It has happened now three times. Someone asks me for help with their homework. Nothing wrong with that, I am always glad to since teaching has been my job for the last 20 years.
The first time was when I was still a professor in California. I had bonded with a student, a young woman from Punjab since, you guessed it, I was the only professor around with an interest in her country. We talked sarees, Bollywood superstars and her intention to join law enforcement in the US. One day, she came asking me for help with an assignment from another professor. I don’t understand what he wants, he doesn’t explain things in details, you are the best teacher, could you help me? Sure, if you’re going to stroke my ego, I will help you, I am not above vanity! So, I read the first page of the assignment and explain, and write and draw charts and look up stuff on Google while chatting about it with her sitting next to me. Good, first page done. Flip page. Nothing on it but a more detailed explanation of the paper to be handed in. She smiles in victory. I had just done most of her homework. I had been had.
Last spring, our neighbor contacts us because her son needs help with this French homework. He’s taking summer courses to advance in his studies and has to perform a skit in French with other students. Could I help with the translation? I was in France at that time, trying to find my way out of a maze of bureaucracy and paperwork. Sure, I will find a few minutes to review a couple of paragraphs written by a 15-year-old, how long could that take? Ah, I was wrong. I received a full page of English writing on the topic of French fashion, with clear instructions not only to translate it, but to adapt it to the way a French person would talk and perceive other people’s clothes. I stared at the email for a few minutes and decided it would be faster to do the homework than to argue with our neighbor that this doesn’t fall under the definition of “help”.
Then I became smart! A few weeks ago, at 10 pm, I got a call from an acquaintance asking me to help her son out of a bind with his homework. She’s awfully proud of her son, as he’s currently enrolled in an American university, the success of his family. I get his Skype name and we start to chat. When is the assignment due? In two hours? How long ago have you known about it? No response. What’s your topic? I don’t have one, whatever you’re an expert in. Could you ask for an extension? He doesn’t allow that. (invisible eye roll). Then I see the email he sent his mom, which states, and I quote: “she [meaning me] has to find the articles (…) whatever she reads she can summarise and say why I can use it with this topic”. I am stunned. He’s cheating and he knows it. He’s asking for his mom’s connections to commit academic fraud. And she sees nothing wrong with that.
This is seriously problematic. In the last case, I didn’t do his homework and he understood pretty quickly that I had no intention to. I directed him towards the online library of his university and left him there, so to speak.
This brings several points for Western educators.
- Students cheat. No big news here.
- Do not take it for granted that students know how to use your fancy online libraries.
- The definition of the word “help” is different for everyone. Even my little bitty school kids say “help” when they mean “do it for me”.
- Indian families, due to the incredible opportunities afforded to someone with a good education, put tremendous pressure on their children to succeed, especially sons. Sometimes at any cost. The cost is financial of course, but includes also cheating, seen as a means to justify the ends. Around this time of year, when national exam results are posted, the number of suicides increases drastically. It is common to read about imposters taking test (they even made a movie about it “The Three Idiots”). Recently, pictures of parents and friends climbing the outside walls of a university several stories high, to give their loved ones cheat sheets while taking a national test went viral. It goes further: a friend told us about interviewing someone on the phone for a job, liking the person, only to have someone else show up for the face-to-face interview.
- There are two facets to academic dishonesty: the plain cheating described above, and the lack of understanding of intellectual property in Western scholarship. While I was lamenting the latter, one of E.’s colleagues said “in all fairness, they never teach us that in schools here”. I have also seen it in my school: the kids are taught by the young teachers to copy the answer directly from the text provided instead of writing their own sentences. It’s a tough job to take into account education styles across cultures while avoiding judgment.
Culturally, Indians don’t say no. They don’t refuse. During our first trip together here, we were caught in a bind when we had asked Sathya to work for us one extra day. We later understood that his beating around the bush had to be understood as “no, sorry, I can’t”. Unfortunately, we were dumb and didn’t yet know how to read the subtext. That made for an interesting day where we could hear his wife on the phone yelling at him for not being where she wanted him to be! They also often won’t admit defeat, in fear of losing face. The books I had read about Indian culture before moving here stated that. Experiencing it is, however, rather unsettling. It ranges from “Madam you were not here when I came to fix the lamp”, to more damaging business claims. Christopher Taylor Barry wrote a rather funny piece in the Huffington post about his experiences. So, for me, saying “No, I will not help you cheat, and if you push me I will call the Dean of your school” is not an option. I have to finagle my way around it. Bear in mind that the acquaintance I am talking about actually has some clout over our life and could rapidly make it difficult if she wanted to.
This morning, the Delhi law minister was arrested for having a fake law degree. I have said it before, I don’t like it when stereotypes come true.