Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review Policies, or Review Attitudes?

Remember those Disney made-for-tv movies you used to watch when you were a kid? The ones where the protagonist is a shy, social awkward and generally 'unpopular' kid (a sort of teenage everyman, or perhaps 'every-teen') in an American high-school who dreams of one day being a 'popular' kid, and taking the head cheerleader/most 'popular' girl to the prom? There were so bloody many of them, and the set-up was usually used in teen t.v series as well. Hell, the core dynamic of Glee, one of the most successful teen high-school shows of recent years is 'unpopular' kids struggling against the social hierarchy of the stereotypical American high-school. Bloody Hell, there was even a show actually called "Popular" which followed this 'teen-drama-for-dummies' handbook!
There is one particular set-piece in this genre (if I can call it that) of teen dramas that comes to mind, and that's the whole complicated relationship between the 'unpopular' protagonist, and his 'popular' opposite number, usually the antagonist, although sometimes a secret friend, who has to keep their friendship hidden so as not to damage their reputation.
Typically, the 'unpopular' kid will be intelligent and nerdy, while the 'popular' kid will be a moron, but good at sports (where the idea that the two were incompatible comes from, I don't know). Often, a situation will arise whereby our 'unpopular' hero will be presented with an opportunity to interact with our jock character (often a bully) as a remedial tutor, helping the idiot to bring his grades up so he can continue to play whatever sport he happens to be the star of for the school. Often this occurs when the team's coach is no longer able to cheat the academic system/blackmail their colleges/etc. This 'hilarious' scenario, when eventually (and unfailingly) successful thereby allows the jock to continue winning glory and (probably) sex on the playing field, while the nerd is rewarded with the grudging respect/friendship of the jock, which is perceived to be his ticket/stepping stone (depending how long they want to drag this shit out) to the 'popular' kids' lunch table in the cafeteria, and eventually into the love interest panties.
I bring this up because of an article in last Saturday's Irish times (March 12th), entitled "College to review plagiarism and ethics policies", by Lorna Siggins. The article in question deals with planned review of the aforementioned policies by Galway-Mayo I.T. in the wake of an incident at the college whereby members of staff are causing a bit of a stink over the apparent mishandling of a case of plagiarism.
According to the article, a postgraduate business student (masters level) allegedly made use of a lecturer's instructor's manual (which includes model answers to questions and is supposedly only accessible with a password obtained directly from the manual's publisher by the lecturer) in the written and verbal presentation of analysis by masters students in November 2009. It is "alleged" (to quote the article) that a lecturer knowingly gave the student their password.
The lecturer assessing the presentation of analysis noted "significant similarities" (again quoting the article) between the student's answers and the manual's model answers. "It is understood" (I love the oh-so-careful wording of this article) that it was this assessing lecturer who brought this issue to her head of department. It is also "understood" (oh the depth of subtle meaning imbued in that word) that at this point she was asked if she was aware that the student in question was a member of a senior G.A.A. team in Galway.
When our intrepid, justice-seeking heroine received no response or follow-up to her initial complaint, she decided to pursue the matter, only to be told that the incident of "alleged" plagiarism was "minor".
Whoah the fuck up a second! Plagiarism occurs all the time, as most people know when they pull an all-nighter on an essay, nick a paragraph from Wikipedia, re-word it and slap in a quote/some statistics to cover their tracks. And no, its not proper or by-the-rules, but its what I would describe as "minor" plagiarism. This guy gained access to the fucking lecturer's course handbook!!! Probably with a lecturer's consent, if they are as securely restricted as they sound, and assuming this guy does not possess mad hacking skills.
to cut a long story short, the matter was reviewed, the accused student docked 50% on his grade for that assignment (the one he got caught cheating on) and the college is reviewing its procedures for dealing with complaints of plagiarism (this being the latest of several similar controversial incidents at the college).
But lets look at what set this particular incident in motion. Access to the instructor's manual. Assuming that realistically, the student did not hack into his lecturer's computer, and was instead given the password (which gives us our most plausible answer to the question of 'How'), the question of Why is our next stop. The fact that the guy plays GAA is almost completely irrelevant, until we take into account the reaction of the department to the accusing lecturer's initial complaint. Kind of gives away the whole game really.
Which brings me back to my introductory paragraph. the apparent motivation behind this whole incident appears to be an attitude of special treatment (in the case of access to the manual) and leniency (when he's stupid enough to get caught) towards someone who is good at sports. Its just like in those American High-school teen dramas!
When I was in primary school, they guys who were good at sports received special treatment. They were beloved of the teachers. And at one point entered the Community Games (Remember that? Do they even still do that?) group project competition with a project pretty much prepared by our teacher, and they were coached by that teacher to make it look like their own work. They went very far in that competition. they definitely won awards of some kind. I'm still bitter about that.
But that was in primary school! In secondary school there were no links between my school and the local sporting teams, so it wasn't an issue. But we're talking about college here! And not just college, but post-graduate level! At that level, a leg-up like that from a lecturer (and a look-the-other-way attitude from the department) is the kind of thing that can get you postgraduate funding, the opportunity to do a Ph.D., a chance at a better job, and in the process taking all those opportunities away from someone who deserves it more (i.e. someone who hasn't cheated!). And why? Because he's good at sport? Its actually more that a little bit sickening, to think that in this day an attitude like that can permeate academic institutions at that level. I almost wish the guy had just been fucking his lecturer. It'd be a more honest way to get preferential treatment in my opinion (though still reprehensible).
Funnily enough, the article mentions that it is "believed" that members of staff at the college are unhappy about the "singling out" of one of their colleges, the "perception of favouritism shown to students involved in the GAA", and the failure of the college itself to "censure the original handling of the complaint".
To be honest, while I agree with the last point, the rest of that is pathetic. The lecturer who has been 'singled out' had better have been able to prove he didn't give the student his password, otherwise he should be sacked on the spot (and if the student wasn't given the password, but obtained it though theft or subterfuge of some kind, he should have his master's certificate torn up and the qualification removed!). As for the perception that students who participate in the GAA receive special treatment, well, you cant really call it an unfounded perception after this incident. that "perception" is no-one's fault but the college's. Suck it up and do something to change that perception.
To relate this whole rant to the title (tenuously at this point, because its 3.30am and I'm tired), Galway-Mayo I.T. is reviewing its plagiarism and ethics policies because of this incident (and the mentioned but undescribed ones that preceded it). Maybe, if these previous incidents had a similar motivation (special treatment for jocks) as it is implied by the article, Galway-Mayo I.T. should think about reviewing its attitude towards the students and their past-times/affiliations, and the attitudes of its staff.