Cheating down a dream

Posted: November 4, 2011 in Chinese Culture
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Today I came across a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times called The China Conundrum which explores a multitude of issues American universities face in recruiting Chinese students. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest difficulties is academic dishonesty.

Each autumn when I taught in Nanjing I would have a gush of students (most of whom I’d never met) come to me for help with their overseas college applications. While it wasn’t true for everyone, the vast majority were doing something considered academically dishonest.

Some asked me to write a recommendation for them as their Chinese teacher who would later sign it – not a terrible request as most Chinese teachers don’t know English well enough. Then some would ask me to edit “their” essay which was usually a patchwork of pieces from the internet that they wanted me to smooth over. They were often confused when I handed them the paper back and said, “I’m not helping you cheat.” In their minds, they had created an original essay by cutting and pasting several separate passages together.

Then there were those who straight up asked me to write their paper for them. Usually it wasn’t so explicit. They might ask me to write an “example” for them, or help get them started. The New York Times piece talked about agents who write papers directly for students at a price. I’ve also been offered one of these “ghostwriting” jobs.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For every step of the application process there’s a shortcut. Don’t think you can pass the SAT or GRE entrance exam? You can hire people to use your ID and sit the exam for you. My girlfriend (who was an English major) got offered a job doing this. She’d get paid 3,000 yuan a pop and a free flight to whatever city the test was in. Not small change for a university student who would make 8 yuan an hour at KFC or 20 yuan tutoring. She was told by the agency not to worry because if she got caught there’s no punishment like there is for the Gaokao, given that it’s a foreign test.

Once you’ve got the test and the essay you can get a fake transcript easily, or even better, get the real transcript changed. I met yet another student once who didn’t think his scores were good enough to get into an American grad school, so he used his connections at the university to have them officially changed on his transcript. Bribery would have yielded the same result. Need extracurricular activities? Awards? Honors? Lie, fake, fake.

The distressing part with all of this was that students would tell me exactly how they were going to cheat the system without an ounce of shame. A girl once asked me to look over an essay an agent had written for her, which I could immediately tell was completely plagiarized. “How could they cheat me like that?! I’m so angry,” she said without a trace of irony.

For these students, cheating was a no-big-deal no-brainer. I try to avoid sweeping generalizations but if you ever teach a writing class in China, you WILL have at least one student plagiarize. And giving an in-class writing assignment doesn’t help. Chinese students can memorize pages and pages of text verbatim. And if you only have one cheat, you probably either haven’t looked carefully enough or you’ve stumbled across one of the most upstanding writing classes in the country. I had six cheaters in the first writing class I taught, which, after reprimands and several long-winded lectures on what plagiarism is and why it’s wrong, dwindled down to two by the end of the semester. And those two were still shocked as to why I failed them.

One of the only students I ever let get by without failure managed to do so by warming my heart with what I think was an honest email. (Honestly, I was also a bit worried she might kill herself):

Dear Eric,
I am terrible sorry for that. I konw it was a serious mistake that I was taken.I also afraid that you will never forgive me.I am so regretful and shameful now. 😦 Just beacause busy with pereparing my  National Entrance Examination for Master’s Degree ,I searched the information from the Web and pieced some of them to form a “essay” to save time.
    My English writing skill is not good,and I need more time than others to write an essay.What is the worse,even though I spend one day to write an essay,I have a srong sense of inferiority when I compare it to others’.I never feel confident with my English.That is why I never rise my hand in your class.I really hate such a myself.But it cannot be a excause,I know.Whether or no I should not have treat my essay in that way.I will write another two essays on my own to remedy the mistake.And my deed is so unpardonable that it is nessary if you do not forgive me.I just want you trust for my new essays again.I will be very thankful if you do so.
   In this universy,foreign teachers are always my favorite teachers.Beacause you treat students equally without discrimination.That is why now I feel so sorry and shameful than I have been ever before.:(
I will never do such thing again. I will keep my words in future.

In their other classes, Chinese teachers will often turn a blind eye to cheating. As I later found out, it causes them all kinds of trouble. One of the students I failed got his parents to complain to the university, who in turn told me to retest the student. I told them that retesting him wouldn’t undue his cheating and would only burden me for his dishonesty. I never heard back. His score was simply changed from above.

One complaint I heard was that students are never taught how to do things like research and write a thesis, so the teachers who’ve failed them implicitly expect them to cheat. They won’t be running plagiarism check software like this hard-ass foreign teacher did. I can sympathize with this to some degree, but I just wonder what the end-game is in students’ minds. Sure, the ones in China get their degree and better job prospects, but I really can’t understand what those cheating their way into foreign universities are thinking.

A fellow foreign teacher at my school had a very wealthy student who could barely say his ABC’s, but he hired an agent who managed to cheat his way into a British university…which he promptly dropped out of when he predictably couldn’t make sense of a single class or throw his money around to get what he wanted. In a nutshell, this is what I tried to tell all these students. Nobody’s going to be impressed that you dropped out of a great foreign university and wasted tens of thousands of dollars. But hey, I guess that’s what fake degrees are for.

  1. Mike says:

    I just read that article myself last night and will admit that it is spot on. Once again, I prefer your writing on the subject, particularly given the anecdotal evidence which supports CHE’s article–keep writing, you have fans. Being a former uni teacher myself in China (one year only, thank you very much), I will say that I think the plagiarism issue is absolutely disgusting. I stick to oral English now, if anything, because it is impossible for them to cheat in that class. As for quality, in terms of effort, it is the same, but I enjoy watching the students improve. If they are cheating, no such progress is made and that can be as frustrating for the instructor as it is for the students who show up the first day and realize how lost they are.

    The real losers in this issue are the students and I feel bad for that. There is a reason why every time we open our mouths they think we are lying or spewing propaganda – they have never been taught to think well or consider any comments which don’t toe the party line. And yet, even without the formal teaching, I find many of them incredibly capable and intelligent. Imagine what they could actually do if the education system were reformed to benefit them!

    I haven’t commented in a while, but I’m reading every last bit of your stuff. Keep it coming! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my own studies (no cheatin’ going on here)!


    • sinostand says:

      Thanks Mike. Yeah, I feel bad for the students in China’s education system in general. After I got that email I stopped taking as hard a line on the plagiarism (though I was still pretty intolerant). The system they’re in has forced it more than anything else, so I eventually tried to adapt to the cheating like any other cultural difference…which really shouldn’t exist. Anyways, thanks for reading!

  2. Ken says:

    I read the article, too. My wife and I have just guided her son in the completion of the Common Application with all its twists and turns, along with some schools’ individual requirements. I’m pleased to note he did not yield to the temptation of an agency’s “guarantee” of admission with their “help.” We had read about such things well before it was his turn to jump into the process. We decided to insist that he do this work on his own, with a little help polishing his composition. I was very pleased to see the results; I can only hope his choice of schools will be able to discern originality.
    As an oral English teacher myself, I see every day how this education system works. Prior to this, I never knew how sharply focused one could be while teaching to the test. (I audited several high school senior classes–what an eye opener.)
    I agree with you, Mike, that these kids simply aren’t taught creative thinking. There just doesn’t seem to be a place for it anywhere.

  3. kungpao says:

    If you werent a foreign teacher and you failed a rich kid you can expect to be fired. Also the students at the big colleges still have a little respect for education. Go to a place like xian or taiyuan and so much of the class cheats they break the spirit of any foreigner who tries to give a damn

  4. justrecently says:

    Maybe the best approach – reasonably just to the class and to the teacher alike – would be to make methodology part of the lessons, however basic. It won’t exactly remove the previous wrongs, and you can’t make an academic in a semester, but the teacher has to, and will want to, test the effect of what he taught.

    Academic honesty can become a very formal thing, though. It’s being made a big think of in my country (Germany), for example, but I’ve seen someone getting a professorship here with one successful guest lecture (carefully prepared), and never heard a line that made much sense from the lips of that person ever after…

    So, even if the rules are formally applied, it doesn’t have to mean a lot. In the end, universities would be well-advised to test their incoming students before enrollment – and their professors, too.

  5. Elijah says:

    This article absolutely hit’s it on the head. It’s a systemic problem and it’s not going anywhere. Students face pressure from everywhere and use dishonest methods to achieve results.

    This carries on into the workplace with workers being forced to cut corners for the sake of results.

    However when any of these workers or students leave china, they’re screwed because they can’t cut it.

    I actually started a topic on this here:

  6. I taught oral English and English writing at a fifth-rate university in northern China. On the second day of class, I found out that I could not use the text books because the students could not comprehend what the essays in their books meant. Their functional reading skills were at a junior high school level at best. To “save” the course from disaster, and to make the ones who bothered to show up do some real work, I had them write short essays during our three hour course. They could write and and express themselves well. Some of the stories were extremely touching. I spent hours correcting their poor grammar—especially tense—in time to hand them back for the following class. However as far as failing anyone, I was allowed to fail a couple per class, no more. The school was taking their tuition money and the kids were getting a poor education and knew it. All the other foreign teachers I met from the other colleges and universities told me the same thing; they were not allowed to fail students.

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