Time Banking and Plagiarism: Does “Soul Destroying” Have An Ethical Interpretation?

Yesterday, I wrote a post on the 40 hour week, to give an industrial basis for the notion of time banking, and I talked about the impact of overwork. One of the things I said was:

The crunch is a common feature in many software production facilities and the ability to work such back-breaking and soul-destroying shifts is often seen as a badge of honour or mark of toughness. (Emphasis mine.)

Back-breaking is me being rather overly emphatic regarding the impact of work, although in manual industries workplace accidents caused by fatigue and overwork can and do break backs – and worse – on a regular basis.

Is it Monday morning already?

But soul-destroying? Am I just saying that someone will perform their tasks as an automaton or zombie, or am I saying something more about the benefit of full cognitive function – the soul as an amalgam of empathy, conscience, consideration and social factors? Well, the answer is that, when I wrote it, I was talking about mindlessness and the removal of the ability to take joy in work, which is on the zombie scale, but as I’ve reflected on the readings more, I am now convinced that there is an ethical dimension to fatigue-related cognitive impairment that is important to talk about. Basically, the more tired you get, the more likely you are to function on the task itself and this can have some serious professional and ethical considerations. I’ll provide a basis for this throughout the rest of this post.

The paper I was discussing, on why Crunch Mode doesn’t work, listed many examples from industry and one very interesting paper from the military. The paper, which had a broken link in the Crunch mode paper, may be found here and is called “Sleep, Sleep Deprivation, and Human Performance in Continuous Operations” by Colonel Gregory Belenky. Now, for those who don’t know, in 1997 I was a commissioned Captain in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps (Reserve), on detachment to the Training Group to set up and pretty much implement a new form of Officer Training for Army Reserve officers in South Australia. Officer training is a very arduous process and places candidates, the few who make it in, under a lot of stress and does so quite deliberately. We have to have some idea that, if terrible things happen and we have to deploy a human being to a war zone, they have at least some chance of being able to function. I had been briefed on most of the issues discussed in Colonel Belenky’s paper but it was only recently that I read through the whole thing.

And, to me today as an educator (I resigned my commission years ago), there are still some very important lessons, guidelines and warnings for all of us involved in the education sector. So stay with me while I discuss some of Belenky’s terminology and background. The first term I want to introduce is droning: the loss of cognitive ability through lack of useful sleep. As Belenky puts in, in the context of US Army Ranger training:

…the candidates can put one foot in front of another and respond if challenged, but have difficulty grasping their situation or acting on their own initiative.

What was most interesting, and may surprise people who have never served with the military, is that the higher the rank, the less sleep people got – and the higher level the formation, the less sleep people got. A Brigadier in charge of a Brigade is going to, on average, get less sleep than the more junior officers in the Brigade and a lot less sleep than a private soldier in a squad. As an officer, my soldiers were fed before me, rested before me and a large part of my day-to-day concern was making sure that they were kept functioning. This keeps on going up the chain and, as you go further up, things get more complex. Sadly, the people shouldering the most complex cognitive functions with the most impact on the overall battlefield are also the people getting the least fuel for their continued cognitive endeavours. They are the most likely to be droning: going about their work in an uninspired way and not really understanding their situation. So here is more evidence from yet another place: lack of sleep and fatigue lead to bad outcomes.

One of the key issues Belenky talks about is the loss of situational awareness caused by the accumulated sleep debt, fatigue and overwork suffered by military personnel. He gives an example of an Artillery Fire Direction Centre – this is where requests for fire support (big guns firing large shells at locations some distance away) come to and the human plotters take your requests, transform them into instructions that can be given to the gunners and then firing starts. Let me give you a (to me) chilling extract from the report, which the Crunch Mode paper also quoted:

Throughout the 36 hours, their ability to accurately derive range, bearing, elevation, and charge was unimpaired. However, after circa 24 hours they stopped keeping up their situation map and stopped computing their pre-planned targets immediately upon receipt. They lost situational awareness; they lost their grasp of their place in the operation. They no longer knew where they were relative to friendly and enemy units. They no longer knew what they were firing at. Early in the simulation, when we called for simulated fire on a hospital, etc., the team would check the situation map, appreciate the nature of the target, and refuse the request. Later on in the simulation, without a current situation map, they would fire without hesitation regardless of the nature of the target. (All emphasis mine.)

Here, perhaps, is the first inkling of what I realised I meant by soul destroying. Yes, these soldiers are overworked to the point of droning and are now shuffling towards zombiedom. But, worse, they have no real idea of their place in the world and, perhaps most frighteningly, despite knowing that accidents happen when fire missions are requested and having direct experience of rejecting what would have resulted in accidental hospital strikes, these soldiers have moved to a point of function where the only thing that matters is doing the work and calling the task done. This is an ethical aspect because, from their previous actions, it is quite obvious that there was both a professional and ethical dimension to their job as the custodians of this incredibly destructive weaponry – deprive them of enough sleep and they calculate and fire, no longer having the cognitive ability (or perhaps the will) to be ethical in their delivery. (I realise a number of you will have choked on your coffee slightly at the discussion of military ethics but, in the majority of cases, modern military units have a strong ethical code, even to the point of providing a means for soldiers to refuse to obey illegal orders. Most failures of this system in the military can be traced to failures in a unit’s ethical climate or to undetected instability in the soldiers: much as in the rest of the world.)

The message, once again, is clear. Overwork, fatigue and sleeplessness reduce the ability to perform as you should. Belenky even notes that the ability to benefit from training quite clearly deteriorates as the fatigue levels increase. Work someone hard enough, or let them work themselves hard enough, and not only aren’t they productive, they can’t learn to do anything else.

The notion of situational awareness is important because it’s a measure of your sense of place, in an organisational sense, in a geographical sense, in a relative sense to the people around you and also in a social sense. Get tired enough and you might swear in front of your grandma because your social situational awareness is off. But it’s not just fatigue over time that can do this: overloading someone with enough complex tasks can stress cognitive ability to the point where similar losses of situational awareness can occur.

Helmet fire is a vivid description of what happens when you have too many tasks to do, under highly stressful situations, and you lose your situational awareness. If you are a military pilot flying on instruments alone, especially with low or zero visibility, then you have to follow a set of procedures, while regularly checking the instruments, in order to keep the plane flying correctly. If the number of tasks that you have to carry out gets too high, and you are facing the stress of effectively flying the plane visually blind, then your cognitive load limits will be exceeded and you are now experiencing helmet fire. You are now very unlikely to be making any competent contributions at all at this stage but, worse, you may lose your sense of what you were doing, where you are, what your intentions are, which other aircraft are around you: in other words, you lose situational awareness. At this point, you are now at a greatly increased risk of catastrophic accident.

To summarise, if someone gets tired, stressed or overworked enough, whether acutely or over time, their performance goes downhill, they lose their sense of place and they can’t learn. But what does this have to do with our students?

A while ago I posted thoughts on a triage system for plagiarists – allocating our resources to those students we have the most chance of bringing back to legitimate activity. I identified the three groups as: sloppy (unintentional) plagiarism, deliberate (but desperate and opportunistic) plagiarism and systematic cheating. I think that, from the framework above, we can now see exactly where the majority of my ‘opportunistic’ plagiarists are coming from: sleep-deprived, fatigued and (by their own hands or not) over-worked students losing their sense of place within the course and becoming focused only on the outcome. Here, the sense of place is not just geographical, it is their role in the social and formal contracts that they have entered into with lecturers, other students and their institution. Their place in the agreements for ethical behaviour in terms of doing the work yourself and submitting only that.

If professional soldiers who have received very large amounts of training can forget where there own forces are, sometimes to the tragic extent that they fire upon and destroy them, or become so cognitively impaired that they carry out the mission, and only the mission, with little of their usual professionalism or ethical concern, then it is easy to see how a student can become so task focussed that start to think about only ending the task, by any means, to reduce the cognitive load and to allow themselves to get the sleep that their body desperately needs.

As always, this does not excuse their actions if they resort to plagiarism and cheating – it explains them. It also provides yet more incentive for us to try and find ways to reach our students and help them form systems for planning and time management that brings them closer to the 40 hour ideal, that reduces the all-nighters and the caffeine binges, and that allows them to maintain full cognitive function as ethical, knowledgable and professional skill practitioners.

If we want our students to learn, it appears that (for at least some of them) we first have to help them to marshall their resources more wisely and keep their awareness of exactly where they are, what they are doing and, in a very meaningful sense, who they are.


4 Comments on “Time Banking and Plagiarism: Does “Soul Destroying” Have An Ethical Interpretation?”

  1. […] for a student to figure it out is high cognitive load, which I’ve referred to before as helmet fire. If students become overwhelmed they learn nothing, so we can explicitly tell students and/or […]

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  2. […] and systematic), trying to get the student to focus on the journey rather than the objective, and how overwork can produce situations in which human beings do very strange things. Recently, I was asked to sit in on another plagiarism hearing and, because I’ve been away […]

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  3. […] written before about the issues of prolonged human workload leading to ethical problems and the fact that working more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis is downright unproductive […]

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  4. […] quality of life. (I’ve written a lot about time before, you can search my blog for time or read this, which is a good summary.) If our design was good, then sacrificing the number of tasks or their […]

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