For lack of better ideas, I decided to make my students’ final exam that they had to prepare a group presentation about some aspect of Western culture that interests them and “teach” it to the class. Considering they could choose virtually anything, there are some odd choices: jeans, the Great Depression, Mark Twain, etiquette in Africa, Henry VIII, perfume, the Romance of France, the gays, Harvard…. There is one group in each of my seven classes doing American weddings, several groups doing Disney or cartoons, several doing basketball, two doing wine (God knows none of them have probably ever tasted decent (ie, non-Chinese) wine), and three doing cowboys.
But one thing I am requiring of them, which was at first highly baffling, was that they turn in a list of the sources that they used to do their research for the presentations. To expand on this, this week I taught a lesson on academic integrity and how to do citations—something I don’t think a single one of these English education majors had any experience with.
We can name all kinds of reasons, from Confucian philosophy to the structure of the Chinese education system, for why the Chinese have been known to struggle with what Westerners would consider clear-cut rules about what it means to do original work and what it means to copy. For one thing, children learn from a young age that the thing that matters in school is that they score well on the test. There isn’t much to it other than that. Elementary school students sit in classrooms with perhaps 70 or more students, absorbing information from a teacher and preparing to regurgitate it on exams, exams, exams. So yeah, it’s not at all surprising that China can pull out the highest standardized test scores in the world. Yes, that is these students’ raison d’etre, but no, they can’t do much else with it. As long as you can succeed on tests, and do it consistently, you’ll do well all the way through school, do well on the gao kao college entrance exam, and get sent to a good university. Once you’re there, there are more tests to be passed, and other than that the actual schooling doesn’t matter very much. Sometimes it seems like universities are little more than diploma mills—even at my university here, which is government-regulated and one of the best in this region, I’m not allowed to fail students, or else my department will change the grades. That student of mine who has literally missed three months of school? I’m going to fail her, but I already know that grade isn’t going to stick. But that’s a side note.
Anyway, given the emphasis on testing, it’s little surprise that students internalize, early on, that they must pass the tests however they can. Reason number one that cheating is so widespread. When exams are given, there are often multiple proctors stationed throughout the room to try to discourage cheating, but that’s not enough. We’ve heard stories of students getting creative, writing answers on their clothes or the like. I had friends who took the GRE in China in early October—yep, the exam in which all scores, nationwide, were canceled because there was so much cheating. Said friends (other PCVs) mentioned seeing students blatantly talking, looking at others’ answer sheets, erasing answers, etc, after “pencils down” had been called—and were still not stopped by the proctors.
Plus, there are different cultural associations with cheating—not letting your friend cheat off you would make you a bad friend or cause you to lose face, or the like. Not to mention, why do it yourself and do it badly if someone else can do it better and has already done it? Students will turn in “essays” that are straight-up copy-paste jobs from Wikipedia. If there’s one thing China, as a whole, is good at, it’s faking it—taking that handbag, that electronic, that idea, and doing it again and again and again, perfectly. Have to invent something yourself, or have to come up with your own original idea for an essay—well, that’s another story.
Soooo back to my class. A lesson on academic integrity. I introduced the concept with a little quiz—tell me out loud, class, which of the following would be considered cheating in the West? Copying an entire essay from the Internet? Cheating, yes. Taking that Internet essay, but paraphrasing it into your own words? All classes unanimously agreed that this was not cheating. Collaborating on an assignment that you were supposed to complete on your own got a mixed response. So did having your friend mark you as present for an attendance-required class that you miss. Tricky.
I showed them the Stanford Honor Code, which surprised them with its rules that copying from someone else *or* letting someone copy you are both violations. I explained that faculty are not allowed to proctor tests to demonstrate their faith in the honor code, and said that despite this I never observed any cheating on any exam I took. The students laughed. I touched briefly on how this is a problem in China—the GRE example, or various plagiarism scandals in Chinese scholarship. They were embarrassed (I enjoy making them squirm sometimes). We moved on, and I taught them about MLA formatting and how to do basic citations. They seemed more comfortable with the idea of the 4+ research sources I’m requiring them to find, use, and enumerate for their final presentations.
At that point in the lesson, we turned to discussion. In small groups, talk about: (1) why is academic integrity so important? Do you agree that it should be this important, or do you disagree? (2) Why do you think these different standards have evolved in China versus elsewhere? (3) What can you, as individuals or as part of your generation, do about this problem?
Students got passionate, and it was probably the best discussion I’ve ever seen them engage in. They talked about how important these standards are, and about how and why there is so much temptation, pressure, and precedent to cheat. They talked about fairness and the importance of honor in the Chinese character, and friction with traditional emphases on harmony and repeating the works of one’s predecessors. They talked about how change needed to come from the top-down—government or university policies, harsher penalties, more emphasis on originality or reform to the education system—and from the bottom up—what they can do as future teachers, especially. Of course there were cynics too. There were students here or there who seemed to think this whole academic integrity thing was overrated. One commented that if penalties in the West were as lax as they are in China—I had explained the punishments given to violators of the Stanford honor code, like suspension, expulsion, etc—everyone there would cheat too.
Did one lesson seriously reverse a lifetime of perceptions about cheating and honesty? Probably not. But I do think it might have made a real difference with some of them, at least, and if it only just gets them thinking about these issues and their roles as future teachers, then that’s a victory. I’m looking forward to seeing how they butcher MLA on their source lists. And I’m wondering if I’m going to get less plagiarism from them on this assignment and next semester.