November 2, 2023

BEARD | Academic (Dis)Honesty

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I have had it about up to my neck with Cornell professors complaining about “cheating” and “AI” in their classes. 

We all have had these professors, or at least are familiar with the trope. They get up, blow cobwebs out of their ears, and proceed to rant about “kids these days” and “new technology,” and all of that. “Cheating is on the rise,” is an all too familiar refrain for Cornell’s student body. Yet in every instance, it’s painted as our fault. 

I’d like to offer a parallel explanation to the dusty and oft-reused one of our professors. If there is a cheating epidemic, professor laziness and inflexibility is just as much to blame as student dishonesty. In a changing academic and technological environment, our faculty have either refused to adapt or taken the easy way out, all while  keeping their expectations for academic integrity the exact same. Fanning the flames further are University policies which reinforce the idea that grades and our self worth are one and the same. There exists a perfect storm in which an unwillingness to change by all parties involved has allowed human nature to run rampant and given our behind-the-times professors something to complain about.

How many of you have taken Canvas prelims before? For the underclassmen whose formative high school years were spent in the depths of the pandemic, online assessments may be all you know. For those counting their gray hairs like myself, we remember a bygone era of bluebooks, pencils and scantrons. Somehow, though, despite our re-emergence from virtual learning, our means of assessment have remained virtual still. Now, listen, I’m not complaining. I enjoy my Canvas prelims in the comfort of my bedroom just as much as the next student. At the same time though, the hypocrisy of our faculty on this topic makes me incensed. The very same professors who moan and gripe about the lack of integrity in my generation are too often the ones who insist on cutting corners and giving us these online tests. 

So why do professors cop out to virtual test taking services? For the same reasons that students cop out and cheat on these tests — It’s convenient! For the students: don’t know an answer? Let your computer tell you! For the professors: Don’t want to grade 400 exams by hand? Let your computer do it! Laziness begets laziness. It is with a total lack of self-awareness that a professor can complain about the laziness of today’s student body without looking in the mirror and seeing that same laziness reflected in themselves. To the professors: If you truly care about academic integrity, give us in-person, paper-and-pen exams. But, if you value the free time Canvas gives you and continue to utilize it, shut up and stop shaming us. 

Alternatively, and a little less mean-spiritedly, maybe professors and students alike should turn our ire upon the University itself. If we want to talk about an institution failing to keep up with the times, look no further than Cornell. In their push and pull effort to remain innovative yet esteemed, Cornell has incentivized both instructional apathy and rampant cheating. The Center for Teaching Innovation strongly supports the use of new online tools such as Canvas, yet according to some professors, offers little more than instructional videos on how to actually use them. Teaching an old dog new tricks takes a lot more effort than that. With those minimal resources, setting up autograde on a Canvas quiz must be a victory in itself to some professors. 

The stage is set for students to cheat. It is the University, then, that provides the final impetus for students to give in to their worst impulses. By insisting on reporting class medians on our transcripts, the school allows employers and grad school admission teams to compare us to our peers at first blush. If the median is a B+, an A- is hardly enough to show you mastered the material, let alone are deserving of a job. Thus, the moral calculus of perhaps opening another tab on a browser is made that much more worth it. It’s a tandem of hard line policy and ease of access that turn some of the best students into a professor’s worst nightmare.

Am I saying that cheating is right? Unequivocally no — cheating on a test is a morally incorrect deed that is no better than telling a lie. That being said, if it is truly as big a problem as professors say, then a solution requires more analysis than simply playing the blame game. By denying the role that policy and their procedures play in enabling academic dishonesty, professors might as well be putting their heads in the proverbial sand. If you expect us to learn, then we as students reserve the right to expect some effort from you. Otherwise, all this complaining is at best virtue signaling, and at worst, nothing more than hot air. 

Brenner Beard is a fourth year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His fortnightly column Agree to Disagree is a collection of musings and opinions on campus and the Cornell community at large. He can be reached at [email protected]

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