And more on the Harvard Scandal: Scandal? Apparently it’s not?

I’ve just read a Salon article regarding the Harvard cheating issue. Apparently, according to Farhad Manjoo, these students should be “celebrated for collaborating“.

Note that word? It’s the one that I picked on in the Crimson article and the reason that I did so is that it’s a very mild word, and a very positive one at that. However, this article, while acknowledging that the students were prevented from any such sharing, Manjoo then asks, to me somewhat disingenuously, “What’s the point of prohibiting these students from working together?”

Urm, well, for most of the course, they don’t. At the end of the course, when they want to see how much each individual knows, they attempt to test them individually. That’s not an unusual pattern.

Manjoo’s interpretation of the other articles goes well beyond anything else that I’ve seen, including putting all of the plagiarism claims together as group work and tutor consultation. I can’t speak to this as I don’t have his sources but, given that this was explicitly forbidden anyway, he’s making an empty argument. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, if students worked together, they did something that they weren’t supposed to do. However Manjoo argues that their actions are justified, I’m not sure that this argument is.

The author obviously disagrees with the nature of the open book test and, to my reading, has no real idea of what he’s talking about. Sentences like “But if you want to determine how well students think, why force them to think alone?” are almost completely self-defeating. It also ignores the need to build knowledge in a way that functions when the group isn’t there. We don’t use social constructivism in the assumption that we will always be travelling in packs, we do it to assist the construction of knowledge inside the individual by leveraging the advantages of the social structure. To evaluate how well it has happened, and to isolate group effects so that we can see the individual performing, we use rules such as Harvard clearly defined to set these boundaries.

Manjoo waxes rhetorical in this essay. “Rather than punishing these students, shouldn’t we be praising them for solving these problems the only way they could? ” Well, no, I think that we shouldn’t. There were many ways that, if they thought this approach was unreasonable or unfair, they could have legitimately protested. I note that half the class managed to not (apparently, as far as the number suspected) cheat during this test – what do we say about these people? Are these people worthy of double-plus-praise for somehow transcending the impossible test, or are they fools for not collaborating?

I’m not sure why these articles are providing so much padding for these students, if they have actually done nothing wrong (I hasten to add that they are merely suspected at the moment but if they are to be martyrs then let us assume a bleak outcome). At least, unlike the writers in the Crimson, Manjoo is a Cornell alumnus so he has some distance. I do note that he has a book called “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” which, according to the reviews, is about the media establishing views of reality that aren’t necessarily the facts so he’s aware of the impact that his words have on how people will see this issue. He is also writing in a column with, among its bylines, “The Conventional Wisdom Debunked”, so it’s not surprising that this article is written this way.

Manjoo has created (another) Harvard bogeyman: scared of collaboration, unfair to students, and out of step with reality. However, his argument is ultimately a series of misdirections and Manjoo’s opinion that don’t address the core issue: if these students worked with each other, they shouldn’t have. Until he accepts that this, and that this is not a legitimate course, I’m not sure that his arguments have much weight with me.


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