Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Helping, Cheating, or Marketing?

A returning correspondent writes:

I teach history in the major university in my area. Every year I get
3-4 emails from high school students who want help with their papers.
They often describe their topic with a phrase that sounds suspiciously
like a high school essay question. High school instructors seem to
feel that students are showing "initiative" by asking somebody else to
do their work for them. With time, my initial sense of outrage over
the laziness of students has given way to resignation.

The new development, however, comes from the dean of my school, who
recently forwarded me such an email, and then followed up the next
day: was I able to help the student? The request made me very
uncomfortable: I didn't want to say no to the dean. I asked the head
of programme what he thought, and he wrote the dean for me. The HoP
pointed out that we may as faculty be undermining the high school
teacher, that students we help may get an unfair advantage, and that
anyway students have terrible research skills and nead the practice.
He said he'd advised me not to respond, but that it was my call.

The dean wrote back acknowledgint these points, but suggested we
should always reply to such requests. Evidently it's good PR with our
future students. She also seemed to think that this particular student
was "a cut above" the average student requesting help, which wasn't my
impression at all.

I called the dean every 45 minutes during the last workday to discuss
the issue, but never got a hold of her. I didn't want to write
anything in an email. In the end, I wrote the student a very minimal
book recommendation. However, I regret it and feel dirty about it. I
also can't help wonder why the dean took such an interest in this
case. Is the student is somehow related to the dean ... a friend's
daughter, or something?

Maybe it’s me, but I’ve never heard of this, and can’t imagine doing it.

My first thought is that if a student calls looking for help researching a paper, direct her to the reference desk at the library. A good reference librarian will not only steer her to useful and valid sources, but will also be conversant in the teaching of research ethics. That will give the student ethically unimpeachable help, show the student how to do her own work, and get her out of your hair without you actually refusing discussion. There’s no shame in a referral.

If you aren’t comfortable with that, but still feel the need to help the student somehow, there’s always the old “suggest a source” approach. Again, a student whose motives are entirely honorable will find it helpful, but the student looking for a free paper won’t.

I wouldn’t call the dean every 45 minutes; if a professor did that with me, I’d assume some sort of major emergency (or major dysfunction). Just make an appointment and, when it comes, explain your misgivings and ask if there’s more to the picture.

The closest analogue I can come up with in my experience is the random email application for an adjunct class. Every so often, someone will just pull my email address from the campus website and email me a letter and cv, asking for a class or two. Experience has taught me to just forward it to the relevant program, along with a noncommittal note along the lines of “as you will...” I then respond to the applicant saying, truthfully, that I’ve forwarded it along.

It’s possible that the dean was relatively indifferent to the content of your response, but was just concerned that there was one. (From a PR perspective, there’s a world of difference between a minimal response and a non-response. The former can look professional, but the latter comes off as disrespectful.) If that’s the case, then the matter is fairly trivial. Refer the student to the reference desk or a favorite source, assure the dean that you’ve answered the query, and call it good.

Yes, it’s also possible that there’s something more nefarious going on, but I prefer to save those explanations for when other explanations fail. In this case, they haven’t yet.

Good luck! I hope this turns out to be little more than concern that the email didn’t get summarily deleted.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen anything like this? How would you handle it?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.