The Duck of Minerva

“As An Educator It is My Responsibility to Turn You In To Your Professor. Thank you For Your Cooperation. Good Luck With Your Studies.”

6 March 2011

To me, the high point of academic blogging is putting out a request for insight to readers on a specific problem and crowd-sourcing a wealth of useful feedback that helps me be better at what I do than I would have been had I gone with my gut. Sometimes these blegs are about research and sometimes about teaching, and sometimes about how to wade through the backwash of scholarly life without getting too dirty.

I want to thank everyone who weighed in on my “famous, dumb student” how-to-deal-with-a-suspected-cheating-student-not-from-my-own-institution-who-happens-to-be-public-figure thread. Thanks to you, I was able to slow down and consider the situation from many angles. Below the fold you’ll find the update on how this situation was resolved, but first I wanted to emphasize a few things in response to some of the comments:

1) Nothing about a situation like this is fun or entertaining, particularly when it interferes with an otherwise sacred writing day. And public spectacle should never be the overriding impetus for writing about these matters: I agree with Dan and Siva that the goal here should not be entertainment or humiliation but rather a) teaching a student to do better and b) teaching others by example. The question I have been struggling with for the last two days is how best to do that.

2) I do not believe that either laughing it off, pulling a Susie Derkins maneuver, or gently chiding students constitutes an appropriate response to these kinds of incidents. The first assumes that this stuff is just part of the academic culture these days, and there’s nothing you can do about it; and it allows the student, as SEK pointed out, to simply email someone else. The second actually validates the practice and the student is likely too dumb to ever even realize they were tricked: all they learn from this is that they can get away with what they did. The third naively assumes students will respond to gentle chiding, which I have learned is not usually the case – though this should always be the first step, it should never be the last.

I would go so farther to suggest that professors who deal with things in these ways are probably doing as much damage to the norms of academic integrity as the students who break them or friends who don’t turn them in. We have a greater responsibility than that: to our colleagues in the profession, and to the academy as a whole, in order to protect the academic environment for others. Norms only matter to the extent that we act as if they should matter when we see people violating them. We have an ethical if not a legal responsibility as academics to act as if academic honesty is important, and that means more than being honest ourselves: it also means helping one another to police the dishonest.

At a minimum, this means turning students in to their professors (at a minimum) when we suspect academic dishonesty, even if it costs us time and energy. Whether we have a responsibility to do more than that I’m still not sure (as I discuss below), and until I’m sure I would never take those steps, though I may post more ruminations on this again later as things develop.

For now, here is how things played out yesterday, since so many of you are interested:

This is the partially redacted “stern letter” I originally sent to the student. I have removed the links the email originally contained to the student’s public FB page, which I cross-referenced with their email address in order to verify their identity:

Given that you appear to have lived in the United States your entire life, I find it highly unlikely that you don’t speak and read English sufficiently to form some opinions of your own about my article.

Here is what it looks like to me: you were assigned to write a paper on my article, and instead of reading it yourself you decided to email me and try to get me to answer the professor’s questions for you. Had I done so, I expect you would have pasted them into your essay as if the words were your own. When I didn’t take the bait, you lied to me about your background. (If by some chance I am mistaken, I would appreciate some evidence to this effect, as I fear you have given a fairly poor impression by your last two emails – of someone who is not only dishonest, but who also doesn’t even take the fact that you’re being dishonest very seriously.)

Assuming I’m not mistaken, as a public figure and a role model for young people, you should be ashamed of yourself.

As an educator, it is my professional responsibility to pass the email you sent me along to your professor. I can deduce by looking at your university website that it’s probably either X, X, or possibly someone in Department X. I’d prefer not to have to email each of them (or your Academic Dean) in order to figure this out, so if you would be willing to come clean and tell me who your professor is, I’ll simply notify that person and let him or her handle it as they will. If I don’t hear back from you by noon tomorrow, I’ll use my own judgment about how to proceed.

If there is any more information you can provide me to help me understand the context here, I am certainly open to hearing it.


Professor Carpenter

Said student initially replied with partial explanations (which I think it only fair to share with you) and ignored my request for the professor’s name:

Hi Professor Carpenter,
I have absolutely no intention to take part in any academic dishonesty. I was interested in your article for my own interest which began as a result of a class. After reading your article, I had a tough time understanding everything. I did not select your article for any research purposes, only for my own knowledge. I was fascinated by your article which is why I had asked those questions for my personal understanding. And, English is a second language for me. I was born and raised in [the US] but I was raised in a household where my language was spoken the majority of the time. As a result of that, I sometimes find it hard to understand everything that I read. I have no intention to being dishonest whatsoever. The only reason I asked those questions is because I thought that you being the most knowledgeable on the topic could provide me with further insight. My only intent was to be provided with a better understanding of the article not anything else. I apologize for the inconvenience this may have caused you and I had no ill intent whatsoever. I hope you understand. Thank you for your time.



I then repeated my request for the prof’s name, with a second chance for him/her to make this easier.

Thank you for writing back. It’s possible you are telling the truth, but you have given me no evidence of that, so I’m going to need to let your professor make that call. He or she is in a better position to do so because they know you and are familiar with your previous academic record. Again, I’d like you to tell me who he or she is so that I can follow up with him/her. If everything is as you say, I’m sure this will all be cleared up soon. If I get this information from you by noon today (Pacific time), I’ll take no further action at this time, such as contacting your Dean.

For what it is worth, the reason I have a hard time believing you is that although you state you read and were “fascinated by” my article you don’t actually say anything about it in any of these letters. You don’t demonstrate that you even know what it’s about much less that it made you think or engendered any questions in your mind worthy of a conversation with the professor who wrote it. Instead, you appear to have pasted questions written by someone else (questions that look very much like what a professor would ask a student to think about) into the email as if they were your own. Furthermore, when offered the chance to ask your questions in the context of my article, you didn’t actually ask any (and if you were to do so now, I’d assume it would just be to cover your tracks).

So, who is your professor? The quickest way to clear this up is to give me that information. Professors have significant leeway to deal with these kinds of situations in context; once the administration gets involved it is often a much more complicated, formal process – the kind of thing that would attract the attention you probably do not want.

Once this is all sorted out, I would be happy to discuss my article further with you if you will first send me YOUR answers to the questions your professor asked you to think about as you read it, and then your own questions that ought to show original thought.

S/he then replied with a promise to contact him on her own sometime in the future, and to “provide me an update” after that meeting. I repeated myself one more time, insisting that I’d be emailing the prof today one way or the other.

By this time I had already identified the professor by following the advice of the commenter who suggested I contact the bookstore. But I intended to let the student’s deadline expire before writing him myself. Ultimately the student caved and gave me the professor’s name well before the deadline, once more trying to explain away his/her actions as well-intentioned efforts to go beyond the original assignment. My final email to this student was as follows:

Thank you for these clarifications and for letting me know who the professor is. I’m in no position to evaluate whether you’ve actually done anything wrong – I can only tell you how it looks from here, so that you have that information and can protect yourself for future reference. And I will leave that up to your instructor to decide how to handle it and will simply pass along my concerns to him, just as I would want a faculty member at another institution to do for me if I suspected an attempt to cheat on one of my assignments. If it’s as you say, I’m sure nothing will come of it. I appreciate your cooperation.

For what it’s worth, I would be very happy to answer questions about my article with you if you would demonstrate to me that you actually read it first. I already put considerable time into writing the article, so I don’t really have the time to explain it to you if you’re not going to take the time to read it. However my offer to discuss it with you further stands: if you will read the article closely you will find the answers to the list of questions your instructor gave you, then if there is something specific you don’t understand I’m happy to explain, or if you want to correspond about the applicability of my model to another case, I’d be happy to do that as well. These kinds of questions are welcomed by professors about their work. Being asked to tell a student what is in an article just to save them the time of reading it for themselves is not. All I ask you to do is demonstrate to me that your request is in the first category and not the second.

Best of luck in your studies.

Professor Carpenter

I then checked with my university’s legal office before emailing the prof. I was advised to provide only a description of what happened in the email, not my opinions of what the student had done, so that the student could not later claim I had “slandered” him/her if it turned out I was mistaken. I also asked about this blog thread, and was told I shouldn’t worry about it since I had in no way associated the student’s identity with the thread.

The professor has been emailed and provided with the entire set of correspondence and has written back to say he is now working with the TA to verify whether or not this student lied to me about the nature of the assignment. And aside from this follow-up post to bring readers up to speed and explain my new understanding of right practice in these situations, I am washing my hands of this for now.

How satisfied am I with this outcome? I understand the desire of many on this thread to publicly out this individual both as a penalty for what s/he did and as an example to others, and I initially shared that desire, so I want to explain why I chose instead (and am still choosing) to proceed in this discussion while keeping the student’s identity (and that of the prof and institution) anonymous. The key reason is that I can’t be absolutely sure how serious his/her behavior is without knowing the context of the assignment. I do continue to believe it is very serious. I did verify his/her identity. I did verify s/he had been assigned my book in a class. I did verify s/he is taking this class this term. Nothing s/he said to me, even after several prompts, indicated s/he had any clue what the article was about. However s/he has told me that my article was not the one s/he was assigned, and that the questions were purely out of his/her own curiosity – making the email embarrassing and unprofessional but, if that’s true, not necessarily a case of cheating. I’ll leave it to the prof to determine if this is true, but it would be wrong of me to damage the student’s reputation based on my own interpretation of events, in the absence of the prof’s determination that the student actually tried to cheat. And I guess that was the subconscious “reason why I wasn’t certain” it was appropriate to treat this student the way we would treat some other public figure if caught doing something wrong. After talking to legal counsel, looks like this was the right choice. [It does beg a set of interesting questions, but those are for another post, I think…]

I do find this outcome reasonably satisfactory. On the one hand, this student never exhibited any contrition for how s/he behaved. But neither did s/he try to justify the behavior. On the contrary, s/he simply denied it. In my class on international norms and the rules of war, I teach my students, following Vaughn Shannon, that a denial of a norm violation constitutes a greater recognition and internalization of that norm than does a justification. (Eg, countries who torture but deny it demonstrate a greater respect for the anti-torture norm than countries who torture but claim their actions are actually allowed under the Torture Convention.) So I’m satisfied that this student did, at least, realize that what s/he did was wrong enough to deny it, that s/he got a wake-up call by my insistence on contacting her professor rather than letting it go when s/he sent me the first dismissive email. Assuming the prof verifies s/he was trying to cheat, s/he will likely be penalized on that end as well. If it turns out s/he was simply being unprofessional rather than unethical, I’m reasonably sure that after reading these two threads s/he’ll at least feel embarrassed, and have a greater understanding than s/he did before about how this behavior looks to others. In that sense, I feel like the energy I expended was worthwhile as an educator, even though I’m now two days behind on my ISA papers.

One more thing: Ultimately my general goal in putting out this bleg was not only to figure out how to deal with this individual fairly, but how to take a stand against this sort of behavior, one that can inform the thoughts and discussions of others. I hope that the attention this comments thread has generated will result in healthy conversations in classrooms, among college students, and among teachers facing the same situation. I agree with Naadir and other students who have posted that these incidents negatively impact the academic environment for well-intentioned students seeking to communicate with professors outside their institution, as well as being unfair to students who do their own work. I’d like to see members of our profession take a much firmer stand, and back one another up when we do so. And I hope that publicizing this incident has had some modest effect to that end.