Monday, 24 May 2010

Cheating Arts

This is it: D-Day. The final examination. I'm in a room full of students who are radiating fear and misery as they chew on the ends of their pencils and ply their eraser stubs over their answer sheets. This is the day when we separate the studious from the screw-ups, the hardworking from the lazy. The students grimace and gaze heavenwards as they wrack their brains for the right answers.

"You!" I whisper, tapping one boy's desk. "Stop cheating!" He shoots me an aggrieved Who me? look and spreads his hands.

But I've sat in on too many exams here and I know all too well what he's up to: while pretending to stare into space, he has in fact been copying what the girl next to him is writing. She's already managed four paragraphs and he has barely come up with three sentences, but what he has written is amazingly like her composition. My name Gamze, she has written. Thank you for email I am festival's very enjoyed Especially rockband. my family go Istanbul favorite holiday. Cheater Boy's first sentence reads as follows: My name Onur Thank you for email I am party's very enjoyed Especially music. my family go Ankara favorite holiday. Part of me is infuriated by his need to cheat; part of me respects the fact that at least he had the presence of mind to change the pertinent bits.

Because as much as it pains me to admit this, not everybody here has the smarts to know how to cheat. Last semester, a girl turned in an assignment about Turkish tourism, but had neglected to change Nigeria and Nigerian to Turkey and Turkish. And this group in particular has a couple of real boneheads in it. I recognize half a dozen from last semester: kids who never paid attention in class, never did a lick of homework, never once came up with the right answer. The worst one, a tall, pimply boy called Cemal, is sitting in the second row, his head bent over his test paper. I don't have the heart to see how he is doing. During his months in my class, Cemal was never anything but spectacularly dense.

In the fifth row, there is a boy who looks exactly like someone I went to school with, Nathaniel Tannenbaum. So far, I've taught half a dozen kids here who looked eerily like old friends or acquaintances of mine, but this kid is so similar to Nathaniel it's truly freaky: the same beaky nose, the same golden skin, unibrow, and long, shapely hands. Even the way this kid slumps in his seat is the same. Every time I have to walk by his desk, I try not to gape. Then I happen to look over Nathaniel's shoulder and see what he has written about his favorite holiday: my went enjoye istanbul september with fammily Three brothers, sister. my very had fun, too much Interesting, istanbul Very fantastik City.

I can't get over my disappointment. Nathaniel Tannebaum was a straight A student with a keen wit. He was in the Gifted English class and cocky enough to mock people who failed to distinguish between your and you're. How could this idiot be his doppelganger?

Cemal writes, never once looking up from his answer sheet. He frowns, he scratches his neck, he chews the end of his pencil and erases hard enough to make a hole in the paper, then writes again.

"What is that? Show me that paper!" I hear my colleague hiss. I wheel around and see him bending over a boy in the second row whose head is lowered in shame. My colleague holds up the crib sheet he has confiscated. I am dispatched to the office to fetch the head teacher to deal with the cheater. As I turn back briefly, I see Nathaniel trying to copy off his neighbor's paper. I feel like crying: Nathaniel cheating? Nooooo! Nathaniel was the guy everybody else cheated off!

I come back to the classroom with the headteacher. As soon as the blushing cheater is ushered out in shame, three of my former students leave, one after the other. I take a look at their papers and feel like crying: they haven't even bothered to attempt the composition. There is no way they're going to pass.

"You--sit--over--here," I hear my colleague tell Nathaniel through clenched teeth. Dark eyes flashing, Nathaniel gets up with great dignity and relocates to a seat in the back row.

Thirty long minutes pass. Two more of my ex-students get up and leave, their test sheets only half completed. My colleague doesn't say anything about it, but I know he feels as bad about the boy with the crib sheet as I do. Because we caught him cheating, that boy will receive a zero for his efforts. Instead of spending the summer relaxing with his pals, he will have to stay here and go to summer school. God knows what he will tell his parents.

Nathaniel and Cemal are the very last students to hand in their exams. A quick glance at Nathaniel's paper shows me that he has almost certainly failed. I don't even bother to look at Cemal's; his failure is a given. At least Cemal didn't cheat, I tell myself. But I still leave the classroom feeling jaded and a little depressed.

Later in the afternoon, I find Cemal's paper in my stack of tests to mark. I am astonished and delighted to find that he passed. If he did cheat, he did a great job of it.

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25 comments:

AnneB said...

I'm pulling for Cemal!

Julia Karr said...

What a difficult job you have, Mary! *hugs*

Angela Ackerman said...

Meh, you cheat, you pay the price. Maybe he'll be stuck in summer school, but it's a valuable life lesson.

Kim Ayres said...

As a parent, whenever I've caught one of the kids doing something wrong, part of me is upset they did it, but another part of me is furious they were idiotic enough to get caught - but I'm only allowed to express anger and disappointment about the first bit...

Robert the Skeptic said...

I guess this is a big thing now with all the pre-written term papers and essays available on the internet. But cheating is probably as old as the teaching profession.

I remember an old Woody Allen routine where he said he got kicked out of college for cheating; during a test in his philosophy class he got caught looking into the soul of the person sitting next to him.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- Oh, me too! If Cemal passes, it will be a small miracle. And I'm ready for a miracle right about now.

Julia -- Believe me, I only touch on the tip of the iceberg here. If I wrote about everything, nobody would believe me and I'd really get depressed. The only reason I can bear it is because I know it will soon be over.

Angela -- I want to believe that, but the sad truth is that almost everybody cheats here. It's as though it's a given that you have to cheat to get anywhere here, but only we westerners or those educated in the west feel this way about doing your own work. So I'm left wtih the feeling that we're just being culturally insensitive in punishing this boy for cheating. Plus, last year FOUR students left their cheat-sheets on their desks after the exam, and it was too late to nail any of them. A lot of people get away with it because the examiners are lax, but my colleague and I are hardcore, so this boy was unlucky. Sigh.

Kim -- I feel the same way: the parent in me grapples with the kid still left in me: "It's immoral!" vs "Is that the best you can do, you numbskull? Can't you even cheat properly?"

The kid that got caught was pretty dumb about it. You'd think with two eagle-eyed teachers watching him, he'd have just slogged through it on his own, but no -- he'd gone to all the trouble of preparing that crib sheet, so I guess he just had to use it.

Robert -- The way my students sit and pretend to stare into space, you'd think they were trying to plumb the depths of one another's souls. Sometimes I find them staring at me, as though trying to see the Right Answer nestled somewhere in my head.

What I can't figure out is why they don't just bite the bullet and do some studying. Just learning the material can't be all that much more arduous than going to all the trouble of preparing a crib sheet, and it would be more useful in the long run. But I've worn out those words.

Charles Gramlich said...

This takes me back too much to Spring semester. I don't think I can read it all.

Charlie said...

I never cheated because there was no way I could fit an entire textbook on my hand. If I failed a test, it was me, myself, and I alone who did it.

I did, however, allow a friend to cheat off my test paper one time. It was a logic exam using truth tables, which he never grasped. The statement to be proved: "John is not in the house." His answer: "There are no johns in the house."

So much for aiding and abetting cheating.

planetnomad said...

Once again, you've taken me back to my days at the Univ of Nouakchott.
I don't want to take over your comments--I have many lovely lovely stories. But the most embarrassing was when I got two completely identical essays, except one was longer, neater, and better finished! I failed them both and wrote very scathing remarks in the margins. Then I realized that one was the rough copy and the other a more neatly made version, both turned in by the same student! SIGH. I'm sure he still remembers me.

Blythe said...

Cheating. Cheating is the best way to demoralize a teacher--although the cheaters have no idea that is true. They have other motivations. I used to twist the curriculum into a pretzel to make it hard to cheat. I always enjoyed assigning an essay about names, the student/author's own. I usually let them choose their mode: strict research, complete fiction... I didn't care. This was the last assignment of the term and I just wanted to see evidence of mechanical mastery and--secretly--to be amused. Every term there would be at least one student who turned in a purchased paper-mill piece of dreck that had no relationship to the assignment at all. I agonized over a lot of Fs, but not those...

(Aren't doppleganger's heatbreaking?)

Blythe said...

heatbreaking? heartbreaking. It's a good thing I'm not teaching anymore because I am a very bad example.

Robin said...

You've got to admire a good cheater. Good old Cemal. I'm glad he had fun with his fammmmily.

My favorite story from my dad is about a boy from Russia who handed him a note with his test, apologizing for his bad score, but Mr. Smith was sick and didn't come to class, so he couldn't copy his answers. That was a swiftie, huh?

Medeia Sharif said...

Cheating irritated me when I was young, and as a teacher today it bothers me even more.

I tell my students that they're cheating themselves. They won't have the ability to do what needs to be done once they're out in the real world.

When I meet adults who are lazy, helpless, unresourceful, rely on others for everything, and ride on other peoples' coattails I think to myself, "That person was a young cheater and is still cheating today."

I know what you mean in your comments: why don't students just study instead of waste time cheating or repeating a class? Doing things right the first time saves a lot of aggravation.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I know what you mean. It just gets so depressing after a while that you get tired of talking about it. In another three months, I'll have forgotten it, I'm telling myself.

Charlie -- If your cheating friend had been one of my students, he'd have argued that the exam was culture-specific -- that 'john' could only be interpreted to mean 'toilet' in his culture.

I only tried to cheat once in my life in a chemistry test, when I was absolutely desperate. I couldn't do it: the teacher had cleverly created three separate exams with all the questions scrambled, randomly distributed, and it was just too much trouble. And my conscience would have kicked even if she hadn't gone to all that trouble. It's just not worth it in the end.

Elizabeth -- Oh, we could swap stories! The week before the exam, you would not believe the number of aunts, cousins, uncles, best friends, siblings, etc. who have developed sudden life threatening illnesses or have suffered trauma sufficient to distract a grieving student from his or her exam revision. The same thing happened last year and I got so tired of it that when one boy told me his mother had died, I was skeptical. Guess what? She really HAD died. He forgave me, but I still feel awful about my less than sympathetic reaction.

Blythe -- We get those ridiculous mill papers every single term and they NEVER LEARN! I tell my students at the beginning of every semester that teachers can google too, that it's stupid to copy texts chock full of words they don't understand straight from Wikipedia, but they just don't get it. All English is just gobblydegook to them, so something they've memorized off the internet is identical to the piece of surrealish garbage a neighbor has produced. They're always amazed when we catch them -- you can clearly read "How could you tell?" in their eyes.

(I wouldn't have spotted your typo if you hadn't corrected it, so maybe I shouldn't be teaching myself. But you should see some of my students' misspellings. 'Impotent' for 'important' is my personal favorite.)

Robin -- Whoa, you don't know whether to be appalled at that Russian kid's unmitigated chutzpah or impressed by his honesty. I've had kids look at me in annoyance when I've position myself between them and the person they're copying. They can't quite bring themselves to say, "Would you move? I can't see Fatma's paper with your butt in the way!" But it's in their eyes.

Medeia -- It drives me crazy too! I hated people cheating from my papers when I was a child, but anyone who refuses to help their classmates here is seen as stingy and unhelpful.

I keep telling my guys that they can go to a lot of trouble to memorize some rubbish --"My most important possession" or "The person I admire most" -- which may not even end up as one of their essay questions -- or they can go to the same amount of trouble to learn how to write a proper composition. The former will be a pointless waste of their time, whereas the latter will give them a useful skill that will help them throughout their academic careers and beyond. They never listen.

Murr Brewster said...

Even if I'd given it any thought, I wouldn't have known how to go about cheating. I regret that I did not learn this in school to this day, especially during tax season.

Murr Brewster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
angryparsnip said...

Mary, I think I missed why you are teaching in a hot, broken air-conditioned room filled with students who don't want to learn English ?
Is it needed to graduate or an elective ? Are you teaching High School or University ?
It makes for great reading for us but why you haven't strangled someone yet is beyond me.
Your a much stronger and better person than I am !

Cheers, parsnip

Vijaya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vijaya said...

I've had to fail students and it always made me feel ill ... to not even make a passing effort, well, I don't even know why they were there. But to get caught cheating ... that was somehow so much worse.

Ah, Mary, summer hols for you. Enjoy.

kara said...

maybe the idea of summer vacation was a strong enough motivation? it would be for me.

Robin said...

Oh, Mary, that's too funny! I bet that Russian kid would ask you to move!

Mary Witzl said...

Murr -- I'll bet my students could teach you a thing or two about how to cheat on your taxes -- if they spoke English, that is.

I'm a lousy cheater myself. I'm pretty sure it's partly hereditary.

AP -- My students need English to be able to enter the faculty here, and believe it or not, I am actually teaching at a university. But I ask myself all those questions too, over and over. And tomorrow is MY LAST DAY!

Vijaya -- I can't help but wonder what sort of future this boy has, not even being able to cheat well. He claims he cheated because he was terrified of his father's reaction if he failed. Honestly, I could weep.

The people I really hate to cheat are the ones who try, but still fail. The ones who don't pass because they haven't tried are theoretically a little fun to fail. When I actually see their faces after the fact, I melt a little -- but tell myself they're just crying alligator tears.

Kara -- Me too, but you and I are normal. In the same way, mothers tell naughty kids, "Just wait until your father gets home!" I have been using mandatory summer school here (pure hell on earth, I've been told by all who've endured it) as a threat to get my slackers to try harder. It is seldom effective.

Robin -- Who knows? I probably would have moved: a few of our ex-Soviet bloc kids here have an air of stealthy menace about them that is utterly compelling.

Marian said...

When I was in the Middle East, I was desperate to leave but didn't have any money or any chance of a real job, since my degree is in microbiology and there weren't any science-related jobs there.

So I did anything I could, including writing college application essays for a young man with such a wealthy family that he could afford personal illiteracy. "I moved to Florida in a small little town called Boca Raton" was the best sentence he ever came up with.

Then his father tried to stiff me on the money (once a cheater, always a cheater) but was dissuaded by the fact that I knew his son's name and the colleges to which he was applying.

Thankfully I managed to get a job in a school library shortly after that, and saved up enough to get to Canada.

Falak said...

I am always amazed by people who cheat. They take elaborate pains and device ingenious methods to cheat and get throught the exam. The cheaters in your class are harmless compared to some vicious classmates of mine who create touble for the person who doesn't help them cheat. The virtuous end up being sinners and vice-versa.

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