Someone has recently been caught cheating in my wife’s supervisor’s class, and my wife has been asked her opinion of how to deal with cheaters. Although my first reaction is “Kick the cheater out of the class entirely,” I realize that it’s more complicated than that.
The case for severe treatment of cheaters is pretty clear-cut: The cheater is willingly and knowingly breaking the rules, both stated and unstated, of the class and of academia in general. In so doing, they are claiming grades they have no right to – they are taking credit for knowledge they do not have and work they have not done. This devalues the grades of all the students who legitimately take the test/write the assignment. In academia, all we really have is our ideas. To claim ideas that are not yours is theft. No one could possibly get to this age and this position without knowing how bad cheating is and how seriously it is taken, therefore they should accept the consequences and pay the maximum price. Sob stories don’t really count, everyone has one.
On the other hand though, I know someone who cheated on an assignment and was caught. S/he was overburdened with work (I know, as we all are) and in the middle of several major personal crises. S/he fully admits that the appropriate move would have been either to just not turn in the assignment, or to talk to the prof and ask for an extension. S/he is a really private person though, and telling the prof her particular sob story was just not an option. Desperation led him/her to cheat, and when caught and asked why s/he replied “There is no excuse. I cheated. What happens now?” S/he failed the assignment and had a permanent mark put on his/her record (which no one will see unless there is a repeat) but was allowed to continue in the class. S/he definitely learned a lesson and will never cheat again.
I recognize that my first reaction, which is to expel the student from the class, is based on my knowledge of how much work I put into school. I shed tears over my essays. I work my goddamn ass off, and for someone to presume to waltz in, hand in something they put zero effort in to, and get an acceptable mark, boils my blood. I want to fail them the assignment, the course, their degree, and maybe throw rocks at their house. Knowing my friend who cheated, though, and knowing (and sympathizing) with his/her extenuating circumstances complicates my feelings.
If leniency teaches the lesson just as firmly as severity, why not just advocate leniency? I guess it depends on what you are intending the punishment to do. Is the goal of the punishment to teach the offender a lesson? Make an example of then for the rest of the class? Match the severity of the offense? Assert and maintain the integrity of the academic enterprise? The need for severity or leniency would depend on this answer.
I haven’t had to discipline a cheater myself, yet, but I know it will come. Before that point, I’d like to have a better idea of what I think the crime of cheating really is, and what the goal of the punishment should be.