It saddens us that cheating has become the norm. In seven semesters of being teaching assistants in the computer science department, we’ve seen a lot of it. Sending code to friends and seeking quick solutions to problems by viewing other solutions on the web have proved too tempting to too many students. But what makes Columbia unique is not that students cheat—that occurs on every campus. What makes Columbia unique is the willingness and desire to discuss the problem.
It’s hard to convince yourself to spend an hour on a compiler error instead of just going to Google. Unlike in an essay or a proof, you can pour hours into your code and write hundreds of lines, but still have a program that can’t do anything. There are few things as black and white as whether your code works or not. This contributes to the narrative that, in computer science, you either get it or you don’t.
This is a false narrative.
Behind the students we regard as the best of our department are hours of hard work—often spent struggling to understand difficult concepts and debugging code. It’s easy to see how skilled they are and overlook all of the hard work they have put in; but it is there. Ability is earned in those same moments of struggle on assignments, in the face of errors and difficulty. There is a difference between the students who start assignments to learn from them and those who start to finish them. In our seven semesters serving as TAs in the computer science department, we have observed this to be the primary differentiator of success.
It is unsurprising that students are driven by a desire to simply finish assignments. In a culture in which people pride themselves on being busy, people do not have the time to be curious.
We would like to refute the notion that finishing your assignments quickly without learning from them has any positive impacts on your career. Career prospects are determined by engineering aptitude and experience. Honest and thorough completion of assignments benefits both. Cheating, on the other hand, is harmful to both.
Between ourselves, we agree that teaching has been one of our most rewarding experiences at Columbia. Guiding our fellow students in surmounting the difficulties of a course, developing from novice to proficient over the course of the semester, is remarkable. Working with our fellow students in office hours is our favorite part of the job. Our least favorite part of the job is dealing with cases of academic dishonesty. We spend hours on each case. Working with a student during office hours, only to see that the same student resorted to cheating on an assignment is depressing. We feel that we have failed. We wonder how much better things would be if the time we took investigating a case of academic dishonesty had been spent teaching instead.
If this weren’t discouraging enough, there are practical disincentives to prevent faculty from catching cheaters. It hurts course evaluations, costs inordinate time, and is draining. To build the infrastructure to detect academic dishonesty has an enormous startup cost, and pursuing cases of cheating is another mess of meetings and accusations altogether. The system must be accurate, because false accusations are quite harmful to students. But if the system isn’t thorough, the clever cheater will go unpunished.
The department is also not transparent about the disciplinary action that it takes. We were shocked to hear that students have been suspended for cheating—if we were completely unaware, we can imagine our peers being similarly in the dark. This asymmetry of information emboldens cheaters, who eventually receive a rude awakening once they arrive at Advanced Programming.
Both of us are thankful that the issue of cheating has become a topic of discourse on campus. Instead of the issue escalating in the whispers of horror stories or being swept under the rug, the ugly beast can be faced for what it is: a joint failure of student and teacher, of exploitation and timidity, of fear and inaction, and a lack of curiosity and moral courage. We, the students, must expect our assignments to be difficult. We must expect them to be time-consuming. We must know that through the struggle, we can learn the lessons our professors set out to teach us.
This stance on cheating must be consistent across the department. Pursuing cases of academic dishonesty is taxing, but failing to do so makes cheating the norm. Perhaps a student caught cheating betrays their professor, but the professor who fails to look betrays the honest student. If our academic community lacks a strong foundation of integrity, who are the students to look to? If the department wants the students to take its stance on cheating seriously, the department must do the same.
Joshua Zweig is a senior in SEAS studying computer science. He is a head teaching assistant for Advanced Programming and a TA for Computers and Society. Aunoy Poddar is a junior in Columbia College studying biology and computer science. He is a TA for Advanced Programming. The views expressed here are our own and not those of our employer.
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