On Teaching III, Cheating

I’ve always been a goody two shoes when it comes to cheating. I know not everything is fair in the real world, but the thought of someone getting credit for doing none of the work. It’s been one of my pet peeves as a student, so I’m similarly incensed as a teacher.
While the ramifications for cheating are severe back home, the expectations are very different at my university in Laos and in many other schools in the region. Cheating runs rampant, throughout both homework and exams. We were warned about this phenomenon during our Pre-Departure Orientation in Washington D.C. In comparison to individualistic Western societies, Eastern cultures are collectivist. In general, you don’t act in your own interest, you consider the needs of the group and work towards advancing your group’s well-being. In a community, this means you work to support your family. In school, this means you share answers if you have them. You want everyone to do well, so of course you help out your friends.
I explained at the start of all of my classes that this would be verboten. Working with friends to do homework was okay, but copying would not be tolerated. My students eyes were wide when I mentioned the consequences for cheating at UIUC. They were stunned at the idea of expulsion; it seemed dramatic enough to them that I’d award 0’s on homework or exams on which they copied answers. I tried my best to explain to them that this was not just a draconian policy in place for my amusement; I truly believe that cheating on homework helps no one in the long term and tried to articulate in simple terms that if you copy you don’t learn.
Still, cheating (or attempts at cheating) happens. As far as homework goes, cheating means primarily copying. This is generally pretty easy to spot; if two students turn in the same set of sentences, there isn’t much doubt about what happened. Once, when instructed to label a US map, several students turned in photocopies of the map, as if I wouldn’t notice. These assignments are all returned with the same message at the top – “0 – NO COPYING!” With tests, I ask students to spread out but have to remind most classes constantly to keep their eyes on their own papers. Sometimes students will try and whisper to each other or tilt their papers to give another student a peek at their answers. I’ve taken away papers and given 0’s for that. Most amusingly, I walked into a class the day of a midterm last semester to see students sitting with their desks pushed flush against the front wall. I knew immediately what was happening, laughed, and made them move because they had scribbled vocabulary and answers on the walls to use as a cheat sheet during the exam. Pretty ballsy.
After one of my classes had a particularly bad case of wandering eyes during a midterm last week, I asked my co-teacher if cheating was this common, or if my students were just trying to pull a fast one on a foreign teacher. “Oh yeah, students cheat a lot,” he replied. “Well, do any teachers ever say anything about it?” I asked. “Ummmm………” His response was just a long pause indicative either that the answer was no or that he didn’t know how to respond in English – I’m not entirely sure which. Of course, if you ask any teacher in the English Department, they’ll state their support of academic honesty, but in reality, enforcement is lax. Luckily, my co-teachers are supportive of my enforcement of a no cheating policy and don’t question my giving 0’s when instances occur.
Living and teaching in a culture different from your own requires some give and take; cultural exchange means adapting a little but also introducing some of your culture’s values when appropriate. Teaching in Laos has been a very different experience from being a student in the United States, so while I think hard about what battles I want to fight, this is one I try and enforce when blatantly happening.
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