When students stroll into class on the first day of a new semester and are told by their professor, “I don’t care if you attend my lectures,” how do you think those students will react? That they’ll dust off their notebooks and methodically jot down everything the professor is saying? No, they won’t show up. And if the option presents itself, they might just cheat on their final exam.
At this point, the Harvard cheating scandal isn’t new news. Yet, ever since word broke that 125 of Harvard’s undergraduate students were under investigation for plagiarizing or collaborating on a take-home exam last spring, everyone has had something to say. Harvard mishandled its cheating scandal. Or, yes, they cheat at Harvard, too.
Eric Kester, author of That Book About Harvard: Surviving the World’s Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time, admitted he wasn’t surprised when he heard of the allegations. He told the Daily Mail: “I’m slightly sympathetic to the students, because in our society, and especially at Harvard, there are high expectations to become the next Mark Zuckerberg.”
Harvard College administrator Erika Christakis and Harvard professor Nicholas Christakis even wrote in TIME:
Feeling the weight of family or societal expectations, some students become so worried about failure that they lose perspective and can’t see obvious alternatives to cheating. … Because of their youth and immaturity, these students don’t realize that bombing a class isn’t a permanent blot on their record as a human being, or even on their long-term capacity to find a good job or get into graduate school.
But, how can we blame this on “pressure” when professor’s aren’t even pressuring their students to come to class? An anonymous student of Harvard’s now infamous “Introduction to Congress” class told Salon, Professor Matthew Platt didn’t care if students attended his lectures or discussion sections with his teaching assistants. Because of that, students were skipping the course, sending their friends to pick up copies of Platt’s slides.
“That’s why people took the class in the past: fun lecture, goofy class, you go in and go out,” the student said to Salon. On top of that assumption, you’re handed an open-book exam, meaning you have free reigns to surf the Internet and copy down notes word-for-word, merely tossing in a few adjectives so it doesn’t look like plagiarism. Argue what you will, but the format just lends itself to cheating. And if the professor doesn’t care whether or not students are showing up to his class, will the students put an extra effort in? No, because from the very first day, the bar was set — minimal effort from here on out.
Now, there’s no excuse for cheating, nothing justifies these alleged students’ actions and not every student should be deemed a cheater moving forward, but we need to take a deeper look at who we’re scrutinizing. Some of this highlights the problem with tenure. As New York University Professor Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in The Christian Science Monitor, “When it comes to tenure, as per the cliché, it really is publish or perish.” He writes:
Our teaching is mostly unrewarded, which is the biggest scandal of all. Across every kind of school, from big research universities to small liberal-arts colleges, professors who give more time to research tend to make higher salaries; meanwhile, the ones who devote themselves more to teaching tend to earn less.
What administrators need to focus on is that they’re not cheating their students by putting less of a focus on them. Why pay for tuition if your teacher isn’t making your money worth it?
Professors have admitted the traditional lecture is severely flawed, which is why several are keen on the flipped classroom — saving the lectures for students to read over at home, while designating class time for collaboration. That’s how we’ll keep students engaged. And the more they’re engaged, the less they’ll think about collaborating outside of class on their final exam.