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unlv2In high school, I could hardly be bothered to cheat, mostly because I could hardly be bothered at all. The freshman class president once offered to do all my English assignments for me. All I had to do was turn them in. It just irritated her that I wouldn’t do anything at all in class. It irritated her more that I turned down the offer.

A year later, I did find it amusing to hand my finished weekly vocabulary assignment to the student behind me. After she’d copied them, she’d hand them to the guy behind her and so on. My goal was to have two full rows copy off me before the end of the period. I never quite made it, but I was damned close on several occasions. As this was the only homework I ever did in that class, I didn’t get much of a grade out of it, but it was fun to see how many could cheat off my paper.

Ah well!

***

In college I was pleasantly surprised to find myself actually giving a damn. This led to an awkward moment in my first semester as I suddenly found myself unable to answer a question in psychology, on a test I actually wanted to pass. I found my eyes drifting slowly to the scantron sheet of a student two rows down. It was more a kind of wishful thinking than a decision to cheat. I hadn’t yet focused enough to read what he’d put down, but I wanted so desperately to find the answer somewhere. The thought did occur to me that I had no reason to believe he would know the answer anymore than I did, and then I felt guilty, and then I thought maybe I could get just a few answers from him, and then I thought about the cute girl nearby…

and then I looked up to find the teaching assistant staring at me.

Nothing came of it except a decision not to play the rest of my college years straight, so to speak

***

The prospect of cheating didn’t enter my head again until one summer in my senior year. I retook the introduction to political science. By then I knew a fair bit of the material, but that didn’t change the C- I’d received one semester when I blew the class off out of disinterest. Getting rid of that lowlier would help my GPA substantially, so there I sat in an intro class on a topic I knew pretty well at that point and feeling really out of place. When a test came down for a chapter on the Judicial Branch of the U.S. Government, I suddenly felt especially stressed. I ought to know that subject damned well, I thought. Still I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t quite prepared, not like I should have been. So, I sat there, wanting desperately to cheat off the incoming freshman girl sitting beside me. Once again, I had no reason to believe her paper would be better than my own production, but once again, I wanted a magic solution. The sudden desire to look at her paper was overwhelming, and that alone felt damned disconcerting. I kept my eyes to my own paper, of course, but doing so took a surprising amount of effort. I got a ‘A’ on the test, but to this day I shudder at the feeling of uncertainty I felt staring down at the test that day and thinking I didn’t really know the answers.

***

Oh wait a minute! There was one other time I wanted to cheat. In logical theory, the professor used to walk out of the class, wait a few minutes, then burst through the doorway looking around to see if he could catch us cheating. I learned a lot from that guy, but sitting there killing the written portion of that test, I couldn’t help but think it might be nice to cheat somehow just to spite him.

***

I had another professor who used to hand out the tests and go to his office. Oddly enough, I don’t think any of us cheated on his exams. Our classmates would have handled it.

******

As a graduate student I began to see cheating from the other side. I recall once watching a student sit motionless for half an hour of a test before making himself one of the first students to hand it in. Half the exam had been multiple choice using a scantron sheet and half had been written. I was damned surprised to see the essay portion of his exam completed in full, especially since it was in black ink and he had filled out the front of the booklet in blue. Not to mention, he hadn’t written anything while I was watching. W

What surprised me most about this case was that we didn’t flunk him. Instead the department chair advised me to grade the assignment as though it were a graduate-level essay.

Oddly enough, that always seemed kind of unfair to me.

***

I was once one of four teaching assistants (TAs) in a large class on German history. Each of us ran our study groups once a week. At some point, I recall hearing that one or two of the other TAs were going over the questions for up-coming exams in their study groups. This was definitely contrary to our instructions from the professor. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe it until a students approached me before the final exam to ask about the specific answer to a specific multiple choice question he knew would be on the test.

Yeah, that was just a little frustrating.

***

One of the most amusing examples of cheating I ever encountered began one day in an advanced course on constitutional history. We received take-home essay questions a week before coming in for an in-class exam. So, I walked into the last class session before the in-class exam to find a guy who’d been gone all semester. He offered to pay $50.00 to see my take-home essays. What bothered me most about this was the offer of money. It also bothered me that I didn’t know him. Taken together, these were not a good sign.

Had the guy been an active student, and had I known him, I wouldn’t have hesitated to share my essays with him. I did that with many friends on take-home assignments. We learned from each others’ work and wrote our own responses. But this was an unknown entity offering me money. I figured the $50.00 wasn’t for a casual look at my work; he would certainly be handing in those very essays. Before I could even reply, the man added insult to idiocy, commenting that the two girls sitting in class at that moment wouldn’t do it. Listening to him emphasize the word ‘girls’ I think I actually laughed a little. Obviously, I thought, as a man, I must be obligated to do the good buddy thing and help a bro out. So, I guess it was kind of a gender-bender moment when I turned him down.

I have to admit, it felt kinda good when the teacher caught him cheating on the in-class portion of the essay.

******

A friend of mine once told me he was taking his English teacher out to dinner in exchange for a passing grade. Another neighbor of mine once told me about a beautiful young woman who received an ‘A’ in his sociology class. I reckon, that’s the pay-off to cheating from the other side. For myself, I figure any pay-off I get would have to be worth the risk of losing an entire career. So, I always tell my students I can be bought, but they can’t afford the price.  If pressed, I clarify, that the pay-off would need to be sufficient to fund my retirement.

I’m almost certainly joking about that.

******

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve run into my share of efforts at cheating.

I once had a student tell me she was leaving town, so she asked if she could take the exam early. Her two friends turned in the same answers she did, which might have helped them had she given me the right answers to begin with. All tree received failing grades on that assignment, and for a time I began assigning the same penalty to exams taken early as I did to those taken late. I generally announce my essay topics ahead of time, so students have often tried to sneak pre-written essays into the classroom. This lead to a brief period in which I handed out colored paper with every exam. Like a lot of people, I think, I now ask students to hand their research papers in in stages, so that I can see the progress they make on them. A few students have been disappointed when producing a completed paper on a completely new topic earned them a choice between a zero and little extra time to redo the whole project.

I have yet to burst into class looking around in hopes of catching someone cheating.

***

I once had a married couple turn in virtually identical take-home essays. I gave them a do-over. When they turned in a second pair of essays with barely a few lines different between them, I sent in a couple Fs to the registrar.

***

Not surprisingly, the internet has proven itself to be my biggest cheat-hazard. I am continually surprised at the number of students who have copied Wikipedia entries and handed them in after making a few minor changes. I’m a little more surprised to see how often they will then cite Wikipedia as if naming the source resolved any questions about turning in a paper that was nearly identical to that source. Perhaps, the biggest surprise for me came when a high school teacher with a master’s degree did that very thing. I offered him a chance to rewrite the paper, which I thought a damned generous move on my part. So, I was REALLY surprised to find the fellow arguing over the matter with me. When he asked to speak to my supervisor, I recall giving him the contact information for the Dean, adding something along the lines of; “but let’s be clear about this. We are talking about plagiarism.” Ten minutes later, I received an email telling me he would send in a new paper that evening.

I really don’t can’t imagine what he was thinking.

******

What strikes me most about the cheating I’ve seen since making the transition from student to teacher is just how often cheating proves unhelpful, even from the standpoint of a grade. Simply put, the same student who needs to cheat is rarely a student capable of cheating the subject effectively. That may vary between different disciplines and pedagogical techniques, but as a general rule, when I catch someone cheating,  I generally catch them cheating badly. Of course, I have no doubt that a few have gotten past me. Perhaps, that blank spot in the data set contains all the information necessary to refute my little observation here.

If so, I reckon the refutation will one day make an appearance in a wiki entry somewhere.

I’ll learn it from a partially rewritten essay.