In case anyone is wondering why I didn't write much about teaching last fall but I am writing a lot about it so far this year, there are 2 reasons:
1 - My teaching load is variable from year to year and term to term. Unlike some other departments/institutions, we have no fixed teaching load. My teaching load varies depending on the needs of the department relative to courses being offered and faculty available to teach them, whether I am team-teaching or not, whether I am on a research leave/sabbatical (or not), whether Mercury is retrograde, and the mood of the department chair. This term, I am teaching more than I did last term.
2 - It's not just the number of courses being taught in any one academic term but also the SIZE of a course that affects the magnitude of its psychic footprint on my soul. (Was that a turgid sentence?). In a small course, professor-student interaction is dominated by discussion of the course material and other interesting things. In a large course, the interactions have a more significant component of discussion of grades and the Complex Lives of the students. This term, I am teaching a large course.
Hence, more posts than usual about Teaching.
My large class has required a lot of emotional energy lately because I have had to deal with some cheaters.
Part of my general philosophy of teaching is that I trust my students until they give me reason not to. I assume that they won't cheat. I believe them if they say that they have been to every class. I believe them when they say a grandparent died the night before an exam. Both of my grandfathers died within 3 weeks of each other; this would have looked very suspicious to a professor who didn't know me.
As happens all too often when teaching a large lecture class, however, some students give me reason not to trust them, and I have to deal with a Cheating Incident. I hate dealing with Cheating Incidents.
I do some routine but fairly unobtrusive things to discourage cheating:
- I discuss scholarly conduct and put something about the honor code on the syllabus.
- I have assistance from at least one TA during exams so that I can hand the test forms out quickly and so that there is one other person helping answer questions during the test. Having one other person roaming the large lecture hall may help discourage some cheating, although that is not my motivation for having an assistant during tests.
I do not make multiple copies of exams and ensure that adjacent students have different versions of the test. I do not make students sit apart; this would be impossible given the seat : student ratio in the lecture hall. I do not have an army of TAs patrolling the lecture hall during tests. I used to have students sign an honor code statement on each test, but didn't find that this made a difference.
In the situation I had to deal with recently, I saw one student glancing repeatedly at another student's exam. I kept the two exams separate when they were handed in, compared the documents, saw the same strange but identical wrong answers on each one, and knew for sure that I had a Cheating Incident. I suppose if cheaters knew the answer to a question well enough to make a stab at it themselves, they wouldn't write down the word-for-word strange wrong answer of the person sitting next to them.
My colleagues who have brought cheating incidents to the attention of the scholarly conduct committee that deals with such things say that it is not worth the effort, especially if the only things you have to go on are (1) observation of a student glancing at another student's test; and (2) similarity of tests. What if the student was gazing into space or finding inspiration in the dance of the dust motes and wasn't actually focusing on someone else's test? What if the two students studied together? Yes, they studied together and somehow this studying together involved their practicing the same bizarre wrong answer to a question they anticipated.
So what are my vigilante-professor options? Accuse the students separately, hope they break down and confess, and give one or both of them a zero on the test? Do nothing and assume that one or both of them will go through life cheating and that's fine because cheaters never win and winners never cheat, or whatever?
This time I decided on the following course of action: I explained to each student why I believed they cheated, asked if they had anything to say to that (neither one did), I let them keep the grades they 'earned' (they each got a D- anyway), and I told them that for every other test they must sit in the front row but not next to any other student. They agreed, seemed relieved, and now everyone is happy.
Fortunately, there is the wonderful concept of Spring Break, which allows us all -- students and professors -- to get recharged and ready to experience the academic adventures that await us in the coming months.
9 months ago