Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Your Work - Essay from Newsletter 155

What do you present as your own

Exhibits A, B, and C

I remember it like it was yesterday.

High school English teacher John Randall stands in front of us holding a stack of papers.

It was a year of American lit - Grapes of Wrath, Travels with Charlie, Billie Budd, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in Rye, Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters, Fahrenheit 451 - you get the picture. Oh, and the Shakespeare in 11th grade was MacBeth.

“Exhibit A,” says Mr. Randall, and he reads a paragraph from a paper turned in by one of my classmates. Yes, I remember who but I don’t feel right about giving a name even four dozen years later.

“Exhibit B,” says J.R., as we called him, and he reads the exact same paragraph from a different paper turned in by a different one of my classmates.

We all squirmed in our seats.

“Exhibit C,” says Mr. Randall and holds up the Cliff Notes for the book we were writing a paper about and reads the same paragraph.

Chat bots aren’t new

Cliff Notes published summaries and analyses of most of the books in our high school curriculum to help students better understand the books they were reading.

That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

They must have known that many of the purchasers bought their books so they didn’t have to read the ones assigned to them.

If the authors of exhibits A and B hadn’t independently copied the same paragraph there is a chance they wouldn’t have been caught.

I say a chance because even as a math professor I could generally tell when students were presenting someone else’s work as their own. It didn’t sound like them.

On Cheating

I was teaching a summer stats class at Case and a student had handed in a solution to a question about license plates that was not only different than the one given by other students but different than the one that I had worked out. He had used language that didn’t sound like his other writing noting that “it may not have been clear to the casual observer, but license plates in …”

Seemed fishy to me. So I held on to his paper and asked the department secretary if we had a copy of the answer book for the textbook.

We did in fact have the answer book, and the answer in that book noted that “it may not have been clear to the casual observer, but license plates in …”

I confronted the student and of course he denied it. It was just a coincidence you know.

How had he gotten a copy of the answer book? His dad was on the faculty in the Business school and had gotten it for him. I still remember the dad lecturing me about how what I was doing was wrong, making a big deal about nothing and damaging his son’s record.

That should have served as a preview of coming attractions - that if you don’t have the ability feel shame, you can pretty much get away with anything.

But that’s not my point - at least not today.

The Contract

I’ve read plenty of people asking what impact ChatGPT and others like it will have on the assignments we give students and the papers they turn in.

I’ll talk about the issues with the technology end of this another time. For now, I wanted to stop and remember that some of the challenges we face aren’t really new.

There were students turning in work that wasn’t their own long before Mr. Randall held up exhibits A and B. Students were copying paragraphs from The World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica and submitting as if they wrote such concise and well footnoted work. Not all students had access to answer books but enough did. Some students bought papers from troves or paid someone to write a paper for them.

At some point during my time as math teacher then professor students went from understanding they were students to insisting that they were customers.

Let’s set aside that even the students paying full tuition are getting an education that is subsidized by others. You may also disagree with me that even the most highly compensated teachers aren’t paid nearly enough. Certainly not the good ones.

Setting all that aside, what is it you expect to get for your money?

What is the product we’re delivering? And what is the student’s part in that contract?

I never minded a student crediting where they got an answer even if it was from another student. My issue is the student who presents work that isn’t theirs as their own.

When you hand in an assignment with your name on it that doesn’t mention or credit anyone else, I expect it’s your work.

It’s not an essay cribbed from Wikipedia or a quick Google search.

It’s not something you found in an answer book.

It’s not exhibit A or B.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 155. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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