Being a relatively naive PhD student, I can still recall what life was like as an undergraduate.
According to the media coming out of the universities,we have been facing an unfortunate epidemic of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Every class of more than ten people it seems are being forced to sign agreements (I signed mine in red ink, not a legally binding colour), or complete online “quizzes”, not really for their own education, but to cover the administration from the charge that the students “didn’t really know what academic integrity was” so that they can get pulled before this committee or that, at worst ruined and at best scared.
In the worst case I’ve ever heard of, the students in an introductory biology course were terrorized, spending more time trying to figure out how not to get put before an academic dishonesty panel than learning the material itself.
Like most punitive measures, it’s not really for the student’s benefit that this is done, but to prevent the cost of a degree from this or that institution from being cheapened. Advertisements on buses and subways loudly declare, even for the most ill equipped of potential students, that they need a degree to succeed in life. There is big money in promising good jobs to those who might not otherwise be able to get them. But only in the promise.
I’ve been marking assignments ever since my third year of university. I was the same age as most of my “students”, but the course was the moneymaker of the department and they didn’t have enough T.A.s to process them all. I was also in the uncommonly favorable position of not being seen as a “student” by the professor of the course. A designation that he did, at times, use as a pejorative.
It was a writing requirement for science and business students with a no fail policy. What it did do, though, was come down hard on plagiarists who couldn’t speak English. You’d be amazed at just how many really couldn’t. Oriental and middle eastern students who were studying business and science because that’s were the money was, and just needed to get this writing requirement out of the way so they could go back to their own, anonymity-inducing departments. Students who didn’t even know what the word “academic integrity” could possibly mean were filling out forms because it’s what they had to do to get the credit, to get the degree, to get the job and be happy, someday.
And who could really blame them for this? It’s what was being tacitly advertised by the administration.
And it is a lie.
The students don’t care about education because the structures that claim to teach them don’t care either. The only difference is, that they are punished for failing to collaborate with it. Not everyone who is brought before an academic dishonesty committee is quite so innocent, of course, but the worst offenders are those who have the family connections to get the lawyers to adequately defend them. Again the unspoken lessons of children are taken from the lives of adults.
Teaching assistants are the dreaded middle management in the corporation. Very quickly in grad school, last years undergraduates learn a kind of contempt for people who no longer seem to be their pears, but instead a kind of resource used by the department. They get paid to process them. In a way it is understandable, a kind of soft-core intellectual version of what happens to police officers and paramedics when they see too many bloody train wrecks and breakdowns of the social order.
Courses with hundreds of students, many of which should have options other than university for reasonable professions, are filtered through the hands of teaching assistants, whose ideals about the academy, if they had any, are soon whittled away after the hundredth or so essay. And the students, knowing just as well that the education is secondary to the grade, often connive and cajole for marks in a hundred surreptitious ways. The kind of people entering grad school are the minority who in fact do not start off thinking this way, and when confronted with it on a daily basis lash out by dehumanizing the undergraduates, setting themselves apart from them. The worst essay quotes of the month are put up on black boards, are talked about and fumed over amongst the graduate students, are mocked, because they know of no way to educate.
Chances are, if you’re in a first year course and not a particularly adept student, your T.A. is laughing at you to stop themselves from crying.
Yet the undergraduates, even if they don’t necessarily belong in a university setting, are not stupid, and understand that they are being treated cynically. So why not return the cynicism?
Because that won’t change anything, it won’t make the schools better, or people’s unique skills more valued by society. It will just give you a quick fix of scorn, like a drug, and pass away again into nothing.
And whatever you are, you are far from nothing.
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