We don’t talk about cheating at Yale. We do talk extensively about plagiarism, because the administration seems to believe that plagiarism is the only kind of academic dishonesty that smart, well-mannered Yalies could ever be guilty of.
But let’s speak seriously. Cheating — as in cheating on tests and exams, often aided by smartphones — occurs with alarming visibility at Yale. At my friend’s birthday dinner this fall, someone I didn’t know very well said, “It’s very easy to cheat during exams. You just sit toward the back and pull out your phone.”
I was dumbfounded by how unbothered he was with both the ease and frequency of cheating at Yale. But it also made sense. Yale has a number of high-anxiety students who fear experiencing failure of any shade. My dinner companion’s words made me recall when a friend texted me during an exam with a question about the exam. I was stunned when I saw the text as I left the examination room — that someone would have the gall to attempt such a risky move. I remembered his words again when, during a midterm this fall, it seemed like 60 percent of the class left to go to the bathroom. The fact that a question on the midterm was easily Googleable — “what is a balance sheet recession?” — made the bathroom-frequenting all the more suspect.
I pointed out how suspicious this was to my professor, who at the next class meeting said, “There seems to have been a crisis of incontinence during the midterm. Someone told me about it, and rest assured it will not happen during the final.” Someone behind me whispered, “Who would do that? What a loser.” Yale should have a culture where such an endorsement of cheating, however implicit, should elicit such public shame that it may be thought but should never be said.
But on the topic of losers, who loses when students cheat? Yale as a community does. Grades are not definitive, but they help determine departmental honors, election to Phi Beta Kappa and job interview invitations. Because grades can determine matters of consequence, Yale should do its best to ensure the grades it issues capture academic achievement, measured however imperfectly, for the sake of fairness. Not to mention, we as a community recognize that grades are important. Just look at how spirited a discussion we had about grade deflation last year.
It makes sense that the administration doesn’t like to talk about academic dishonesty. Cases of cheating reflect poorly on Yale and its students, who are supposed to be above such base behavior. But if we don’t ensure that exams take place with more integrity, we disadvantage students who have put forth bona fide effort and put students with ill-gotten gains on paths toward attractive jobs and graduate school. To imagine someone who has cheated his or her way through college now studying to become a doctor is terrifying.
So what should we do about it? First, we should standardize exam procedures across courses to bar any cell phone use during exams. An easy way would be to collect cell phones in bins before exams or, as the French department does it, to leave your phone in a visibly inaccessible place during the exam, like under your desk. There is no legitimate use for your phone during an exam, considering that teaching assistants can easily communicate how much test-taking time remains. And though this solution may seem paternalistic and conveys to students that professors do not trust them, the harm of cheating is so great that when possible, we must remove even the temptation to do so.
Secondly, we should urge professors to be mindful that cheating does occur and empower them to prevent its occurrence. When I brought up the fact that 60 percent of the class was going to the bathroom, my professor first consoled me by iterating his zero-tolerance policy toward cheaters. But, I pointed out, if he were to do nothing to surveil his students, the punishment is costly but the risk of being caught is so low that cheating begins to look attractive. Realizing I had made a valid point, he went to the bathroom to see for himself.
Yale should do the same and see the problem for itself, by reviewing the state of affairs and reforming exam policies to prevent cheating as much as possible. Academic dishonesty has no place in developing intellectual and moral capacities, and as such, Yale should act meaningfully to ensure it remains an institution of integrity.
Melody Wang is a junior in Morse College. Contact her at email@example.com.