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.