Allen Porter Mendenhall

Review of “Cheating Lessons,” by James M. Lang

In Academia, America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Pedagogy, Teaching on September 24, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared in Academic Questions (2014).

A few years ago, when I was teaching composition courses at Auburn University, I had a freshman from Harlem in my class. He had traveled from New York to Alabama to accept a scholarship and become the first person in his family to attend college. He was kind and thoughtful, and I liked him very much, but he was woefully unprepared for higher education; he had trouble comprehending more than a few paragraphs and could not write basic sentences. The university, however, was proud of this recruit, who contributed both geographic and racial diversity to the otherwise (relatively) non-diverse student body.

Encouraged by his tenacity, I met with this student regularly to teach him sentence structure and to help him turn his spoken words into written sentences. Although he improved by degrees over the course of the semester, he was never able to write a complete coherent paragraph.

During the last weeks of class, I informed him that he needed to earn at least a C+ on his final paper to avoid repeating the course. He was conspicuously absent from class whenever preliminary drafts were due, and he never responded to my prodding emails. Shortly before the due date, he materialized in my office and presented a piece of paper that contained several sentences. He asked me questions and attempted to record my responses on his paper. I reminded him that although I was happy to offer guidance, he needed to submit original work. He nodded and left my office. When, at last, he submitted his final paper, it consisted of roughly four intelligible paragraphs that regrettably had nothing to do with the assignment. I inserted these paragraphs into a Google search and discovered that they were lifted, verbatim, from a Wikipedia article unrelated to the assignment. I failed the student but showed him mercy—and spared the university embarrassment—by not reporting him to the administration for disciplinary action.

To this day I wonder if there was something I could have done differently to prevent this student from plagiarizing, or whether his cheating was the inevitable consequence of being unprepared for university study. Many teachers have similar stories.

Academic dishonesty, a topic now admirably undertaken by James M. Lang, has received more scholarly treatment than I was aware of before reading Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Like many of us, Lang grew interested in the subject because of his experiences with students who cheated in his classes. The more research he did on academic dishonesty, the more frustrated he became with “the same basic prescriptions” that were either quixotic or impracticable for one faculty member to undertake alone. One day, Lang realized that if he “looked through the lens of cognitive theory and tried to understand cheating as an inappropriate response to a learning environment that wasn’t working for the student,” he could “empower individual faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they constructed.”

Lang’s goal is not to score points or court confrontation, but simply to help teachers and administrators to reduce cheating by restructuring the content and configuration of their courses and classrooms.

Lang divides Cheating Lessons into three parts. The first is a synthesis of the existing scholarly literature on academic dishonesty that concludes with four case studies, about which little needs to be said here. The second part consists of practical guidance to teachers who wish to structure their classrooms to minimize cheating and to cultivate the exchange of ideas. And the third, which is an extension of the second, considers speculations about potential changes to curricula and pedagogy to promote academic integrity not just in the classroom, but across campus.

Most original are parts two and three, which are premised on the structuralist assumption that systems shape and inform the production of knowledge. The treatment of academic dishonesty as a symptom of deterministic models and paradigms makes this book unique. If the models and paradigms can be changed, Lang’s argument runs, then academic dishonesty might decline: the shift needs to be away from the “dispositional factors that influence cheating—such as the student’s gender, or membership in a fraternity or sorority, and so on”—toward “contextual factors,” the most significant of which is “the classroom environment in which students engage in a cheating behavior” (emphases in original). What’s exciting about the structuralist paradigm—if it’s accurate—is that teachers and administrators have the power and agency to facilitate constructive change.

But what if the structuralist paradigm isn’t correct? What if dispositional factors are more determinative than contextual factors in generating academic dishonesty? Lang’s argument depends upon a profound assumption that he expects his readers to share. It’s most likely that dispositional and contextual factors are interactive, not mutually exclusive: consider the student who is not as intelligent as his peers and who resorts to cheating because of his insecurity and the pressure on him to succeed. Lang is onto something, though: students are less likely to learn in an environment that compels them “to complete a difficult task with the promise of an extrinsic reward or the threat of punishment” than they are in an environment that inspires them “with appeals to the intrinsic joy or beauty or utility of the task itself” (emphasis in original). In other words, “in an environment characterized by extrinsic motivation, the learners or competitors care about what happens after the performance rather than relishing or enjoying the performance itself” (emphasis in original).

How does Lang propose that teachers and administrators structure their courses and curricula to foster what he calls “intrinsic motivation” (as against “extrinsic rewards”) among students? For starters, he urges professors to help students learn for mastery and not for grades, to lower the stakes per assignment by multiplying the options for students to earn points or credit, and to instill self-efficacy by challenging students and by affording them increased opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. In the abstract, these suggestions seem obvious and unhelpful, so Lang backs them up with interviews with accomplished teachers as well as anecdotes about successful classroom experiments: the improvising by Andy Kaufman as he taught Russian literature to prison inmates, for instance, or the unique grading system implemented by John Boyer at Virginia Tech. All the tactics and approaches discussed and promoted by Lang can be traced back to the premise that “the best means we have to reduce cheating is to increase motivation and learning.”

Teachers and administrators are forever trying to motivate their students to learn. It’s easier to conceive of this goal, however, than to achieve it. Teachers everywhere seek to inspire their students to love and pursue knowledge, and despite a plethora of opinions about how best to do so, no general consensus has arisen to establish a definitive course of action for all students and disciplines. Many teachers chose their profession and discipline because they relished their own education and wanted to pass on their knowledge and love of learning to others. Lang’s insistence that teachers inspire a passion for learning is hardly novel; rather, it is the touchstone and stands in contradistinction to the utilitarian, standardized, test-centered, and results-oriented educational strategies that politicians, bureaucrats, and policy wonks now sponsor and defend. In this respect, Cheating Lessons is a refreshing alternative; it’s written by an educator for educators and not, thank goodness, for semiliterate politicians and their sycophantic advisers.

One thing this book is not: a template or checklist that you can follow to construct your own productive learning environment for students. Each learning environment is contextual; one model will not suit every setting and purpose. Because Lang cannot and does not provide step-by-step how-to instructions, Cheating Lessons borders on the self-help genre and is more inspirational and aspirational than it is informational. And Lang’s meandering style—for example, his digressions about Robert Burns and coaching youth sports teams—are disarming enough not only to charm but also to contribute to the impression that Cheating Lessons is “light” reading.

Lang can overdo the playfulness and make exaggerated claims. Early on he quotes a Harvard administrator complaining in 1928 about the problem of cheating among students, an example that’s meant to refute the assumption that “we are in the midst of a cheating epidemic, and that the problem is much worse now than it was in the idyllic past.” Lang adds that he hopes to convince us that “cheating and higher education in America have enjoyed a long and robust history together.” But it’s not as if 1928 is ancient history. Data about academic dishonesty since that time will not convince most readers that there were as many cheating students in the one-room schoolhouses of the nineteenth century, when fewer people had access to formal education, as there are today. Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Lang invites us to “hop in our time machine and leap across centuries” to consider the cheating cultures of the ancient Greeks and of Imperial China “over the course of [a] fourteen-hundred-year history.” But surely the substantial data we have gathered on the twentieth- and twenty-first-century academy cannot be compared to the limited and circumstantial data garnered about these early cultures; surely “illicit communication” by “cell phones” is not comparable to the use of cheat sheets in nineteenth-century China. It seems preposterous to suggest that academic dishonesty in contemporary America exists to the same extent it did centuries ago on different continents and among different peoples with different principles and priorities.

Nevertheless, even readers skeptical of Lang’s structuralist premise and apparent optimism will find much in Cheating Lessons to contemplate and to amuse. Unfortunately, however, even after having read the book I’m still not sure what I could have done differently to prevent my student from cheating.




British Origins of American Estate and Land Law

In American History, Britain, Economics, History, Humanities, Law, Property on September 17, 2014 at 8:45 am

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Estates and land are the foundation of property law in England and the United States.  After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror, or William I, became the King of England, he recognized that land ownership was essential to the governance of his kingdom.  Announcing himself owner of all English lands, he distributed property to those loyal to him. The recipients became “tenants”; the rent was called “services”; knights performed “services” on behalf of the king, thus earning their honorific title and their rights to certain lands.

William bestowed a special designation, tenant in chief, to those who were offered more land than they could use.  Everything necessary to survive and flourish at this time came from the land: food, water, shelter, building supplies and other equipment, and mineral resources.  Tenants, therefore, would parcel out tracts of their land to others in exchange for fees and services.  Recipients of the parceled tracts would parcel out smaller tracts of land, and this process of parceling would continue until the people living on the land had no rights to the land.

The result was that ownership in tracts of land became known as freehold or nonfreehold.  Interests in freehold tracts included fee simple estates, fee tale estates, and life estates; interests in nonfreehold tracts included periodic tenancies, terms, and tenancies at will.  These six categories of land ownership and title remain with us today.

The Immunity Community

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Britain, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, Philosophy on September 10, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This piece first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity derives from the English notion that “the king can do no wrong” and hence cannot be sued without his consent. The purpose of this doctrine was, in England, from at least the Middle Ages until eighteenth century, to bar certain lawsuits against the monarch and his or her ministers and servants. With the rise of the English Parliament after the death of Elizabeth I, government officers and politicians sought to gain the power of immunity that the monarch and his or her agents had enjoyed.

In practice, however, English subjects were not totally deprived of remedies against the monarch or the government. The doctrine of sovereign immunity was not an absolute prohibition on actions against the crown or against other branches of government;[1] subjects could avail themselves of petitions of right or writs of mandamus, for instance, and monarchs fearful of losing the support of the people would often consent to be sued.

It was not until the monarchy had been demonstrably weakened that the doctrine of sovereign immunity began to be espoused with added urgency and enforced with added zeal. In the late eighteenth century, Sir William Blackstone intoned in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that the king “is not only incapable of doing wrong, but ever of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly of weakness.” These lines convert sovereign immunity into sovereign infallibility, a more ominous yet more dubious pretension.

Once the monarchy had been abolished altogether, the idea that the sovereign had to consent to be sued no longer held credence. As Louis L. Jaffe explains, “Because the King had been abolished, the courts concluded that where in the past the procedure had been by petition of right there was now no one authorized to consent to suit! If there was any successor to the King qua sovereign it was the legislature,” which, having many members subject to differing constituencies, was not as accountable as the monarch had been to the parties seeking to sue.[2]

The principle of sovereign immunity carried over from England to the United States, where most states have enshrined in their constitution an absolute bar against suing the State or its agencies and officers whose actions fall within the scope of official duties. The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution likewise states that “the Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” This provision, which applies only in federal courts and which does not on its face prohibit a lawsuit against a state by a citizen of that same state, was adopted in response to the ruling in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), a case that held sovereign immunity to have been abrogated and that vested in federal courts the authority to preside over disputes between private citizens and state governments.

Notwithstanding the complex issues of federalism at play in the Chisholm decision and in the Eleventh Amendment, the fact remains that the doctrine of sovereign immunity has been applied with widening scope and frequency since the states ratified the Eleventh Amendment in 1795. The U.S. Supreme Court has contributed to the doctrine’s flourishing. “The Supreme Court’s acceptance of sovereign immunity as constitutional principle,” explains one commentator, “depends on its determination of the intent of the Framers, which ignores a great deal of historical evidence from the time of the founding and relies primarily on a discredited account of the Eleventh Amendment first articulated in the 1890 case of Hans v. Louisiana.”[3]

State and federal courts have now built an impregnable wall of immunity around certain state and federal officers. The sovereign immunity that is enshrined in state constitutions is, in theory, not absolute because it is conferred only to certain agents and officers and does not prohibit lawsuits to enjoin such agents and officers from performing unconstitutional or other bad acts. In practice, however, the growth of qualified immunities, which is in keeping with the growth of government itself, has caused more and more agents of the State to cloak themselves in immunity.

Bus drivers, teachers, coroners, constables, high school coaches, doctors and nurses at university hospitals, security guards, justices of the peace, government attorneys, legislators, mayors, boards of education and health, university administrators, Indian reservations, prison guards and wardens, police officers and detectives, janitors in government facilities, licensing boards, tax assessors, librarians, railroad workers, government engineers, judges and justices, school superintendents and principals, towing companies, health inspectors, probation officers, game wardens, museum docents and curators, social workers, court clerks, dog catchers, contractors for public utilities, public notaries, tollbooth attendants, airport traffic controllers, park rangers, ambulance drivers, firefighters, telephone operators, bus drivers, subway workers, city council members, state auditors, agricultural commissioners—all have sought to establish for themselves, with mixed degrees of success, the legal invincibility that comes with being an arm of the state.

Yet the idea that “the king can do no wrong” makes no sense in a governmental system that has lacked a king from its inception. Its application as law has left ordinary citizens with limited recourse against governments (or against people claiming governmental status for the purpose of immunity) that have committed actual wrongs. When the government, even at the state level, consists of vast bureaucracies of the kind that exist today, the doctrine of sovereign immunity becomes absurd. If it is true that in nine states and in the District of Columbia the government employs more than 20% of all workers, imagine how many people are eligible to claim immunity from liability for their tortious conduct and bad acts committed on the job.

Local news reports are full of stories about government employees invoking the doctrine of sovereign immunity; few such stories find their way into the national media. Judge Wade McCree of Michigan, for instance, recently carried out an affair with a woman who was a party in a child-support case on his docket, having sexual intercourse with her in his chambers and “sexting” her even on the day she appeared as a witness in his courtroom. Although McCree was removed from office, he was immune from civil liability. An airport in Charleston, West Virginia, is invoking the doctrine of immunity to shield itself from claims that it contributed to a chemical spill that contaminated the water supply. Officer Darren Wilson may be entitled to immunity for the shooting of Michael Brown, depending on how the facts unfold in that investigation.

The U.S. Supreme Court once famously declared that the doctrine of sovereign immunity “has never been discussed or the reasons for it given, but it has always been treated as an established doctrine.”[4] A disestablishment is now in order. The size and scope of government is simply too massive on the state and national level to sustain this doctrine that undermines the widely held belief of the American Founders that State power must be limited and that the State itself must be held accountable for its wrongs. Friedrich Hayek pointed out that the ideal of the rule of law requires the government to “act under the same law” and to “be limited in the same manner as any private person.”[5] The doctrine of sovereign immunity stands in contradistinction to this ideal: it places an increasing number of individuals above the law.

If the law is to be meaningful and just, it must apply equally to all persons and must bind those who enforce it. It must not recognize and condone privileges bestowed upon those with government connections or incentivize bad behavior within government ranks. Sovereign immunity is a problem that will only worsen if it is not addressed soon. The king can do wrong, and so can modern governments. It’s time for these governments to be held accountable for the harms they produce and to stop hiding behind a fiction that was long ago discredited.


[1]See generally, Louis L. Jaffe, “Suits Against Governments and Officers: Sovereign Immunity,” 77 Harvard Law Review 1 (1963).

[2]Jaffe at 2.

[3]Susan Randall, “Sovereign Immunity and the Uses of History,” 81 Nebraska L. Rev. 1, 4 (2002-03).

[4]U.S. v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 207 (1882).

[5]F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, ed. Ronald Hamowy(Routlege, 2011), p. 318.


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