Adventures in College Teaching – Plagiarism… Again

(Via) You must read this disheartening and dispiriting account by Panos Ipeirotis on his discovery that over 20% of his students plagiarized. Bottom line? He busted them, but that took an enormous amount of time (45 hours… which incidentally is the number of hours of instruction in my classes for a 3-credit class). It got him lower scores on his student evaluations (duh, you must them, they make you pay for it, but where I work, student evaluations are critical for promotion and tenure, and essential for adjunct faculty), which hurt his salary and not much support from his administrators.

“When 1 out of 5 students in the class being involved in a cheating case, the lectures and class discussions became awkward. For the rest of the semester there was a palpable anxiousness in class. Instead of having friendly discussions, the discussions became contentious. Not a pleasant environment.

This, of course, had a direct effect to my teaching evaluations. Instead of the usual evaluations that were in the region of 6.0 to 6.5 out of seven, this time my ratings went down by almost a point: 5.3 out of 7.0. Instead of being a teacher in the upper percentiles, I was now below average.

The Dean’s office and my chair “expressed their appreciation” for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my “teaching evaluations took a hit this year”.”

His chasing down the cheaters also destroyed class morale and atmosphere:

“Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Not only I paid a significant financial penalty for “doing the right thing” (was I?) but I was also lectured by some senior professors that I “should change slightly my assignments from year to year”. (Thanks for the suggestion, buddy, this is exactly how I detected the cheaters.)

Suggestions to change completely the assignments from year to year are appealing on the first sight but they cause others types of problems: It is very difficult to know in advance if an assignment is going to be too easy, too hard, or too ambiguous. Even small-scale testing with TA’s and other faculty does not help. You need to “test” the new assignment by giving it to students. If it is a good one, you want to keep it. If it is a bad one, you just gave to the students a useless exercise.

I also did not like the overall teaching experience, and this was the most important thing for me. Teaching became annoying and tiring. There was a very different dynamic in class, which I did not particularly enjoy. It was a feeling of “me-against-them” as opposed to the much more pleasant “these things that we are learning are really cool!””

Will I pursue cheating cases in the future? Never, ever again!”

I may have mentioned it before, but where I work, plagiarism is epidemic. So, in a way, I am somewhat “glad” to realize that it’s not “my” students. It’s all over the place. Why? A variety of cultural and institutional reasons.

Degradation of the meaning of education and higher education not only in the culture in general but from within academia itself, where college president and administrators are all about the bottom line: boost enrollment, high retention, maximize tuition, education as job training, a bunch of hoops students should jump through to get that degree (or even better, that vocational certificate… takes less time, costs less money) for higher income.

In that context, there is limited interest in education as, you know, education. Certainly, all colleges and universities have student codes of conduct, but the actual enforcement is just trivial. Administrators usually dislike doing that kind of work and institutional sanctions tend to be of the “slap-on-the-wrist” kind.

As Ipeirotis’s account shows, chasing down cheaters leads to one thing: one major headache and time-sink for the faculty. And I agree that the ” me-against-them” mentality that necessarily develops makes teaching difficult and painful as some basic trust between faculty and students has been broken. A mistrustful environment is not conducive to good teaching or learning as assignments become designed not necessarily to achieve some specific educational goal but to be cheating-proof (not that these two things are necessarily incompatible).

So, is the solution NOT to chase down cheaters? Personally, I think that any student who cheats takes me for an idiot, cheapens the institution I work for and debases the knowledge of the discipline I work hard to convey to them. They should not be rewarded with academic credit. And, of course, every grade not earned contributes to grade inflation.

I should also note that plagiarism also seems to ride the wave of online instruction with their standardized courses, but these generate so much money that there is no real concern about the amount of plagiarism going on there. After all, which college of university would accept a lowering in enrollment as it tightens its standards? Would parents accept to have their children thrown out when caught plagiarizing?

I would have to say that, right now, the cultural climate favors cheating and its tolerance.

Institutional Discrimination and Passive Racism

Here again, individual discrimination (active, individual racism) is easy to spot and mostly socially unacceptable in most Western societies. However, harder to detect and more devastating in its social effects is institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination is discrimination in results, that is, discrimination as result of a multitude of institutional practices engaged in by a variety of individuals who are not necessarily individually racist themselves.


“Leading black academics are calling for an urgent culture change at UK universities as figures show there are just 50 black British professors out of more than 14,000, and the number has barely changed in eight years, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Only the University of Birmingham has more than two black British professors, and six out of 133 have more than two black professors from the UK or abroad. The statistics, from 2009/10, define black as Black Caribbean or Black African.

Black academics are demanding urgent action and argue that they have to work twice as hard as their white peers and are passed over for promotion.

A study to be published in October found ethnic minorities at UK universities feel “isolated and marginalised”.

Heidi Mirza, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, is demanding new legislation to require universities to tackle discrimination.

Laws brought in last month give employers, including universities, the option to hire someone from an ethnic minority if they are under-represented in their organisation and are as well-qualified for a post as other candidates. This is known as positive action. Mirza wants the law amended so that universities are compelled to use positive action in recruitment.

She said there were too many “soft options” for universities and there needed to be penalties for those that paid lip-service to the under-representation of minorities. Positive discrimination, where an employer can limit recruitment to someone of a particular race or ethnicity, is illegal.

The HESA figures show black British professors make up just 0.4% of all British professors – 50 out of 14,385.

This is despite the fact that 2.8% of the population of England and Wales is Black African or Black Caribbean, according to the Office for National Statistics. Only 10 of the 50 black British professors are women.”

This means that there are a series of unacknowledged expectations put on Black academics that limit their access to promotion as well as a lack of social network to rely on (so, no benefit from the strength of weak ties). And because this form of discrimination is largely invisible and harder to detect, it is often ignored if not denied as a lot of people think individual discrimination is the only form of discrimination that exists.

And note the double whammy for Black women.

This is also why positive (or affirmative) actions are the best remedy for institutional discrimination, as they tackle institutional issues (discrimination in result) and force institutions to review processes that are otherwise taken for granted and never questioned.

ASA 2009

I am flying out early tomorrow morning to the ASA Annual meeting. As I did last year, I will be writing reports on the sessions I attend. This time, I am bringing my camera, so it will be reports + photos! I am not really all that interested in this year’s topic (to be frank it reeks a bit too much of Obama, as you all know, I am not a fan and the first 200 days have not changed my opinion), but there are quite a few sessions that seem interesting.

So, off to San Francisco it is, assuming the airline industry cooperates!

Book Review – The Violence of Hate

VofH I hve just finished reviewing Jack Levin’s The Violence of Hate – Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Other Forms of Bigotry (website) for its publisher. It is a short and interesting book that is probably more adapted to criminal justice courses than strictly sociology. It is well-written with a lot of examples and stories, and therefore highly readable for undergraduates. Anyone above that level will probably be frustrated.

Despite the inclusive title (but then why are racism and anti-semitism singled out?), the book deal mainly with racial and ethnic issues. Other forms of bigotry (as mentioned in the title) get a really short shrift. There is very little on misogyny or homophobia. Often, when these are mentioned, it is to indicate that racist and anti-semitic prejudices and social psychological mechanisms involved in such prejudices are similar when it comes to women and LGBTs. I understand that to deal thoroughly with gender issues in a broad would require a much longer book, but then, the title should reflect that and limit itself to "confronting racial and ethnic prejudice", that would be more accurate.

At the same time, when dealing with racial and ethnic prejudice, the book largely sticks to American issues. It is also, in my view, a major mistake. There are examples from other countries, of course, but that does not make a global perspective. A few comparisons here and there are just not enough. A quick look at conflicts around the world reveals a lot of ethnic dimensions whether as causes or consequences or both. Similarly, the book largely ignores the global rise of religious fundamentalism around the world and its role in ethnic prejudice, homophobia and misogyny not just in discourse but in practice.

Of course, if one teaches sociology or social psychology, there is little one will learn in this book, we are not the audience, so I won’t count reading yet again about Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo against the book. It is relevant. My issue is with the theory chapter. As a general rule, textbooks deal very very badly with theory. That section is often botched and it is no wonder that students do not get it.

Moreover, textbooks have a tendency to juxtapose one theory next to each other without really explaining their respective validity. Not all theories are equal. Some are better than others. And yet, we often get treated with things like "this is theory 1, it is largely macro, and critics say it ignores micro realities; then here is theory 2, it is micro and critics thinks it does not pay enough attention to macro factors." As a result, students do not get interested in theory, do not see why they should learn them or what a theory is for in the first place.

Unfortunately, this book is no exception in this pattern. Theories and perspectives that have been rather thoroughly debunked are still treated with kid gloves. The Bell Curve is garbage and one should not tapdance around that. The same goes with the Moynihan Report and other culture of poverty types of explanations. As with many textbooks, when I read this textbook, I really felt that the author did not enjoy doing it and did it only because it is a required chapter in all textbook. It comes across as a chore before going to the real stuff that the author is really interested in.

There is nothing really new or groundbreaking in this book. Personally, I get a lot more by reading David Neiwert’s blog on US hate groups. I do not necessarily fault the author for the lack of originality. Textbook publishers are afraid of innovation and they keep churning out textbooks that tend to be clones of each other. Part of me thinks that the textbook is obsolete when there are such great resources online. In this case, maybe, this book is the future, very short with just the basic background, and it would be up to the individual instructor to find additional resources elsewhere to make a course interesting.

This book is not for a Sociology of Violence course. It is not broad, global and thorough enough. It is good, though, as a introduction to explaining racial and ethnic prejudice.

The Labor Market for Sociologists… Down

I am intrigued by the "open search / more than one rank" category… if my college is any indication, it might mean position that were advertised but won’t be filled and yet, colleges have not closed the search. Or, as happened here again, the colleges and universities got smaller pools than usual and are keeping the searches open, waiting for the perfect candidate. (We were lucky, we did get the perfect candidate)

SocProf Supports William I. Robinson

[Updated below for more ugliness]

WIR William I. Robinson is one of my favorite sociologists on globalization. Bar none. His book, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World is one of the most thorough and fascinating account of globalization I have ever read. He is now under attack because of two students who found course materials offensive and are accusing him of anti-semitism.

I heard about this case via Doug Henwood’s blog (who does not pull punches either.

These charges are absurd and it would appear that in a rush to appease the students, the University has already violated its own process to investigate students’ grievances.

The course materials that Professor Robinson sent were absolutely appropriate for the content of his course (and the students do not get to decide that, nor other faculty) and the students were not required to agree with the position expressed in them.

Other students have rallied behind Professor Robinson and created a website where all documents related to the case (students complaints, ADL letter, Robinson’s responses, etc.) are post for all to see.

The UCSB students are fortunate to have a scholar of the caliber of William Robinson teaching there. There is a lot they can learn from him, his rigorous analysis of globalization and social conflicts, and his ability to make complex concepts crystal clear. He is a superb social theorist of globalization.


Why The Mainstream Media is Useless

Almost everyone in the soc blogosphere has been linking to a New York Times article talking about how bad the economy is for the academic labor market. Unfortunately, none of them exercised a bit of critical analysis. We have to rely on Marc Bousquet for that:

In other words, what we are seeing is just a worsening of a preexisting trend:

Sociologist as 8th Best Job in America

Don’t get me wrong, I have no complaints about my job as sociologist but I’m quite sure I work more than 45 hours (and that’s not even counting the blogging). I attribute this to the systematic underestimation of the number of hours academics work. Most people assume we just teach, so, our teaching hours are our working hours. Even for a community college faculty like me, whose main duty is teaching, one would have to add office hours, committee work (which can be quite extensive), prep hours, grading hours (and I’m a meanie, so, I give a lot of homework, which translate into a lot of hours of grading) and other miscellaneous stuff. That adds up to more than 45 hours.

Lloyd Ohlin – (1918 – 2008)

Via New Soc Prof (who should be working on her geographical literacy! :-)):

as New Soc Prof writes,

Indeed, Cloward and Ohlin’s approach, often called "opportunity theory", refers to the fact that, based on a social structure that distributes opportunities (or life chances?) unequally, some people’s opportunities for social mobility will be illegal as legal channels are more or less blocked to them. Illegitimate opportunity structures are central to engaging in criminal behavior… and shapes what kind of deviant behavior people can engage in.

Engaging in insider trading is an opportunity only available to certain social classes and not others whereas robbing gas stations is an opportunity for others down the social ladder. Fror instance, from the presence or absence of certain structures of opportunities, Cloward and Ohlin derived three types of gangs – criminal, conflict or retreatist – whose activities were determined by the surrounding social structure.

And as obvious from the quotes above, Lloyd Ohlin did not need any incentive to engage in public sociology and put his sociological work to practice. The incoming administration might to well to take a look at his body of work.

Why French High Schools Should Teach Sociology and Economics Together

This is my rough summary / interpretation of Denis Colombi‘s blog post on the topic. Both my French fellow socbloggers Pierre Maura and Denis Colombi have been on strike and have demonstrated against a proposed reform of high school curriculum that would butcher the SES (Economic and Social Sciences) track. It is also in the context of a report advocating the separation of economics from the other social sciences that Colombi writes his post.

For him, to separate sociology and economics, in the context of general education in high schools, would be a serious mistake. There are sound educational reasons for their joining not only for the sake of social scientific education or general education, but especially for the development of critical thinking skills as necessary component of citizenship.

So why, then, teach sociology and economics together?

  • A similar apprehension of the social world

Sociology and economics are both social sciences… This should be obvious but quite often, in the media and common discourse, only one discipline is treated as a science, guess which one. What economists do is clear, what sociologists do, well, not so clear. At worst, sociology is seen as the discipline of hippies or worse, just seen as a variant of social work. Actually, analysts such as Thomas Frank have aptly demonstrated that orthodox economics can also be seen as a religion with its high priests, rituals and dogma.

However, whether recognized or not, both disciplines strive to objectively analyze social life and human activities in their social context. The social scientist applies the scientific method, which involves some distanciation from its object. This cognitive effort is the necessary preamble to any empirical study but it is actually harder to accomplish in the social sciences than in the natural sciences. This mental discipline is the first prerequisite of the social scientist (as I often tell my students, being a sociologist will make your life miserable).

From this perspective, sociology and economics are complementary: both require such objectivation, but they also have their distinctive approach to their objects of study although there is some overlap, Freakanomics showed that social objects can be studied economically, and we already know that economic sociology is a fertile field. The Durkheimian precept of eschewing commonsense and preconceptions remains valid for both disciplines, treat social facts as things. Leave ideologies behind, except as objects of study.

  • Sociology and Economics Share a Long History

The problem that arises then, for Colombi, is a familiar one for sociologists: economics, history and psychology have easy subject matters to identify and some degree of scientific respectability. What of sociology? Colombi argues that there is actually greater affinity between sociology and economics than with the disciplines listed above.

Indeed, the founding fathers of sociology, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Pareto, or Simmel positioned their work with respect to economics and they certainly did not eschewed economic topics: division of labor, sociological explanations of economic behaviors and socio-economic changes, money. Colombi argues that sociology was born as reaction to economics. Since then, the relationships between the disciplines have not stopped, for better and for worse. Neither discipline can ignore the other as Colombi mentions the work of sociologists James Coleman or Jon Elster (the rational choice approach) as integration of economics into sociological analysis through their conceptualizations of social capital, for instance. And then, again, there is the entire field of economic sociology (but no sociological economics that I know of… the directionality is revealing… I would argue that sociologists are less reluctant to borrow insights from other social sciences in general and economics in particular, than the other way around even though economists borrow easily from psychology or history).

Now, from a strict institutional point of view, considering the disciplinary organization of academia both in terms of teaching and research, it makes sense to have separate departments even though there are constant academic discussions of interdisciplinarity and academic structures. But, for Colombi, at the high school level, we are talking about introductory courses where it makes sense to present both disciplines together to impart a minimum corpus of social scientific knowledge, outlining similarities and differences.

  • A Partially Common Epistemological Project

Both disciplines look for "laws" of society that govern behavior. This may seem like an old-fashioned and positivist way of putting it and early sociologists clearly saw the problems with putting things that way when it comes to human societies. Nevertheless, both disciplines look for predictive properties of social conditions and contexts (historical, social and economic). Now, no doubt here that economics tends to be more formal (in the sense of producing formal models) whereas sociology might be a more "historical" science (heck, just dig up Mill’s Sociological Imagination). These differences constitute a great learning oppotunity for students.

  • Points of Convergences and Dialogues

Why deprive students of the lively debates between the two disciplines through their proximity on certain topics rather than just present it to them as a cold canon "This is what sociology does, this is what economics does… it will be on the test, see you all next week."? For Colombi, it is such debates, doubts and uncertainties that make the social sciences come to life as interesting disciplines (I particularly love the way Denis describes these points of convergence: "heuristically fruitful… pedagogically useful"… I could never write like that!). For instance, Colombi uses examples from the study of collective action or the market as illustrations of topics where both disciplines contribute to illuminating different aspects of a given phenomenon.

  • Complementary Approaches to Understand Current Events

The point of the French system of secondary education is to produce citizens (and not just to cram for the bac!… no… really?), that is, to given students the critical thinking tools to understand the world in which they live. In this context, the pairing of sociology and economics makes sense as they help make sense of current events as they occur. Two tool boxes are better than one. It should be obvious to anyone, for instance, that understanding the current economic crisis requires the tools of both social sciences (but not limited to them). And how can we not discuss unemployment without discussing the socializing and integrating role of work and its importance in the development of networks (and the marginalization that results from the lack of such networks, as powerfully illustrated by Lapeyronnie’s study of the urban ghetto).

Students are constantly faced with media discourse that uses social scientific concepts and knowledge (not as much as I would like though). To understand and to be critical of such discourse requires knowing "the language" and the approaches. A one-sided education (limited to economics, for instance) would truncate students’ capacities to fully grasp and critically examine such discourse.

Finally, for Colombi, social-scientific education is one of the great education successes of the past fifty years. Why break it if it works?