Yikes

This is more of an academic post than a shark-related post.  This article has been making the science blog rounds today for good reason: if true, it has far-reaching (but distressingly unsurprising) implications not just for education but society in general.  The basic idea is that there is a black market for plagiarism, and business is booming.  Not only that, but students and professionals in all fields simply cannot write, which leads to disturbing chicken-and-egg type questions.

As a graduate student, I lead at least two lives at any time.  The first is the budding shark-obsessed scientist who usually does the writing here.  However, I lead a double life as a TA teaching undergraduates about ecology, and I genuinely enjoy that aspect of my grad school experience too (it helps that it also pays my bills).  The “Shadow Scholar” states that the purpose of his article is to get educators of all stripes to wake up to the fact that the educational system is failing to catch those falling through the cracks, which causes those falling through the cracks to turn to people like him (though the anecdote about becoming disillusioned when a college wouldn’t build an independent study class around his novel also shows that the Shadow Scholar has quite the ego).  So the question becomes, where is the breakdown occurring?

As stated before, I’ve genuinely enjoyed my TA experience and want to do my job well.  That said, other (unnamed) TAs have remarked that I’m “putting too much work” into grading and making sure my students are understanding the material when I could just give everyone a B and get on with my night.  It’s not even necessarily the fault of these TAs; I’ve lucked out in that my classes are usually relatively small, while other TAs can have upwards of 50 students in some of the freshman-level labs.  There is a real “just get them through it and move on” mentality that is almost required to teach that kind of class.  In those situations, my approach would likely land me in a psychiatric ward once lab reports came in.  Also, many universities require graduate students to teach for at least one semester.  While teaching experience is good, not every grad student gets bitten by the teaching bug like I have, and many who aren’t planning on going into academia likely just regard teaching as more work piled on top of their research.  The combination of overloaded classes (as universities try to find a profitable ratio between money-bringing students and money-taking teachers) and unmotivated TAs creates an environment where it’s just easier to give everyone a passing grade and get it over with.

While problems with the whole system can’t really be tackled by one grad student, there are a few tricks a concerned educator can use to determine if academic dishonesty is going on.  One that seems to have worked for me (though I really have no way of knowing if I’ve been reading any of the Shadow Scholar’s work) is to give in-class assignments or exam questions that require the students to write.  This at least gives me a feel for what their style is, and though naturally writing will be better on long-term papers and homework assignments thanks to having time to edit and spell-check, the overall style should stay the same.  I’m not saying it’s necessary to psychologically analyze their writing, but this should at least give a student away if their exam answer was in pure text language and their lab report is a staggering work of scholarly beauty.

What may be easier in larger classes is to look for very generic papers.  Even when first learning scientific writing most students put their personal style into it.  The Shadow Scholar used a very formulaic style that should stand out like a sore thumb (ironically by not trying to stand out at all) if it start showing up multiple times.  If it reads like someone is filling in blanks when writing the paper, they just might be.

Despite all of this, it’s still better to presume innocence.  Keep in mind that students are still students and the motivation to not fail is strong enough to lead to questionable decisions.  I make myself available for students who want to bring their lab reports in for me to look at before they turn them in, and though it may break up my day a little bit I find it saves me a lot of mental anguish once the final drafts are handed in.  It also has the benefit of showing your students that you actually give a crap about whether they’re writing well and are willing to talk them through how to do it, which definitely affects the quality (and hopefully honesty) of their work.  It really doesn’t create that much extra work either.

Then again, I’ve lucked out in teaching smaller classes primarily made up of upperclassmen, and therefore any advice I give is just the ramblings of someone who might be in a more “privilaged” position.  Southern Fried Science already has a good discussion started about the article, so here I’d like to see specifically what other TAs or young teachers think about all this.

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