Most people in my program cheat. Three years into my Honours program – where the first-year Honours classes have 140 students but only fifty remain by third year – I just found out last week that more than half of the students in my class have answers to homework and problem sets, old midterms and finals not released by McGill or by the professor, and the answers to those tests. And they have had them for all three years.
Of course, even before this I knew that students at McGill cheat often. Adderall is a common way to get ahead, but no one seems to have a problem with its widespread use. But this level of cheating irks me. While my friends in my classes (the ones who are still here: four of them have dropped out of my program) and I have been working hard for years just to get that B or B+ that we need to stay, others have used old tests – questions are often reused – to get As. That is just fundamentally unfair.
It bears repeating though that using drugs to enhance academic performance is equally wrong, even if it is widely normalized in our school. Like professional athletes using steroids, students using Adderall without a medical need are cheating. Even worse, these drugs have negative networks effects: the first few who use them achieve extremely high scores, but as the number rises coursework will need to get harder to keep grades at a constant. They are a bad deal for students, and put undue pressure on students to regularly purchase and use expensive illegal drugs just to keep up.
The reality of academic dishonesty cannot be isolated from the privileges students have. Access to test answers comes from informal social networks, which in my program seem to largely exclude women and queer people, while only students who can afford to buy and use drugs have access to this route to success. As in the real world, it seems that the powerful have the means to cheat and the privilege to shrug off the risk of getting caught.
Of course I cannot blame people for feeling the need to cheat. As the pressure of global capitalism presses down on us, as parents and friends remind us that the labour market awaits, the need to perform well in university can be overwhelming. Geographer Danny Dorling has proposed that part of what is driving this need for success is the extraordinary income inequality in countries across the world. As differences between the wealthiest and the poorest rise, he argues, people recognize that they need to push harder to get ahead, to take out mortgages on homes they can’t afford so they can get out of poor neighbourhoods, to take jobs for oil companies and big banks even though they go against our most deeply held morals because personal poverty is not an option and the middle class barely exists anymore.
While some of the problems are systemic, there are actions McGill can take to reduce the need to cheat. Course work at McGill is so much more difficult than at most other universities in North America; McGill should include a statement at the top of official and unofficial transcripts saying something like, “McGill University has aggressively pursued a dual policy of zero grade inflation and rigorous academic standards. The average McGill student works significantly harder and performs at a much higher level than other students while receiving a lower grade.” Departments should also explain the difficulty of their programs, and instead of just providing an average grade for each class, they should provide the mean, median, and 25th and 75th percentile grades to provide more information. Departments could also experiment with more communal or group coursework, or consider changing grading systems.
But there is only so much McGill can do. As students across the world try to hold the powerful accountable for their actions – states for their violence, carbon emitters for global climate change, universities for their ties to war and industry – we must also hold ourselves to a higher standard. Cheating is not acceptable.
And so I am left with the question of what to do with this new information I have. It is not my place to ruin other students’ lives by naming names – we are all to some extent victims of the same systemic forces – but many hard-working, talented students dropped out of my program while others skated by on academic dishonesty. I think the best option is to write an anonymous letter to the department informing them of this widespread problem without naming names. Hopefully they will use the information to make the program more fair. But ultimately, cheating will persist until we students make it stop.
I have had enough with cheating at McGill. I know many other people who have never taken pills or used answer sheets during their careers here, and they, like me, are unfairly punished by widespread academic dishonesty. As we students work to build a more just economic system, let us also work for academic justice at McGill.
*Peter Jones is a pseudonym. If you have any comments about this article email firstname.lastname@example.org