Stealing the Answers: Prevaricators in the Classroom
James E. McWilliams, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 14
When the last accused cheater arrived at my office door (at my request), he appeared defiant and intimidating. “Yeah, uh, you wanted to see me,” he sneered. The young man stood in the doorway, his arms crossed in front of his chest; he stared intently past me, out my window, and smirked when I asked him to have a seat. He refused. I asked him again, adding “please.” He rolled his eyes and remained standing. It was a bad start to a meeting that seven full years of graduate school hadn’t prepared me to handle.
There’s no clearer sign of my professorial greenness than the fact that I teach a history class with 375 students and am dumb enough to give routine quizzes that cannot be run through a Scantron machine. My four TA’s find my aversion to multiple-guess exams quaint but nonetheless tolerate my quirky idealism with good-natured patience. To make matters more complicated (for them), I scramble the order of the questions on each test. It’s a surefire way to nab the practitioners of the all too common art of cheating.
This time we caught eight. 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.” Whammo.
Pretty irrefutable, right?
Seven of the cheaters certainly thought so. My conversations with them were a variation on this theme:
Me: “I strongly suspect that you cheated on this quiz.”
Prevaricator: “What? No, I didn’t. I never cheat.”
Me: “Do you think Andrew Jackson is an Indian nation?”
Me: “Do you think Andrew Jackson is an Indian nation?”
Prevaricator: “Of course not.”
Me (unveiling the evidence): “Then I strongly suspect that you cheated on this quiz.”
Prevaricator (long sigh, furrowed brow, occasional tears): “Yeah, OK, I did.”
At this point I typically adopt a paternalistic pose and recite the riot act, give the cheaters a zero, and warn them never, ever, under any circumstances to cheat again. I remind them that scientific evidence proves that cheating rots the soul. I tell them that the registrar ensures that such an act is conspicuously mentioned on the final transcript. My little talk, I’d like to think, has something of a life-shaping impact on them.
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.”
He caught me completely off guard, but I still managed to respond, “Fine, then am I right?”
The next few seconds were a blur. Mr. J7 took two sharp steps forward and began yelling wildly. For an instant I seriously thought he was going to hit me, if not toss me out the window. I remember noticing that my hands were shaking. The situation was unraveling beyond my control. A couple of colleagues gathered in the hallway. But at least I was holding the damning evidence in front of me like two small shields. And at least through his sustained outburst (I recall hearing “sick and tired” over and over again) I managed to yell, “Just look at these, will you?” Then, without really intending to, I gasped a rather commonplace but evidently effective expletive.
He stopped, grabbed the papers out of my hands, slammed them on my desk, and studied the evidence. I stood behind him, now next to my door, and watched him shake his head repeatedly. My heart was slamming into my chest. And then, for a brief moment, I was relieved. He looked as if he was going to confess. God, I wanted this incident to be done with. Please, I thought, just admit the truth and let me get back on script. Please, please, let me go eight for eight.
Turns out, however, that Mr. J7 was shaking his head not in regret but rather as if to say, “What a moron you are.” And then he sat down. 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? Should a black kid have any reason to tell the truth to a white figure of authority? Am I gutless? Should I have been truly race-blind and treated J7 as I would have treated a wealthy white frat boy? On some level, do all white people owe all black people an apology? Did this kid just play me like a fiddle?
With a Ph.D. in history, I know a thing or two about race in America. And if my student evaluations are worth anything, I teach the subject well. Perusing hundreds of books and articles has ensured my expertise on the matter, while hours of classroom lecturing have honed my delivery of this precious and powerful information. If, before the arrival of J7 in my life, I’d been asked to evaluate my confrontation with this student as a hypothetical situation, I certainly would have been able to craft a judicious and tactful response. After all, it’s my job to address questions with reasonable answers. That’s what they pay me to do around here.
But J7 stumped me. When he swaggered out of my office, disgusted that I had yet to apologize, he left me with a pile of questions, each one of which seemed to evoke the same answer: “Yes … no … maybe.” I sat at my desk and truly wished I could have just looked over and swiped the answers from someone else, someone who was better prepared, someone with more experience. But, alas, such an opportunity will never be mine to exploit.
James E. McWilliams is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos.