Apologizing to the cheater

Faced with a race-baiting cheater, a history professor backed down — and wrote about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The professor scrambles the order of questions on quizzes so it’s obvious when students copy from a neighbor.

Here’s how we know they cheated: Seat J8, for example, correctly answered the second question — “What President initiated the Bank War in 1832?” — with the response “Andrew Jackson.” The feckless chump in J7, however, answered his second question — “What Indian nation was displaced during the Trail of Tears?” — with, you got it, “Andrew Jackson.”

Faced with the evidence, seven of eight cheaters confessed to copying. The eighth was a black student.

But here was Mr. J7, heels dug into my floor, arms crossed tightly, studiously avoiding eye contact, and disarmingly armed for what he must have known was coming. I took a deep breath and began my well-rehearsed question, but before two words left my mouth he aggressively interrupted, “Here we go again. It’s the same thing everywhere I go. I know what you’re going to say, so don’t even bother. It’s so predictable.”

The student yelled wildly at the professor till he saw the quizzes.

His tone changed dramatically as he explained, quite calmly now, how he hadn’t studied for the quiz. He just guessed, at random, without even reading the questions and, well, I talked about Andrew Jackson in lectures all the time so, well, it seemed like as decent a random guess as any other. Soon he was smiling. Sure, it was quite an amazing coincidence but, as he so eloquently put it, “Shit happens, sir.” And then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any more confusing, he went for the jugular.

“As far as I see it,” he concluded, “you owe me a huge apology.”

Mr. J7 is black. In addition to being green, I’m also white. I know that he cheated. He knew that he cheated. But, after his performance — a brilliant but subtle flash of the race card conveyed through body language and facial expressions more than words — the once-crystal-clear context that had me in charge evaporated into the stale air of my office. We both knew he’d won this game. I ripped up the quizzes and tossed them into the trash. He left my office without a word. I felt horrible.

After telling my department chairman about the incident, I asked myself a series of difficult questions: Did I think J7 was going to hit me because he’s a big, black guy?

Well, did you?

Should a black kid have any reason to tell the truth to a white figure of authority?

Yes.

Am I gutless?

Yes.

Should I have been truly race-blind and treated J7 as I would have treated a wealthy white frat boy?

Yes.

On some level, do all white people owe all black people an apology?

No.

Did this kid just play me like a fiddle?

Oh, yes.

“Pathetic,” writes John Rosenberg of Discriminations. Yes.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Tom West says:

    I think gutless is a bit much.

    If you are from a background where such yelling, initimidation, and unspoken threat of violence is something you’ve never experienced, then it’s quite possible to be so thrown off that you simply react as quickly as possible to get out of the situation. Given adequate preparation, it’s quite possible his reaction would have been somewhat different.

    I certainly remember the first (and pretty much only) time I had to deal with uncivilized behaviour of that sort of level, and it took minutes to process it. “He’s saying WHAT?” It just sort of didn’t compute for a little while. If i hadn’t had a few minutes of absence to compose a suitable civilized answer, I’d probably have just walked away – not a response available to the professor.

  2. Tom West:
    “If you are from a background where such yelling, initimidation, and unspoken threat of violence is something you’ve never experienced, then it’s quite possible to be so thrown off that you simply react as quickly as possible to get out of the situation.”

    We should all expect civilized behavior from others, yes. But if you can’t think on your feet when confronted with the lack of it, you shouldn’t be in charge of rooms full of college kids.

  3. In my second year of university teaching, I was actually confronted by a sullen, large black student that I had failed. When he asked why he had failed, I said, maybe it’s because he skipped the midterm, failed the final and did only 40% of the homework.

    He then threatened me by saying that “I would pay for this”. I said he should be careful what he thinks or does.

    I worried about it enough to report him to the Dean of Students but there’s no way I would have let him get away with a pass. Then again, I’m a tall male so may not know how others would react.

    While such spinelessness (by the history prof) is understandable, it should not be excusable.

  4. I’m a short female who can look “white” in the right lighting, and I’ve flunked my share of “black” football players. Only one ever got confrontational with me. He struck me as the kind of person who had been accustomed to getting through life by being charming. He started off by flattering me, and then said he thought he deserved full credit on this problem from the homework quiz. I knew he didn’t, but I listened respectfully to his argument anyway, and then told him what was wrong with his argument and why he wouldn’t be getting full credit (we both knew he couldn’t have done the problem if his life depended on it; he actually conceded that much). Then he got ugly and started yelling at me, so I stood my ground and yelled at him. I know I shouldn’t have, but I knew I had to show him I couldn’t be intimidated.

    Evidently he went up the chain of command and raised a stink, because I was then called in by the assistant department head, who “very strongly suggested” at the behest of the athletic director that I change my make-up policy to be more accommodating to the “needs” of my student athletes. I told the assistant head that my make-up policy was fair, that it treats student athletes just the same as student workers and I wasn’t going to change it because somebody important didn’t like it.

    I haven’t changed my make-up policy, and I only ever saw that student once more, as he was getting on the bus. He saw me and literally turned his nose up so far into the air that I started laughing after he was out of earshot.

  5. A fascinating post. Sounds like the kid, if he applied himself, wouldn’t need to bother to cheat as he clearly is smart enough to game the system. As always, thanks, Joanne, for posting this.

  6. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Not doing the obvious when being caught mentally off balance is more the rule than the exception. That’s why proper training for emergencies includes stressing the trainee out as much as possible without creating a real life-and-death emergency. (Heinlein’s “Tunnel In The Sky” is rarely allowed in real life.) The “Model Mugging” approach to women’s self-defense was developed by a karate instructor after one of his black belt students was raped.

    Suggested topic for someone for someone who needs to write a useless psych paper:

    Do the following correlate positively or negatively:

    1) Being quick to judge what an untrained layman should have done when caught mentally off balance.

    2) Being quick to find excuses when an allegedly trained cop shoots someone just because he got a little flustered.

    I *suspect* that against all logic, correlation will be positive. I think both are conservative positions, although I could be wrong about (1).

  7. The worst of it is that when the professor writes “My little talk, I’d like to think, has something of a life-shaping impact on them. he is more correct than he realizes. By caving in the way he did he reinforces the effectiveness of playing the race card. Having said that, I am not sure he did the wrong thing. Had he pursued the matter he could easily be out of work now or involved in an expensive lawsuit that even if he won he would lose.

  8. I saw something similar to the this happen once. I had a Marketing professor who was not from the United States. She could speak English well but she had problems understanding any nonstandard usage. As she was leaving class one day a star football player approached her. The conversation went something like this:

    SFP: Dr. Habashi, I want to talk to you about my grade in your class last semester.

    Dr. Habashi: Yes, what about it?

    SFP: Well, I made an “F”. How did I get an “F”

    Dr. Habashi: You only attended class a few times, you only took one of the 4 tests and you failed it, and you did not do any of the assignments. So you got an “F”

    SFP: But Dr. Habashi, I did not deserve an “F”

    Dr. Habashi: (sounding confused) But there is nothing lower.

    It was all I could to keep from laughing out loud but being the coward I am I just chuckled inside and went about my business.

  9. If something like this happened on my campus, the police would have arrested that student and charged him with assault. But I can’t imagine any of the male faculty I work with calling the police to help them with a student…too much pride.

    That said, I would have saved the quizzes and shown them to the student fairness committee (or the equivalent at that school) and nailed that kid to the wall. That prof was doing him a favor by talking to him before filing a formal grievance, and the student showed NO appreciation.

  10. ABD in the salt mines says:

    I once gave (and it was a gift, should have been lower) a D+ to a student on a history quiz. This was a big, annonymous lecture class, I had no clue who he was, name something like “John Smith.” Shows up to my office hours to complain about the grade, I stand my ground – he then complained to the chair that I discriminated against him because I’m a Jewish woman (I’m not) and he is a Muslim. I do think that some people look for discrimination even when it’s just not there.

  11. The professor caved–but he had a reason–or at least, one is implied…

    “…I gasped a rather commonplace but evidently effective expletive”

    Care to guess what that expletive was? Care to guess what was said when the professor was confronted by an angry, cheating black male student?

    Care to guess why that expletive was the break in the narrative?

    That student will probably get As from the professor now. Blackmail from a cheating black male.

    Can’t say ‘nigger’ to a black person, prof. Even if they’re acting like one.

  12. P. K. Pruitt says:

    Jack may be correct as to the expletive used.
    I think the main point of the article was that the professor did not think he was prepared for that particular confrontation and suffered because of it. He posted the article in the hopes that others wouldn’t fall into the same trap.

  13. Good discussion, and about time.

    The base line of PC for decades has been that a white man cannot stand up to a black man, even if the white men is entirely in the right.

    Never seems to occur to those who enforce this double standard, but it is a devastating negative for black men. Respect and reciprocity are the cornerstones of any decent relationship.

    Kudos to Joan and John for tackling this tough subject.

  14. What he should have done afterwards is, retrieve the quiz from the trash, tape it back together, and turn the punk in. If the punk complains, just smile and say “I lied. Sucks, doesn’t it?”

  15. I doubt he said the “n” word. He lived to write the article. He still has his job. I imagine he said, “Just look at these will you, goddamn it.”

  16. Clearly this new professor was unprepared for this kind of incident. I don’t think he’s trying to make excuses for it… I think its commendable that he took the risk to put his story out there like that at, as a lesson to other new professors to not fall into the same trap… clearly he knows the kid played him, big time… and he was probably surprised, bewildered, and confused as it was happening… I think everyone agrees, himself included, that he certainly didn’t handle it the right way…

  17. Andrew W says:

    I agree with Laura re: explicitive. The article would have a completely different meaning if the professor had used the “n”-word. And the “n”-word is hardly “commonplace” in mixed-race conversations.

  18. i realize that i attend a technical institute, and may not be as knowledgeable about what goes on in college history classes, but what kind of absurd fill-in-the-blanks type exam was this? i seem to recall being presented with a quiz of this sort in the seventh grade. i always thought that in a university setting, students were asked to interpret and analyze material, not regurgitate mindless facts.
    i also thought that plagiarism/cheating is an academic no-no once people leave high school. the professor should have, instead of deciding to “adopt a paternalistic pose”, seen that they were formally charged by the school for academic dishonesty.
    this guy’s absurd white guilt makes him pathetic. his obvious incompetence at doing his job makes him despicable.

  19. Rita C. says:

    Oh, I’ve had confrontations like this. My kids are younger, though, which may make a difference. The line is always something like “You can’t prove I cheated!” My reply is “This isn’t Law & Order; I don’t have to.” That shuts them up pretty quickly.

  20. Walter Wallis says:

    Ken, you have my vote. Also [and I’ll bet this is the first time you have heard this] I like your girlfriend B., too.

  21. Rita, and what would you say if the kid fed you a line like, “Well, I didn’t actually read the questions; I just filled in random things that I’d heard in the lecture. You know, you said ‘Andrew Jackson’ a lot so I wrote that down.” Would you get mad, or would you burst out laughing?

  22. A few years back, in a large class (about 100-odd students), I discovered a large cheating ring. Their answers were identical, except for one guy who changed the names of his variables but left everything else the same.

    I filled out a report, submitted the homeworks in question and expected the students to be disciplined or possibly expelled.

    What I didn’t know about these students is that they were all black.

    I was submitted to re-education, where I was informed that black students had a different understanding of what it meant to copy work, and the statement they had to sign that said “This represents entirely my own work. I have not collaborated with any other student.” was not binding, nor was the contract they signed at the beginning of the semester that stated while students could study with each other, their assignments must be entirely their own efforts.

    Apparently, the problem was my lack of sensitivity to black culture.

    My zeros were overridden and all students in the group passed the course.

  23. Bob Diethrich says:

    “black students had a different understanding of what it meant to copy work”

    God do these educrats really believe this BS and double speak or are they just afraid of the site of Al Sharpton and TV cameras outside of their Old Main building on the ten o’clock news?”

    Of course let’s be honest, in order to get representitive numbers of certain minority groups into their schools they had to lower the standards drastically and ended up with “students” who probably had different ideas of intellectual honesty.”

    Ten years ago I encountered this kind of passive, lowered expectations, paternalistic racism in my first graduate class in ed. A young elementary teacher said, “Well everyone knows that when you walk into a predominantly African American classroom they are definitly going to be louder and harder to control!”

    I was a rookie and kept my mouth shut among these veterans but my (mental) jaw dropped. No one batted an eyelash at her statment!”

    In my mind I began running a few other endings to that sentence: “…..going to be less intelligent” “going to be incapable of the same work as white students” etc. I could not believe it.

  24. Richard Brandshaft:
    “Not doing the obvious when being caught mentally off balance is more the rule than the exception.”

    True enough. But if that were all that applied here, why the continued fluttering in hindsight? The question about whether he expected to be hit seems worth exploring, but anyone who needs to ask, “Should a black kid have any reason to tell the truth to a white figure of authority?” much less, “On some level, do all white people owe all black people an apology?” is going to need more than situational training to avoid being “caught off balance.”

  25. Rita C. says:

    Laura, I’d laugh and ask him if he actually thought that line would work.

    You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard.

  26. “Also [and I’ll bet this is the first time you have heard this] I like your girlfriend B., too.”

    That is indeed the first time I have heard this. Of course, I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.

    “I was submitted to re-education, where I was informed that black students had a different understanding of what it meant to copy work, and the statement they had to sign that said “This represents entirely my own work. I have not collaborated with any other student.” was not binding, nor was the contract they signed at the beginning of the semester that stated while students could study with each other, their assignments must be entirely their own efforts.”

    Holy crap, that was offensive! I wonder if he even had the slightest clue that he was spouting a long-winded version of: “black people are morons, and their word is no good”. And he had the nerve to imply that the teacher was racially insensitive!

    Are people really born that stupid, or does it take practice?

  27. Walter Wallis says:

    It does, indeed take practice, and punishment and a total lack of regard for intellectual integrety and honesty. Kinda like an ongoing political campaign.

  28. When the administration bends ever backwards to support the student in any dispute against the faculty it is hard for the faculty to maintain standards.

  29. I think the prison term best applied here is prag.

  30. Tom West says:

    Thinking of cheating rings brings back memories…

    In a high level Comp Sci. course I was taking, the Prof detected a lot of cheating in a long mathematical proof assigned for homework. (This was a computer science course, not a computer programming course.) He nailed a ring of cheaters for that particular question, as they all had the same (somewhat wrong) answer. Of course, the group was pretty easy to pick out of the class.

    They were all the engineering science (computer engineering steam) students – the best and the brightest that the university had to offer. The rest of us were the ho-hum Arts and Science CS majors.

    In their defense, they hated the idea of having being forced to take a course with no practical application (except to tell if a problem was NP-complete :-)) and more tellingly, they made it clear that with the workload they were given (over all their courses), no student could pass if they didn’t share homework (a complaint that had been going on for years…)

    The Prof didn’t buy it, and they all got 0 for the assignment.

    Of course, this was the Prof that was later called to account before the department why the final marks in that course were so low. I was the student rep, so I had to attend the meeting. His quote was “I’ve never seen such a level of mathematical immaturity in senior students. They deserved the marks they were given.” Surrounded by nodding professors, I shrunk into my seat. No marks were adjusted. Of course, being a semi-math geek, that *was* my second favourite course I’ve taken.

  31. In addition to the cheating and racial questions, is anyone else bothered that fill-in questions of this level of simplicity are being posed in college history class tests?

  32. Bob Diethrich says:

    Its not uncommon to see “knowledge level” questions as one part of a test or quiz. You need a basic grasp of the facts first and then take it higher.

    I teach Pre AP sophomores and their usual test consists of 25 MC questions (although they tend to be on a higher level than simple recall) two short paragraphs and a complete essay.