FeatureNovember 15, 2012 at 5:59 am

Leges Sine Moribus Vanae

Who's afraid of academic dishonesty? Most people, apparently.

If you’re looking for a morality piece on cheating, then you should know that I find morals as boring as ethics, which are as boring as laws, which are as boring as anything that takes itself too seriously and pretends to be concrete.

During the late summer, representatives from Harvard University announced an ongoing investigation of a cheating scandal involving a slew of “Introduction to Congress” take–home exams with similar answers — some recent graduates were threatened with having their diplomas revoked. Students claimed the professor to be capricious in his behavior and his assessments.  This merits summary despite the fact that many readers probably know the story, because Penn students tend to react to prestige Pavlov–style, are often concerned with things such as “the value of their education,” and (because I mentioned Pavlov, and should complete the metaphor) Harvard is a school over which many kids here secretly salivate.

I’m separating myself from the students described above to maintain a journalistic sense of objectivity.

Intending to broach the subject of cheating by talking to Penn undergraduates who have been charged and subjected to the disciplinary process, I read articles on the aforementioned scandal to make myself feel more productive. I subsequently tried to find people willing to relate what must have been a weird experience (with anonymity) to a stranger. I will log these attempts here. My first inquiry stemmed from a random encounter in the Starbucks under 1920 Commons; I ran into a girl pre–gaming a Penn football game with a cup of alcoholic coffee, who told me she knew several athletes who were accused of academic dishonesty and subsequently treated to year–long suspensions.  A follow–up via text message went unanswered.

During my second day of conducting research, a friend told me he knew multiple students who had been disciplined for academic dishonesty. When I asked again, my friend realized that these were all people he knew from high school.

To give some background: The Office of Student Conduct is responsible for fielding complaints regarding violations of Penn’s Code of Academic Integrity, a document that lists several types of violations. You probably know of these, even if you haven’t been educated explicitly — cheating, plagiarism, fabrication, multiple submission (more commonly termed “self–plagiarism”), misrepresenting academic records, facilitating academic dishonesty and unfair advantage. Anybody, whether a University member or otherwise, may make a complaint against a student, which may then be resolved in a number of different ways.

Students may have an advisor present during all parts of the disciplinary process, and this advisor can either be a student, an administrator, or a professor. The most obvious correlative to an advisor is a lawyer; I was initially quick to connect the disciplinary process in its entirety to the criminal process, although the OSC differs in both the degree of its sanctions as well as the burden of its proof. OSC director Michelle Goldfarb noted that the committee’s standard for condemning students is “clear and convincing evidence.” “It’s not as high as ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ like in criminal cases, but it’s a pretty high standard.” Once the OSC obtains such evidence, it “propose[s] a resolution to the student, and if the student accepts responsibility, and accepts the consequence that [they]’ve proposed, then that ends the matter.” If the student fails to accept sanctions, and any attempts at compromise, then he or she is put before a panel consisting of a Disciplinary Hearing Officer as well as faculty members and other students. The students are drawn from the University Honor Council, a group whose purpose is a) to serve as an undergraduate voice on the panel and b) to educate undergraduates about academic integrity.

Worried that my research was becoming dry, I e–mailed the 34th Street listserv, asking if someone had academically dishonest friends, and received no replies.

Senior Sharon Roth, co–chair of the University Honor Council, became involved with disciplinary hearings because, she said, laughing, she’s “a really big fan of honesty.” Roth gave me some semantic information about the panel while treading what seemed to be her main purpose in the conversation: to avoid saying something she shouldn’t.  She spoke at length about the confidential nature of the hearings.  I soon began pursuing something deeper. On whether a particular case had ever struck her as unfair or biased, she said “people have always tried their best to be fair and unbiased.” On whether a case ever seemed to be less than black–and–white, she said “even when things seem black–and–white, it’s still a difficult decision, because you’re talking about, like, a person, a student, and you’ve heard their whole story…”

“We’re all coming to Penn,” Roth said, “because we like to learn.” When I mentioned that certain forms of learning, such as using a paid tutor, might point to huge inequalities, Roth responded by saying that using a paid tutor is “something you’re doing to advance your own personal knowledge,” while traditional forms of academic dishonesty are “the standard examples of what’s wrong.”

OSC director Michelle Goldfarb answered my questions thoughtfully.  On the day we met, a friend told me he knows someone who was disciplined for cheating, and is highly reluctant to talk about it.  My friend was right; his attempts as a liaison amounted to nothing.  The following day, someone else told me about a similar prospect, a mutual acquaintance, which also fell through.

Goldfarb met me in a conference room outside of her office, in the Duhring Wing, a red brick building south of Fisher Fine Arts. She claimed that the “plurality” of cases involving academic dishonesty are plagiarism cases, discovered by using electronic search engines; generally, the most common sources of proof are “documentary evidence” and “conversations with people.” Goldfarb described a typical case: “Let’s say somebody is seen bringing notes into a class and cheating on an exam,” she began, “then what we would do is talk to the person who allegedly saw them; we would try to look at the exam; we would see whether or not the notes were gathered from the student. There would be witnesses, basically.”

The concerns that word–of–mouth evidence raises in such a community — that a student might accuse another out of competitiveness regarding, say, a job search, or the course itself — didn’t faze her. “I can’t think of an occasion when we have had a student accuse another student of academic dishonesty,” Goldfarb said. “It almost always comes from the faculty.”  Before I left, we spoke briefly about a bioengineering class that ran an in–class workshop on academic integrity, which Goldfarb holds as a paradigm for educating students. Then the conversation shifted away from chatter about the imminent hurricane, how hot the room was, etc. I mentioned off–hand that I would surely flunk a bioengineering course. Goldfarb agreed that she would, too. We would be honest about our work, though, she said, her tone lightly admonishing. Absolutely, I said.  Or at least try, she said, and I laughed.

Penn’s Tutoring Center provides a host of options to students struggling in their classes, which are free and range from student–helmed discussion groups to private one–on–one tutoring. Private tutors are notoriously difficult to hire; another network, of more conventionally private academic help, makes sense for people with the funds.  The math department even provides a list of “department approved private tutors,” who range in hourly rate from $25 to $60. These tutors are mostly graduate students, while all tutors provided by the Tutoring Center are undergraduates. As I tried to make sense of the largely invisible infrastructure of students offering paid help, I found the options to be overwhelming and the willingness to discuss cheating to be mostly non–existent. For Tutor #1, who e–mailed me a defensive and unnecessarily angry note on why he refused to speak — I will cease writing about him immediately, because this man is concerned with his reputation.  Tutor #2 claimed he knew nothing about cheating, but mentioned the variety of free services he provides, as a TA — Sunday night reviews, office hours — and joked about one instance in which a student wasn’t attending his office hours, but was rather paying a department member who shares his office for tutoring. Another person, an editor for this magazine, did me the favor of e–mailing several listservs about my cheating story, and received one response, from a girl whose friend was disciplined for cheating. The friend wouldn’t speak to me, but the girl mentioned that she used a tutor, for Math 114, and paid this person $40 an hour for his or her services.

I spoke with one tutor at length, who I will disguise with the pseudonym “Tutor #3.” This tutor mentioned the strange inclination of Penn students to gravitate toward paid help — “there is a syndrome at Penn,” he said, “that if you’re paying for something, it must be better.” The tutor’s clients are generally “a little bit passive,” and though they vary greatly, he mentioned multiple times a contingent that is “completely lost and need everything explained to them,” and another who wants someone to “hold their hand through the process of doing homework.”  Students have e–mailed Tutor #3 at least once regarding the completion of a take–home exam, in its entirety, for pay, though the specific case he recalled involved a student whom Tutor #3 is pretty sure didn’t go to Penn. “I’m sure a student like this,” explained Tutor #3, “if he asks enough people, he will find someone. Not that I know someone in this department that might do it.”

And then I got to the crux of my interview: what interests me, I began, is the contrast between blatant violations of academic integrity (cheating, etc.) and the sort of allowed behaviors that give students a leg up (using a paid academic tutor). I asked: Where do you think the line is between using wiles (a resource that is free and meritocratic) to advance yourself in a class, and using money? How does one demonstrate more integrity than the other? Tutor #3 smiled as if he suddenly knew how predictable I am, then said something about how “life is unfair.” In the middle, he turned his head, reconsidered: “one thing that’s a little bit unfair…students who get help with their homework will really do much better on the homework.” He again made reference to the “two groups” of students, suddenly referring to one as “rich kids who are used to getting help.”

The only relevant example of cheating I encountered was from a friend, who would remove the letterhead from problem sets and bring them to a free economics tutor provided by the Tutoring Center. Such tutors apparently sign contracts regarding helping with graded homework, another advantage to paying for tutoring.  This tutor would ask him if the problem set was graded homework for the class, he would say No — she apparently knew he was lying — and would subsequently hold his hand through every problem. My friend also mentioned that, during a recent midterm (for a Criminology class, ironically), he saw students on either side of him blatantly cheating by looking at hand–outs and smartphones during the test.  As to those caught — I don’t know where they are, what happened to them, whether their friends are lying and they’ve been shipped to work camps under Duhring.

Anything might seem shady when people keep this quiet. It occurs to me at the end of this non–existent investigation how lame and predictable it is to write a piece about writing a piece (just like, say, making judgments about whether someone’s work can be judged fairly, but I suppose opinions on this differ). Though I failed, the work was my own, so I guess that’s good. And I should have been able to suspect what would happen when I tried to contrast those presumptuous enough to define integrity, and those (still presumptuous) tragically unwilling to recognize its existence: I received a few knowing glances, and nothing beyond.


Daniel Felsenthal is a senior and former Street editor from Chicago, IL. He is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing.

2 People have left comments on this post

By penn73er on November 15, 2012 at 5:59 am

Why shouldn’t one cheat an “Introduction to Congress” course? After all, it’s probably the best way of understanding to how that august body functions (not to mention its bodily functions).

Cynic? Who you callin’ cynic?

By legend on November 15, 2012 at 5:59 am

this is the worst display of writing I have ever seen

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