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Taking Cheating Personally

It was the lowest of low-stakes writing assignments: second week of class, end-of-the-period paragraph response to the essay we’d been discussing. Not a big deal. I just wanted to get a view of each student’s skill level.

A few hours later I received an e-mail from a student, sheepish even through the screen. “My friend sat next to me in the computer lab today and copied what I wrote off the screen,” read her message. “She’s my friend, but I don’t want you to think I am a cheater.”

My first response? Sympathy for the e-mail writer. What an obnoxious friend to put someone in that position. Then came annoyance. What a stupid time to cheat, on an assignment where anything you write will get you points. I had already noticed that two of the in-class paragraphs started out the same. That was odd in a free-writing situation, but I’d assumed the students had been in a previous class together and learned a specific format.

I spend more time now talking about academic integrity than I used to, explaining the inadvertent ways we might plagiarize in addition to offering reminders about not turning in someone else’s work as your own. Cheating on examinations or quizzes isn’t much of a problem for me because grading is based primarily on writing assignments.

I read about cheating at Harvard this week and wish that I was surprised. I know that people cheat, for a variety of reasons, but it always depresses me.

In reply to my confessor student, I thanked her for coming to me in an uncomfortable situation. I told her about the girl in my graduate-school group who brought a copy of the exam to a study session. I told my fellow classmate, “No thanks,” but then let the professor know about the situation because it seemed like the right thing to do.

I plan to move people around the next time class meets, and I’ll be more vigilant about students while they work. I’ll also feel a little sad to have to do this, sad that a student felt she had to cheat, and sad that she made such a poor decision.

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