(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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The role of power, social justice and empathy in our perception of cheating vs learning

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I’m here trying to tie some of the ideas of #rhizo14 into a physical event I will be part of in a few hours. I’ll be discussing with a group of other academics my previously published article on critical citizenship – which centers around the role of higher ed in promoting social justice orientation and empathy in students, thar focusing on critical thinking is not enough for citizenship.

In #rhizo14, there have been some mentions of power in the discussion of cheating (Dave on jenny’s blog; Terry on my blog) and if i may summarize the ideas crudely as i understood them:
1. If what constitutes cheating is based on rules, those rules are an imposition of power by some group of people, and by setting those rules, they privilege certain individuals over others (i might have added sthg here, not sure)
2. If cheating is dishonesty, then it might involve ways of gaining unfair advantage/power to compete with others (example of taking steroids in sports was a good one mentioned)

Where do social justice and empathy come in?

I am reflecting on academia. And instances where teachers have broken their very own rules because they were empathetic (or not). E.g. One student told the teacher after the exam time ended that he had not noticed the last page of the exam. She gave him an extra 10 minutes or so. I was her TA and i was like, “that’s not fair to other students who had less time” and “but he had more time than everyone else on all the other questions”. In hindsight, she used her judgment and was empathetic, i think, in her decision-making in ways i was maybe too young to understand?

Another instance which shows the opposite. There were a group of students about to graduate who all failed the final exam of a required course. The (quite young) teacher was rigid – each time someone spoke to him on their behalf to give them a second chance so they could graduate (this is everyone from students to the dept chair to the dean), he refused to budge. Eventually, he did budge: he let them re-take the exam. Was that really the fair thing to do? Probably not. But it was an empathetic thing to do. Were there other options? Probably

Reflecting on my own teaching… I try to be flexible enough to meet my students’ needs and interests. But some ways of creating a community-centered (vs. Student-centered) classroom or course, are not necessarily socially just. For example, a full group discussion disadvantages shy or reflective people. A community-created rubric is really one where the voices of the loudest (or quick thinking, or brave) students end up being what gets written. There are lots of micro-contestations of power in a community-centered course. Social justice and power remain issues.
For example… Breaking rules. I often teach my students about copyright law (often via guest speaker as a way to maintain my integrity – see next), then discuss with them the ways in which copyright laws are unjust and disadvantage us in the poorer countries. Where would we be in our already low-quality education without illegally photocopied texts and pirated software? We tall about legal alternatives like creative commons and cheaper versions of some things (e.g. Free word editors). What some Westerners don’t get, though, is the ENORMOUS difference between a free and a $1 download. It is huge, because many ppl here do not have credit cards, some may not have bank accounts. So cheating is their only way.

So is it then justifiable to break a rule or law? Who decides that it is?

If i publish my article in a non-open access journal, do i really not have the right to email copies of it to others (some journals have allowances for manuscripts or drafts before peer review, or embargoes after which you can post). But my point is: how justifiable (or just “just” as in socially just) are those rules? And what does it mean when we break them? Are we truly hurting or harming others?

This post has rambled a bit but in a weird way connects different aspects of my life as i reflect on a course i am about to teach, an open access/education event we are organizing, and the critical citizenship event tomorrow… And cheating as a topic in rhizomatic learning…

Will unfortunately miss the live event that is at dawn my time! (Sync events are sooo biased – an upcoming article i am working on)

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

One thought on “The role of power, social justice and empathy in our perception of cheating vs learning

  1. Pingback: The Social Justice Crusade: Do Your Part | Jet Peterson Politics

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