, and academic integrity, these pieces go for simplistic, sensational claims. And the Times replicates the same claims that have been circulating in hundreds of media stories for nearly a decade: Students cheat. They cheat a lot. They are determined to cheat. They use technology to cheat. Teachers’ only recourse is to use technology to catch them at their dirty ways–or not to teach at all. Either of these options is legitimate.
Feeding on a culture-wide fear of uncontrolled, incomprehensible technology run amok, and encouraging a suspicion of, a disdain for, even a hatred of students, these stories do us no good at all. Instead, they encourage us to use automated assessment of writing and to cease assigning out-of-class writing. Such measures will indeed assuage our fear that we are being duped by our students: how can they dupe us if we’re expecting, asking, so very little of them?
I try to keep my expectations high for my students. I try to work with them as they write, helping them expand their thinking and open their minds about the topic they’ve chosen (or that I’ve assigned). How can I do that work if I’m only assigning in-class writing? I recognize–because I experience it myself–that teachers’ workloads are rising exponentially, making it ever harder for us to do what we once considered minimally acceptable quality of teaching. That does not, however, mean that it’s game over for us. Yet the New York Times, and all those other media outlets recycling sensationalistic old stories to fill a page and sell copy, are telling us that precise thing. They are selling despair.
I’m tired of reading these stories. None of them has anything new to add to the old script, except that each one uses a new, local example. In the case of “Cutting and Pasting: A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name),” the “new, local example” is the testimony of a friend of the writer, someone who claims that plagiarism is “turning him into a cop.” Notice that it’s the plagiarism that’s the agent here; the teacher is the hapless, pitiable victim. And in the case of “To Stop Cheats, Colleges Learn Their Trickery,” the new, local example is the testing center at the University of Central Florida, which the writer, incredibly, describes as “the frontier in the battle to defeat student cheating.” We are cops, we are locked in battle, we are in a dangerous place known as a frontier.
We can do better than this, my friends. And so can the New York Times.