I usually enjoy The Last Psychiatrist’s blog but his post on the Harvard cheating scandal is bizarrely bad. Maybe we could all agree not to psychoanalyze other people’s patients and not to police other people’s syllabi. Oh, what a beautiful world would that be!
Here is a small excerpt from the offending post:
Here’s what you’re not allowed to do: ask a basic question, “Do interest groups make Congress more or less representative as an institution?” and then threaten that “the response will be judged on how well it draws from the course materials to make an argument.” NO. You could evaluate the answer on its merits or the rigor of the thinking, but whether and how it draws on the course materials is exactly what you do not want— it facilitates the grading of the essays, sure, keeps everything inside the gates, but it derails learning.
I also put similar warnings in my exams and let me explain to you why. It has nothing to do with the ease of grading or “keeping everything inside the gates”, whatever that even means. The reason why I started to specify that the exam responses have to draw on the course materials is simple: I’m sick to death of students responding to a question about the consequences of the Spanish Civil War with something like, “As my godmother always says. . .” followed with a string of intensely obnoxious platitudes that are in no way related to the Spanish Civil War.
Or take this student who was supposed to write an essay about immigration to and from Mexico. She Googled the word “immigration”, found some painfully racist website, and handed in a collection of quotes from that website which told me how immigrants all have AIDS and come to the US to receive free healthcare. I know I totally derailed the important process of learning from racist online sources when I told this student to turn to respectable materials we’d covered in class. This makes me a total enemy of the freedom of thought.
I’ll tell you more. I specify in the syllabus in my Spanish courses that every assignment is supposed to be written in Spanish. I have to do that because I’m not interested in receiving a bunch of texts on the subject of “How I spent this summer” written in English. When that happens, whose side do you think the Dean’s office is going to take? Mine? Shows how much you know about academia. I will be the bad guy – because the professor is a total enemy of humanity, as we all know – who didn’t manage to offer exhaustive instructions on how to do the assignment to the students.
As the Last Psychiatrist points out, the exam where the Harvard students cheated was in an introductory course. Students who take such courses do not yet possess the kind of knowledge that would allow them to come up with their own original ideas. Just like my students in Spanish 102 cannot write literary analysis essays in Spanish. Intro courses pursue the goal of getting the students acquainted with the basics of a discipline which will eventually (if they continue adding to that stock of knowledge) enable them to think critically and independently on issues pertaining to this area of knowledge. This is how learning happens. You read, you memorize, then you read and memorize some more. And after a while, you might end up creating an original insight. If you worked extremely hard on reading and memorizing, of course.
Freshmen often have absolutely no idea about the difference between an opinion and an informed opinion. Last semester, a student threw a tantrum when I did not give her a high grade for the following response to the question about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain:
I think it was a good thing that Jews were expelled from Spain. I mean, it wasn’t very pleasant for them to just get up and leave. But it was good for everybody in the end because they didn’t want to accept Christianity and it’s wrong to always try to be different from everybody else. If you live in society, you have to practice the religion that everybody practices. And if everybody in Spain was Catholic at that time, then the Jews were being subversive and it’s a good thing they left and everybody could continue to live peacefully without them and the problems they created.
When I tried to question the excessive use of the word “everybody” in this passage, the student got extremely sulky and started repeating “But this is my OPINION!” like it was some sort of mantra.
It’s funny how nobody ever approaches a bus driver to tell her how to do her job. We also don’t tend to see people breaking into operation rooms to lecture doctors on how to operate. And I haven’t heard of any cases where patrons of a restaurant congregate in the kitchen to offer advice to the chef.
An educator, however, is constantly observed, criticized and excoriated. Are you still surprised that we have so many idiots in this country?
Happy September 1, the Day of Knowledge, everybody!