Monday, March 23, 2015

"You're Only Cheating Yourself" — and Some Other BS (6 Feb. 2014)

"You're only cheating yourself" — 20th-c. Teachers' Cliché
"Sent my kid to college for a degree, and she came back with a bunch of ideas." —
Purported to have been spoken by a parent of
a student at Miami University (Ohio), 1980s
            It shouldn't, but it still sometimes surprises me how often people who like to hear themselves talk don't really listen very carefully to what they say, or, perhaps, don't think they'll get questioned about what they've just actually said.
            Even smart people.
            There was a brief exchange on a fairly recent TV comedy — it might've been Modern Family — where the father or father-figure quotes to a kid, "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger," which is from Friedrich Nietzsche, who should've known better. The kid answers wise-ass and wisely by noting that the grandfather of a friend of his survived a stroke, which made him, the grandfather, a whole lot weaker. If the script writers had wanted to push the point (and it is well for the scene that they didn't), they could've had the kid note that Nietzsche's tertiary syphilis or "manic–depressive illness" or brain cancer or stroke or whatever he had toward the end of his life didn't kill him for a long time and certainly did not make him stronger.
            Or there was the spokesperson for President Obama who noted that in 2014 the President would get some proposal or other through the Congress of the United States, necessarily including the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, "by any means necessary." Uh-huh. I forget what the proposal was, but it was part of the long, long list of measures that would never get past the Republicans, a proposal I suspect should be approved, and one possibly crucial for the well-being of the Republic.
            President Obama has amply shown his willingness to use as means to important ends such means as drones, small missiles, and a SEAL assassination team. Still, however tempting, he's not going to send a Predator drone to launch an AGM-114 Hellfire into a meeting of the House Republican Caucus.
            Obama will not use "any means necessary," and, as in many cases when the phrase is thrown around, that is a good thing.
            So sometimes people just aren't listening to what they say. Other times, they may not be quite so bright as Nietzsche (not even the brain-damaged Nietzsche), and still other times people might reveal more than they intended.
            Which brings me to my headnote quotations and the theme in much of my writing of education and other school activities.
            "You're only cheating yourself" if you cheat in school if, but only if, your primary purpose in school is getting an education and if, but only if, you're cheating yourself out of some education if you cheat on some exam or test or exercise in school.
            And/or your cheating only cheats yourself if your cheating undermines moral training as a primary goal of education — and if you ignore that your cheating may cheat of your classmates as well as "the System.
            For most of the time I taught in the US higher ed system (1960s to 2006), yearly surveys were taken of incoming US frosh on what their goals were in going to college and there were periodic studies by diligent scholars of student attitudes, behavior, history, etc., etc., etc.: college students were and remain fuckin'-a fascinating to workers in a whole little academic and journalist industry. And in good sociological fashion, scholars and reporters have documented in detail the screamingly obvious fact that students go to college for all sorts of reasons, of which education is only one — and have made clear that goals beyond education and instead of education are just peachy keen, fine and dandy with all sorts of parents, legislators, taxpayers, and others interested in the system.
            For example, there was the line I quote above from the father of a college student (my source here is a sign on the door to the office of a colleague of mine, quoting the man). His daughter had gone to college and perhaps got a degree but, to his chagrin, had also picked up a bunch of ideas.
            Over the history of higher ed, relatively few students have been actively hostile to ideas and education — and not that many parents and politicians openly admit to such hostility — but still fewer students have had "the life of the mind" as their only goal. Since the time of the medieval universities, many students have gone to college primarily to rise in the world: which means nowadays a degree from a good school with a good transcript, and if cheating will help you get that, then the cheating is helping you get exactly what you want, not cheating you.
            Many students also desire, strongly, to have a good time, and if cheating frees time up for fun and games ("F&G" as we used to say), then it is to one's advantage to cheat.
            The issue can get complicated in other ways.
            Not so much in college, or most of my classes in high school, but I had a couple high school courses taught by certifiable whackos and some of the assignments were, let's put it, unproductive if not counterproductive. To cheat a bit on them — which we pretty much all did — didn't significantly cheat anyone. More complex was the couple instances when I (and others, I'm sure) cut some corners in an excellent class and "dry labbed"a preliminary exercise or two in Qualitative Analysis. I forget the details, but the basic dry lab strategy was to figure out what the results of the experiment would be and work back to report a plausible series of steps leading to those results — your results couldn't be too close to theory — and then write it up as a lab report.
            Since my lab technique was already competent, and since it turned out the only real lab work I went on to do was in microbiology and physiology, not any kind of chemistry, this cheating really didn't cheat me very much in terms of my education: I learned the theoretical material working up plausible results. And I really didn't cut enough corners to harm even saintly students who put in more time in the lab than I did and got the same or a lower grade. Well, I didn't harm them unless you believe that grades should very exactly reflect student effort. Trust me on that, however: grades should not be tied too closely to effort. People with talent and background in a subject find it easier and can produce better results with less work. (It may be annoying to pay a professional plumber a lot of money to come in and do in a couple minutes a job that might take you hours, but you got what you paid for: the pro has a whole lot more talent and experience than you've got and deserves good payment; not as much as plumbers usually demand, but that's a different issue.)
            There is, though, cheating which doesn't harm you at all but significantly harms others: cheating in an academic sense of "rat fucking," a term of art in politics for dirty tricks to mess over an opponent. Except in student life, "rat fucking" can be more direct, down and dirty — worse — than in politics.
            There were rumors of such things in law schools, where students at, oh, say, University of Wisconsin, Madison, couldn't leave out their notes in the library without getting them stolen and where books on reserve might have pages torn out. I didn't encounter such behavior until I found myself a mid-year-entrance Specialized Chemistry student at the University of Illinois (Urbana) in courses with pre-meds.
            One course was Zoology 101, where I couldn't figure out why during "practical exams" in labs we were numbered and went through identifying body parts of dead amphibians moving from station to station in line, in numerical order. Since I was helping the lab instructor get through Organic Chemistry, I just asked him why, and he said that before they started formally numbering us, unnumbered, unidentified students 1-12 (for example) in line would more or less correctly identify "right ventricle" and from 14 on it'd be pretty consistently "left knee"; some schmuck moved the pin. In Qualitative Analysis or Organic Chem lab, I recall stepping into the aisle and announcing to the group, "Hi, guys. I'm Rich. I'm in Specialized Chemistry; I'm not in pre-med competing with you for a place in med school — and the next guy who throws my 'unknown' down the drain is going to get a face full of hot acid." I doubt I'd have actually have done such a thing, but before Richard M. Nixon gave the policy a bad name by practicing it while armed with nukes, there was something to be said in many guy-cultures for a small person to be thought mildly psycho (I got knocked around once in high school in a random bit of street violence, but I was never bullied [then again, I also cultivated large friends]).
            Anyway, no one threw my "unknowns" down the drain after that, or contaminated them, and I came to my second conclusion of what I'd do if I ever taught (and teaching seemed increasingly in my future as an alternative to going to Vietnam or going to jail). The first conclusion was that I'd grade "blind," not looking at the names of students I was grading. The second conclusion was that screwing over other students was one form of cheating I would not tolerate.
            I ended up teaching English, so my practical rule was that plagiarism wasn't that big a deal with me: I told my students saw catching plagiarism as a game, and if my students wanted to try some theft here and there I would see if I could catch it and flunk the paper (later on, plagiarism had to be reported, and the cheater might flunk the class). If I caught them messing over another student, however, I'd do my best to get them thrown out of school.
            There I was indeed serious. With plagiarism my students were cheating themselves a bit, since I really could help them improve their writing; but plagiarism was mostly cheating themselves, if only a bit, and gaming the system; and they were playing against a guy — me — with more experience than they had plus an "ear" sufficiently non-tin to hear, e.g., a shift in voice from 1940s Ivy-League or U of Edinburgh professor to early 1909 Oxford U lecture to 1970s undergrad from greater Cleveland. (Although one student did confess to me about cheating I hadn't caught — as part of some sort of rehab program — and I'm sure I missed many others.) Cheating by bringing down other people's grades — stealing someone's notes, not returning reserve books to the library, messing over others in group work — that was despicable.
            Just sliding through school, though, cheating as necessary to get the "paper" — the diploma and transcript — without cutting into "F&G" and a four-day weekend: well, I couldn't get too upset.

            Still, students cutting a lot of corners are cheating the state a bit where states still subsidize education, and they may be cheating their parents a lot. Especially in courses where grades are "curved," they do harm more honest students. And they are also cheating, somewhat, if less that others, themselves. They've missed an opportunity to come back from school "with a bunch of ideas." 

No comments:

Post a Comment