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Cheating at Yale: rules versus reality

By Sheela V. Pai

French history Professor John Merriman has seen many unique papers during his tenure at Yale, but there is one that particularly sticks out in his memory.

"I was reading a student's paper, which started with poor writing, then all of a sudden I was reading Flaubert. Then again there was poor writing, and all of a sudden I was reading Dick Brodhead's beautiful writing," Merriman said, surpressing a chuckle. "It was rather funny."

But for this student and the many other Yalies caught in the act each year, cheating and plagiarizing are no laughing matter. Allegations ranging from improper citation of sources to systematic theft of ideas can land students before the Executive Committee (ExComm) to face formal charges. Cheating offenses span a broad trajectory, and different students and faculty members assign varying degrees of importance to each. Despite the clear criteria set out in Yale College Undergraduate Regulations, deciding on the gravity of the offense and selecting a corresponding punishment is often a subjective process for the ExComm.

Neither political science Professor Rogers Smith, who chaired ExComm two years ago, nor Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, BR '68, GRD '72, consider cheating to be a serious problem at Yale. Although most faculty members would agree, the range and degree of measures some have taken to prevent cheating indicate a lack of consensus on how serious and prevalent a practice cheating really is. It is assumed that most undergraduates don't cheat, but what do most undergraduates actually consider cheating to be? Undergraduate Regulations provides a clear answer to this question, but the various concerns felt by different professors reveal that the issue may be a great deal more subjective than Undergraduate Regulations would have us believe.

`An insult to other students'

According to the most recent ExComm report available, which provides data from the 1996-97 academic year, 10 students were brought before the committee on charges of academic dishonesty that year. Of these 10, one was reprimanded, three received probation, five were suspended, and one was acquitted. Music Professor Craig Wright believes suspending a student for academic dishonesty is a severe and adequate punishment. "It sends a clarion call that if you cheat, it's serious business, and there are serious repercussions," he said.

Despite the steady number of cases of cheating and plagiarism brought before ExComm recently, Brodhead insists that cheating isn't a serious problem. "[The members of ExComm and I] are concerned by what we see, but we are not concerned by the volume of what we see," Brodhead maintained. "Every time the number of cases of cheating goes up in the [ExComm] report at all, members of the faculty ask whether this indicates a rise in the phenomenon of cheating. But when we have looked back over four or five years, it never seems that there is evidence of a coherent upward trend."

Wright agreed, stating that he doesn't sense "a wholesale climate of dishonesty." He still wonders, though, whether he may be naïve to the "real" situation of cheating among his students. "I guess the

dilemma for the instructor is, does he really have his finger on the pulse of student activity, participation, and student work in general?" Wright reflected. "I'd like to think that most students aren't cheating, but I can't swear that they don't."

Some professors, however, aren't content to gamble. An anonymous biology major in Professor Stephen Dellaporta's genetics class described the dramatic steps Dellaporta has taken to discourage cheating. These Draconian measures include not allowing students to go the bathroom once the test has started, refusing to answer questions, constant warnings against "wandering eyes," and videotaping graded exams before they are handed back to students. Fed up with what he considers to be the cheating ways of many of his fellow pre-med Yalies, the student is pleased with Dellaporta's zealous efforts. "I understand why he is doing this. I've been in classes in which the TAs will try to help students by answering their questions and will, along the way, give them an unfair advantage," he said. "I am actually glad for these measures because I don't cheat and I like it that no one else can cheat now either."

Merriman, on the other hand, tries to be laid back about monitoring his students even as a proctor, assuming that the vast majority of students in his classes do not cheat and will not be tempted to. "I think I should be there as a proctor, as a reassuring presence, to be of help to the students and not to spy on them. However, if I do find someone cheating, I'd take it to the highest possible level because I think it is an insult to the other students," he explained.

`It's my academic future or an hour of guilt'

Some students have clearly had firsthand experience with cheating. Last year, Rebecca Pace, BR '00, had a harsh encounter with plagiarism in an introductory macroeconomics course. Pace placed a completed problem set in her TA's box at the end of lecture one day, only to be confronted by the TA a week later about her "missing" problem set from the week before. It was clear that Pace's work was stolen and had probably been handed in under the thief's name to another section leader.

Pace was upset about not only the theft of her work but also her section leader's frustratingly apathetic reaction to the situation. "[My TA] just said that in a class of 300 people there is nothing she can do," Pace said. "I felt discouraged and disgusted that someone would not just take my work and copy it, but put their name on it. It's just malicious."

Both Wright and Professor Frederick Ziegler, who teaches organic chemistry, agree that problem sets are a peculiar problem, since there is a thin line between group work and just copying another student's answers. Ziegler tries to delineate this boundary for his students. "I actually encourage students to work on problem sets together," he explained. "My only request is that they don't hand in exactly identical papers." Ever since an incident in his class involving a student who stole someone else's problem set, Ziegler has made his students place their completed problem sets in locked metal boxes.

Wright worries, however, that the group work ethic students develop while doing problem sets together may be detrimental. "It sometimes becomes difficult for students to get away from the group mentality when they get into test situations," he said.

But what is it that makes students cheat? One student explained, "I make it a point not to cheat, but in one instance I figured,`What the hell? It's my academic future or an hour of guilt.' I chose the hour of guilt.'"

According to Brodhead, this is a classic case of miscalculated options. "The choice was between having his academic record register what he achieved and having a judgment made of his moral character," he said. "That's not the same as an hour of guilt."

`I didn't get very far'

According to Smith, the plagiarizing of essays constitutes a gray area similar to the problem set situation. In the case of plagiarism, the punishment is specially tailored to the seriousness of the violation. "If a student has plagiarized as a result of ignorance [because he or she was genuinely confused about proper citation methods], usually a lesser penalty is assigned," Smith said. "The Executive Committee also has records of [past cases] considered and the conclusions that the committee reached, and regularly refers to those precedents in deciding how to decide a particular penalty in a case at hand." In contrast to its delicate handling of cases of plagiarism, ExComm, according to Smith "always applies [the two-semester suspension penalty] in instances of conscious, deliberate cheating."

Often, students violate regulations unintentionally simply because they do not know they exist. In cases of students unknowingly failing to cite required sources, ExComm will often give a light penalty, despite the fact that Undergraduate Regulations clearly explains that "It is...up to you to learn the standard practices of documentation. The Dartmouth College pamphlet Sources, Their Use and Acknowledgement has been given to you, and you are expected to have familiarized yourself carefully with its contents."

There are more obscure rules. For instance, many students do not realize that "to revise and extend a paper from an earlier course may well be academically appropriate; but before doing so you must seek explicit permission from your present instructor."

History major Denise Ho, BR '99, never realized she had to request her professor's permission under those circumstances. She believes this is due to the fact that she "did try to read the Undergraduate Regulations when they were sent to me in the mail as a freshman, but I didn't get very far." Merriman himself was unaware of the regulation stating that "verbatim memorization of long stretches of text is a highly implausible excuse for...coincidences [of argumentation from a textbook]." He said, "That would have never occurred to me, frankly. I wouldn't have known that. But I guess that's when common sense comes into play."

Smith admitted that it is typical for both students and faculty to be somewhat ignorant of the extent of the regulations. "Yes, in principle [students and professors should know the rules], but the reality is that most people don't read such rule books and most teachers don't discuss them in detail," he said.

To avoid this type of confusion in his department, Professor Langdon Hammer, BK '80, GRD '89, the director of undergraduate studies in English, has organized talks with the faculty, detailing the procedure for dealing with students suspected of cheating. He was motivated to have these talks not because there is a cheating problem in English courses, but because he doesn't want "students to be falsely accused of cheating, if that is at all avoidable. I want to make sure that when professors discuss plagiarism cases, they do so in a confidential and respectful manner."

Hammer believes that the detection of a plagiarized work or of an instance of cheating shouldn't be regarded as a success, but rather as a sign of failure on the part of professors."It seems to me that a success would be for instructors to effectively communicate to their students the importance of appropriate forms of citation and acknowledgement and integrity in writing, such that students will not be submitting plagiarized work, but, more importantly, will not wish to," Hammer said.

To avoid misunderstandings between students and faculty, many schools, including Stanford, Princeton, and Dartmouth, have instituted "honor codes." These codes typically prevent professors from "tempting" students to cheat, such as by giving closed-book take-home exams, and allow students to take their exams without the supervision of a proctor as long as there aren't any student reports of incidents of cheating.

Neither Brodhead nor Smith envisions an honor code in Yale's future. "I am not opposed to that sort of system in principle, but I also go by the rule, `if it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" Smith said. "Though we don't have a formal honor system, I trust that there is a shared understanding among students that cheating is wrong and that, in itself, constitutes an informal honor code. In my experience, even though sometimes Yale students are under severe pressure and tempted to cheat, most are excited about their own ideas and most people are far more likely to write their own papers and do well than cheat."

Photo collage by Patrick McGarvey.

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