Please don't beg me for mercy (a professorial rant).

I'm starting to twig to the fact that a small but significant portion of my students has no idea whatsoever as to what my motivations might be for going into the line of work I have gone into (i.e., being a philosophy professor at a teaching-focused public university). And indeed, it's possible that my own motivations may not be totally transparent even to myself. (Life is, after all, full of mystery.)

But, I can state for the record, with absolute certainty, that I did not go into the professorial biz so that people could beg me for mercy.

Seriously, I didn't.

I recognize that people learn differently. I understand that some people are good at mastering material before a midterm, while others only really understand the material after they've flubbed it on the midterm. You know what? As long as they can demonstrate that you understand it by the final, I'm happy (which is why I give positive weight to improvement when I assign final grades). If we could engage in this teaching-and-learning transaction without grades, it would make me happier than you can imagine -- even if it meant that I had to write evaluative letters for 150 students each semester. I know that the grading pen can make me appear permanently judgmental, but the judgments I make are focused on how well my students demonstrate their understanding of the material (including how well they can identify and explain what it is they don't quite get yet, since this seems to be an important stop on the way to getting it).

I do not look at my students and see their midterm scores. Neither do I believe that one's grades in my class are a reliable proxy for who's a good person.

That said, since grades are part of the landscape, there are some basic expectations about academic integrity in play.

One is that students do their own thinking and writing. Connected to that is the expectation that if they draw on the words or ideas of others, they will properly cite the source of those words and/or ideas. Moreover, if they enter into an explicit agreement that they will only use certain sources for particular assignments, I expect them to abide by that agreement -- because I think it's fair to take adults (including the adults who are my students) at their word.

And, when I discover students violating basic rules of academic integrity (and especially when they violate explicit agreements about what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds), they receive an F for the course and a referral to the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development. This is exactly the outcome promised in my syllabus, and in the explicit agreements I secure from my students about ground rules. My students should be able to take me at my word, too.

Hypothetically, if you're caught transgressing the rules and if I deliver precisely the consequence promised for that kind of transgression, pestering me to not deliver on the promise is not a good call.

Would it be just for me to make an exception to the rule just for you when your classmates have, variously, made the decision (possibly influenced in part by the promises embodied in my academic integrity policy) to live within the rules, or have been caught transgressing the rules and delivered the promised consequences? (Especially in the context of an ethics class, I expect you to have given a question like this serious thought.)

In the case that I were to give in to your demands that I treat your cheating as something other than cheating, what kind of obligations do you suppose it would place on me with regards to other students caught doing the same thing, now or in the future? What kind of obligations do you suppose it would place on me with regard to students who do not cheat? How would you suggest I update the language in my syllabus to reflect the kind of action you would like me to take on your behalf?

I expect you to be familiar with university policies on plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty, but if you run afoul of the rules and complain enough, we'll pretend it never happened. Plagiarism or cheating will result in a failing grade in this course, and offenders may be subject to further administrative sanctions, but if you're caught and you make a huge deal about what a bad outcome this will be for you, I will totally ignore the requirement that I report all infractions to the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development.

I don't see that happening.

I guess my hypothetical cheater-who-doesn't-want-to-accept-the-consequences has already shown significant disrespect for our teaching-and-learning transaction by opting to cheat (rather than, say, opting to do the assignments according to the rules and learning something by so doing), and significant disrespect for my intelligence (in assuming that I am unable to detect blatant cheating when it's right in front of me).

But I'm also really bothered by the premise that I have the life and death power over the hypothetical cheater, to be cruel and crush a young life or to be merciful and let the hypothetical cheater go on to do many good things. That seems to disrespect the student's role in our teaching-and-learning transaction. I have the power to explain expectations clearly. I don't have the power to keep students from making bad calls, nor to go back in time and undo bad decisions for them. I don't want that kind of power.

The power I'm interested in is power to communicate ideas clearly, to give students feedback that helps them develop their competencies in reading and writing and thinking and argumentation, to convey to students what's interesting or important about the issues and ideas we discuss. This is a kind of power that can change lives (for the better, I hope), but whose exercise lets me interact with my students as autonomous adults rather than as petitioners begging to be excused from the consequences their own choices have wrought.

16 responses so far

  • Jonathan Kaplan says:

    If you ever have the opportunity to gain the power to go back in time and undo other people's bad decisions (not just students), I hope you'll accept that power, albeit reluctantly, and wield it responsibly and wisely. Just sayin'. (And, after all, your best use of that power is unlikely to be going back in time to personally ask students who have cheated to really, please, not cheat.)

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I'm worried I'd be tempted to use a power like than to not-watch certain particular movies, TV shows, etc., that I cannot unwatch but wish I could.

      I guess you have more faith in my potential for wise time-travel decision-making than I do!

  • DJMH says:

    Maybe this particular ethical dilemma should be Week One on your syllabus, so that any student contemplating plagiarism etc during the rest of the semester might--MIGHT--remember the coursework and reconsider.

  • Totally Not Entitled Offspring of Entitled Boomers says:

    But I need at least a C to graduate!

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      One of my favorite professors in college, when informed by one too many students that they needed to get [particular grade] for [particular end goal], firmly informed us, as a seminar, "The only thing you need to do is come when your maker calls you."

      It did rather put necessity in perspective.

  • TNEOoEB says:

    But Mummay and Daddy say Obama is taking my 7th year of tuition an I simply *must* graduate!!! Why do you hate me Professor?????

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I can't wait for the eventual CHE blog post doing Professor Shaming- the one that says if students even try to knowingly cheat, then maybe the Professor should look inward and ask what it was that they did to contribute to that cheating. I really want to fight for my students to learn and to grow, and they usually know that they need to also fight for themselves.

    I kind of want to do a survey next year asking the students "knowing that this school has an honor code and that the code is help up as a critical part of being a student here, if you know that a student has chosen to break the honor code and gotten caught by the professor, would you want that student referred to the honor code council/academic affairs office, or would you want that student to have no consequences for their actions?"

  • becca says:

    I believe I would enjoy a job where people begged me for mercy. But, I think, not in the context you meant.

  • WhatABohr says:

    This is a hair off topic, but I wonder if, being in the realm of ethics, this might be of interest.
    I asked two profs to take it easy on me this semester, though I didn't cheat (why bother even going to school if you're going to do that?).
    My performance took a nose dive this semester because I'm going through a divorce and all the crazy events leading up to that. All this stress led to INSANE insomnia and almost paralyzing test anxiety.
    Naturally, I DO need a C to graduate in one of the classes. I got a C-. I told the prof about the divorce thing and got nowhere. His position, which does make sense, is that he can't really do one thing for me that he can't offer to other people who might have gotten a C-.
    But is he just saying that because professors get fed all kinds of BS all day? I admit it does sound overly dramatic. I don't know if I would buy it.
    Would having my therapist document this help my case at all? Or do I just need to suck it up?
    Thanks for any input and sorry for the slightly O/T probably whiny question.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I think this is a good question, and I'm going to think about it at some length so I can offer a properly thoughtful response. But, my off-the-cuff response is that it couldn't hurt (and might well help) to offer documentation of a situation that was clearly interfering with your physical (and, because your mind is embodied, likely your mental) well-being as you were taking the course.

      There is an important difference, I think, between bad situations we put ourselves in by making clearly bad decisions (like cheating, or staying up all night watching Battlestar Galactica rather than studying and then sleeping) and bad situations we find ourselves in because we get a flu or find our relationships fall apart or have our cars stolen. Professors who are trying to be fair are much more likely to try to accommodate the latter than the former.

      • becca says:

        Aren't there real concerns about the college's legal compliance with the ADA for mental illness (even if precipitated by life circumstances)?

        Though it's always better to know the policy and document the medical issue and ask for accommodation prior to the final grade period. Still, a grade of "incomplete" and the opportunity to retake an exam might still be possible, depending on policies. And simply offering an extra opportunity to demonstrate mastery seems fairer than simply bumping a grade up.

        • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

          Absolutely. Most colleges and universities have a Disability Resource Center (or some equivalent) that takes care of getting documentation, identifying appropriate accommodations, and so forth. It's worth getting such an office involved in documenting emergent situations that might fall within what the ADA covers (or, for that matter, what a fair-minded prof would want to be able to take into account when evaluating what it's reasonable to expect of a student).

          As well, I think it's not unreasonable to ask about the possibility of taking an incomplete if life is blowing up (and, if the answer is yes, to make a plan to complete the remaining work in a timely fashion). I'll always take the honesty of "It's just too much for me right now" over the dishonesty of cheating.

  • ├ůse says:

    Well... For people going through a rough time, my thinking is as follows. Some things cannot be fixed at that level. A prof (and these days I am one) has obligations to the entire class - to teach and grade fairly, and make the requirements clear. People have all sorts of things happen to them outside, which some of them can make it through and others cannot. But, if things are so bad you cannot focus on course work to get a good enough grade, perhaps taking courses is not the thing to do.

    I had a quarter way back, where I just got distracted with relationship troubles (that in the end worked out). I'm kind of frail as it is, but I could not concentrate through it. I did bring it up with the advising, and they suggested that I withdraw from the entire quarter, which I did. Cost me some, but did not cost me my grades. I think that was a reasonable level, rather than asking my teachers to be easy on me, or going through some kind of patchwork.

    I try to instill this with my students too. Sometimes life is rough, and perhaps school is not the thing to focus on then, and I can't fix it as a teacher (given my obligations to all the other students).

    Everybody have all sorts of circumstances. I cannot take them all into account - it is too complex. It would also invite the kind of slacker type of excuses if I actually could.

    Of course, I am, these days, in Sweden, and there are many more possibilities to retake exams here than in the US. But, I do advise students that if they have trouble meeting the requirements, perhaps this is not the time to take the course.

    (Mostly these have nothing to do with bad things though, but things like working, getting involved in the student theatre group, going to weddings in another country, getting married, etc etc etc.... Great things! Perhaps you should not take my class then, if you cannot fit both in without the learning suffering).

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I did whatever a student asked, if the desired action on my part met two criteria: no hassle for me to do it, and, the action is academically and ethically sound. Life was simpler back then, I suppose.

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  • Karen says:

    There were very few instances as a BS or MS student when I asked for schedule relief because of illness, and I always found professors reasonably understanding. One shocked me, though. I had missed midterm #3 because of pneumonia (one of the reasons never to live in a dorm) and asked to take the exam late. The professor looked over my grades and said "Well, you've gotten A's on every exam/homework/lab so far, lets just skip this exam and give you an A for it."