A demoralizing semester for instructors

DISCLAIMER: I believe most students don’t cheat, most students don’t try to make life miserable for their instructors, and most students really do want to learn and take responsibility for their own education.

That said, the fraction of students to whom this doesn’t apply—those who do cheat, or have a sense of entitlement about the grade they “deserve”, and when something goes wrong (including getting caught cheating or not getting the grade they “deserve”), it’s everyone’s fault but their own—seems to have hit a high point this semester.

I’ve been teaching as a faculty member for 13 years and as a GSI or assistant instructor for several years before that during my MS and PhD. I’ve never felt as down on teaching as I do at the end of this semester.

Colleague Dave Patterson and I co-taught our this semester.  Modulo a few bumps, it generally went smoothly, although there is the inevitable flurry of grade complaints at the end—some based on a simple misunderstanding of grading policy, but distressingly, some displaying a truly stunning sense of entitlement and lack of self-accountability.  One student was upset that their grade was affected because other students in their project team complained that s/he was a slacker.  This student was convinced that in other teams, “buddies” colluded to give each other high grades, whereas in her/his team things were different, resulting in an unfair disadvantage.  (The data didn’t show this by any means, but the student hadn’t seen the data, so apparently s/he was free to make assumptions about it.)  Another was wondering why we didn’t move them up to a higher grade given that they were near a borderline (e.g. A-/B+).  I asked on what grounds they thought we should do that, and the answer was essentially that they were near the borderline.  If we assume that fairness means applying the same policies and considerations to all students, which I believe we have scrupulously done, the transitive closure of a policy that accommodates this student’s request would result in most people getting an A.  And while that may be the case at Harvard, Berkeley is at least trying to hold the line on grade inflation.

But on balance, we got off light: our colleagues Randy Katz and Anthony Joseph discovered possibly-widespread cheating in their courses, and a Reddit thread allegedly containing (pseudonymous) remarks from students in his class about the incident is disturbing in that students justify cheating by blaming it on someone else:

  • It’s the GSIs’ (teaching assistants’) fault for not policing us when they know cheating is happening.

  • It’s the instructor’s fault for not changing the projects enough since last semester.

  • It’s the instructor’s fault for making this course so much more difficult and time-consuming than its prerequisites.

  • It’s the instructor’s fault for not making the boundary between “collaboration” and “cheating” crystal-clear.

  • It’s the Department’s fault for enforcing a high GPA threshold to stay in the major.

  • (Variation:) It’s the Department’s fault for creating circumstances that cause people to cheat.

Are we running out of other people to blame yet?  Hell no:

  • It’s the Internet’s fault because why do the project if you can search for the answers online in just a few minutes?  (To the student who made this comment: your parents will be delighted to know that their tuition money and your four years at college are being so well spent.)

  • (Variation:) It’s the fault of students who took the class last semester for making their code publicly available online.

No one has yet blamed Obama, Fox News, or global warming, but I suspect it won’t be long before those are all implicated.

(And for those who are truly unable to determine if they themselves are merely collaborating or cheating, here is a good method: Does it feel like you’re cheating?  If yes, then you are.)

Of course, everyone makes bad judgments at some point in their lives, so in the interest of making it a “teachable moment”, Randy opened a voluntary amnesty period during which those who came forward voluntarily and admitted to cheating would less severely penalized than those who did not.  Amazingly, even this was considered controversial, with one student even reporting that a TA from another course had advised him, in a prisoner’s-dilemma sort of way, to stay quiet and deny everything if confronted.  That sounds like the advice a lawyer might have given to Al Capone, and I’d be distressed if it was really true that one of our own TA’s said this.

Never mind the fact that cheating is known to eventually screw the cheaters; the simple truth is that cheating is a choice that shows a lapse of personal integrity and a lack of self-accountability. Lack of integrity brought us Michael Milken, Enron, Bernie Madoff, and the malfeasance related to securities analyst fraud and mortgage-backed securities fraud that brought down Lehman Brothers, laid low JP Morgan, and plunged the country into its worst economic recession since the 1930s.  So, to the students who cheat and then try to justify it, when you carry your lack of integrity into the business world and end up on the witness stand, please don’t reveal that you graduated from Berkeley—just plead the Fifth and spare us the shame.

On the other hand, I applaud the anonymous student who made this comment on the Reddit thread, and who appears to get it:

My grades in those classes could’ve been raised by getting other people’s code, but I knew that cheating would only hurt my understanding of the concepts the projects were trying to teach.  All these people who are cheating are the type of people I absolutely hate working with at my job. They always do the bare minimum and then hope that someone else covers their asses. Cheating in college only sets you up for a slippery slope that’s hard to avoid when you get into the real world.

Incidentally, I’ve known Randy since I was a graduate student in 1994—he was on my dissertation committee and we even co-taught a freshman seminar together—and I know firsthand that his skill and dedication as an instructor are as laudable as his numerous teaching awards would suggest.  Among other things, he’s received the highest teaching honor the University can bestow and the highest distinction as an educator that the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers can bestow.  When one of the Department’s best instructors feels burned out and unenthusiastic about teaching because some students are unable to commit to a code of ethics that basically boils down to “don’t lie”, something’s really wrong.

As always, my opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent those of UC Berkeley or the EECS Department or anyone else.