Tuesday, January 8, 2008

If You Copy From One Source...

There's a commentary piece in the Education Life section of the Times all about cheating in college. Cheating makes Jesus cry. Back when I was in school, the old-timey educators made cheating — specifically warning us about the massive repercussions for cheating — their number one priority, even bigger than warning us about the massive repercussions for violating the school's arbitrary and ill-defined sexual harassment policy. It's a scare thing, the professors, entrenched in their "library" with "books" that need "photocopying," are faced with these new-fangled interwebs and haven't adapted yet, and we have to sit through apocalyptic, and spurious, proclamations that cheating is easier than ever and be scandalized. I became inured to this blather way back in middle school, reminded incessantly about the MLA, their ultra-pedantic citation rules, and the doom that would befall us should we separate the magazine date and page number with a comma instead of a colon or use italics (like a paper written on a post-1987 machine) instead of underlining. Besides the author, title, and page number, I usually just made up the rest of the information because I have better things to do than figure out where my copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica is published. No, I don't consider that cheating — I consider that being efficient, and who died and made the Modern Language Association the bosses of works cited anyway?

You can't get away with serious infractions like improper citing these days. Our education system has taken a zero-tolerance approach to "academic dishonesty," which, as a euphemism, I find just a tad dishonest in itself. At Columbia, we had to sign an honesty pledge — my professor at the time called it a Communist honesty pledge and told us not to sign it (in euphemisms, of course). And he was right, with Columbia tickling my resentment bone, working under the premise that I wasn't honorable enough to keep my eyes on my own paper. Four years of college, I may have cheated once or twice, but I can look at myself in the mirror and sincerely say that I was never academically dishonest, even leaving that inane pledge unsigned. I am thankful that I went to a school where I could not sign a piece of paper and forget about academic dishonesty, instead of one of those schools with an honor code and a student honor committee and mixed judicial boards, scrutinizing and following all your work like it's a psycho ex-lover. It's not new, but becoming more prevalent, according to the article:

Codes that define honorable behavior go back to the 1700s — the College of William and Mary in Virginia has what is believed to be the first. But they have become common policy. At Hillsdale College, in Michigan, for example, all entering freshmen must now sign an honor code. Students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, must sign a pledge on all graded academic work signifying they have received no "unauthorized" help. At Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, students are called on to report their own breaches of academic integrity as well as to confront others who violate the code.

I never really thought about loopholes for cheating before, but I'm a fan of UNC Chapel Hill's passive participle there.

I bring this whole topic up because there's another article in Education Life simply titled "V.I.P." It's about guidance counselors and how they help high-school students get into their top-choice college. I cheated — and I mean steroid injecting, insider trading level cheated — on my road to college, purchasing test prep, hiring a college consultant, taking a summer class at Columbia so I could get an insider to write me a recommendation. First SAT score was 1460, but I presented to Columbia as a 1730 fraud after about thirty Princeton Review practice tests. My consultant told me to read Growing Up by Russell Baker, and I did, just so I could tell Columbia that it was one of my favorite books. (Catcher In The Rye makes you look banal, The Crying of Lot 49 looks like you're trying too hard to impress someone.) Come to think of it, I must have had at least ten different handlers polishing me up. They did what they could, but no one advocated for me face-to-face with the Columbia admissions director. Or the admissions director at Brown, my first-choice school (Columbia was #3), or from any other school. I never even thought that they could if they wanted to (which they probably did) and had the time (which they certainly did not).

It’s a level of support taken for granted at private secondary schools, where parents paying $30,000 a year keep power counselors on speed-dial and count on their connections to admissions directors.

Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s dean for undergraduate admissions, acknowledges that admissions officers are more likely to know private-school counselors, in part because those counselors make an effort to know them. But he insists their recommendations aren’t given more weight. Two-thirds of Duke’s admittees come from public schools.

I'd like to interrupt this rant for a digression regarding that statistic: two-thirds of Duke's admittees come from public schools. Without any context, that stat is absolutely meaningless: Is that a small or large percentage? What percentage of applicants are from public schools? And, most importantly, if the admissions process were blinded (and why isn't it?), would Duke have selected the same class? I used to be naive, but these days I'm pretty confident that Christoph Guttentag dropped that number to obfuscate the fact that "their" recommendations are, in fact, given more weight, and the Times is complicit in this deception. That feels... what's the word?... dishonest.

So to get this straight: trading thousands of dollars to boost your on-paper credentials is okay. Spending hundreds of thousands for a guidance counselor who's golf buddies with the dean of admissions, that's not cheating either. But forgetting to attribute a quote demands a sentence to academia hell?