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Boy, Did You Pick the Wrong Professor to Mess With.

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So this email arrived my mailbox yesterday:

Hi Mr. Carpenter,

I am a fourth year college student and I have the honor of reading one of your books and I just had a few questions… I am very fascinated by your work and I am just trying to understand everything. Can you please address some of my questions? I would greatly appreciate it. It certainly help me understand your wonderful article better. Thank you very much! :)
Sincerely,

[NAME REDACTED]

The “questions”:

1. What is the fundamental purpose of your article?
2. What is your fundamental thesis?
3. What evidence do you use to support your thesis?
4. What is the overall conclusion?
5. Do you feel that you have a fair balance of opposing viewpoints?

My initial response (naturally):

Dear [NAME REDACTED],

If you’ve read my article, you should have answers to the first four of your questions. Why don’t you tell me what you think the answers are and if you’ve misunderstood in any way I’ll let you know.

Regarding your fifth question, I guess I need to know more about what you consider “fair balance” and “opposing viewpoints,” as it relates to my article.

Also, could you tell me a little more about your own research project?

Thanks.

Dr. Carpenter

I didn’t really expect a reply, but I actually got one!

Hi Dr. Carpenter,
Oh, the questions I had were out of my curiosity. English is a second language for me and I was just trying to understand your article. Thank you for your help.

Sincerely,

[NAME REDACTED]

Now at this point it occurs to me this student’s professor is probably someone I know (who else would assign this article?), and that I should try to figure out who s/he is (though the student didn’t give an institution or the prof’s name). Lo and behold identifying said student turned out to take all of three minutes once I started looking, because the individual with this particular name and email address is actually a public figure (at least in the state of which s/he is a resident). One who, incidentally, grew up in the US and certainly reads English – though obviously not all his/her college assignments.

Question to readers: what are my ethical responsibilities as a member of the academy in this matter?

Some thoughts:

If I knew the professor I would simply contact him/her immediately, but I don’t. I could guess and email a few profs at this university, hoping to identify the right one, or perhaps the Academic Dean, then let him/her take care of it. But I worry the administration of any university is likely to let it slide precisely because this student is well-connected. (I have personally seen this happen before.)

Alternatively, I could publicly shame the individual by writing about him/her – which strikes me as somehow the right thing to do when an individual is in the public eye and presenting themselves as a paragon of integrity (one of the criteria for the position this person holds – to be clear, this is not a child of a public figure, the student is an actual public figure).

Whether I’m the right person to do the writing I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure about another thing: my evidence is simply the above – a private email to myself. Associating that email with the individual’s name is not something I’m absolutely certain I should do.

But I’m not certain why I would feel so uncertain. Does my responsibility to protect anyone’s privacy really extend to helping them cover up the fact that they committed an unethical act? (As an intellectual, and someone who takes academic dishonesty quite seriously at my own institution, I feel like this would be no different than turning in a classmate who I saw preparing to cheat on an exam; and that not doing so would be tantamount to complicity.)

On the other hand, did they actually cheat or did they only attempt to do so?

And how much should it matter that this person is a near-celebrity? Am I wrong in thinking that public figures, people to whom other young people look up, should be held to a higher standard both because it is right and because it is effective, in terms of norm-setting, to make examples of them? Am I wrong in thinking that an individual holding a position for which “moral character” is a requirement should be exposed if they commit immoral acts? Am I wrong in thinking that if I choose not to speak out, I am somehow complicit?

Is the above even a clear-cut case of an immoral act or am I just being a stickler?

Etc.

So far, all I’ve done is send the student a stern email requesting the name of his/her professor. (We’ll see what happens.) But it occurred to me that there are a lot of unanswered questions here and that the discussion would be healthy. So have at it.

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  • wengler

    For entertainment purposes, it would be great if you just named the person, however that might leave you open to legal liability and press attention you might not want.

    I remember a very big story that blew up over a professor in the very obscure field of Russian Revolution studies-probably only me and 20 other people even read this guy’s articles before the story-when he was caught reviewing his own work on Amazon. The press loves this stuff so tread lightly.

    • dave

      Orlando Figes? Oh, I think he was quite well-known… And he certainly is now.

      Meanwhile, my $0.02 – you should have told the student that you don’t have time to answer such general questions, especially as the answers ought to be clear from reading the text, and quit at that.

      • wengler

        Indeed. Though there is well-known in academia and actually well-known.

  • Paulk

    I had a related experience a few years ago, where it became clear that someone had been assigned to do some work and chose me as their means of accomplishing portions of it by pretending that they were interviewing me. I simply tailored my questions as if I were taking them at their word, but I also framed my answers such that they would have had a hard time extracting just the information they were looking for.

    It took more time than I really had, and in retrospect, I feel like I should have perhaps done what you’re doing now.

  • chris murphy

    Why do you feel you have ANY obligation to protect this person’s privacy? You did not solict the original communication from him, he contacted you on his own initiative and it does not appear that you at any point promised him confidentiality. In short he has no expectation of privacy when contacting you unsolicited on a matter that is not personal.

  • SEK

    I had a similar situation — though not with regards to my own work, but some secondary material I’d published on — and after a gentle shaming of the sort you did, I received a response to the effect of “Never you mind, then, I’ll just email someone else who’s published about this.” In other words, that kind of email is indicative of a student who’s gotten away with doing this previously, for reasons of celebrity or otherwise, and so I don’t think an outing would be inappropriate. They’re just going to continue doing this, moving on from one professor to another until they find a sucker, unless there’s some record of their behavior out there in the public record.

  • Jay B.

    what are my ethical responsibilities as a member of the academy in this matter?

    Well, [NAME REDACTED],

    You might start by answering the question yourself and telling us what you came up with.

    Kidding!

  • I understand and respect your compassion, in not wanting to immediately damage this person’s career.

    Perhaps an effective third way, would be a shot across their bow? Such as this post itself might be, if they read it. Or, emailing the person back with your thoughts, and asking them for a reason why you shouldn’t bust the person.

    SEK also has valid points IMHO. I’m neither a professor nor a grad student, so that’s just my opinion as a civilian.

  • Can’t they give you a £1.5mn donation to set up a Centre for Advanced Pedagogy? I know a London uni that tried this…

  • cafl

    Be aware that the email could be a hoax to embarrass the person you think the mail is from. Email is not a secure medium of communication.

  • matt

    You tell James Franco to do his own damn homework.

  • PS: Is this the course they’re doing? http://politicalscience.case.edu/POSC386SP11.pdf

    • This line of questioning is counter-productive and leads nowhere.

      I value more the discussion about ethical conduct in circumstances like this. I have really been appreciating the comments to that effect.

  • brad

    I have nothing substantial to add to this, but I’d like to join in the chorus saying James Franco would benefit from a public shaming.

  • pat

    I think you should just stop the correspondence.

    If you try trick answers (inaccurate or bulls**t, these could be made public at some point and reflect badly on you.

    If you go public and it’s a hacker using someone else’s e-mail, you’ve named and shamed the wrong person.

    If it’s a hoax, you didn’t take the bait.

    Is it really worth more of your energy than what you’ve already expended? You didn’t do the student’s assignment for him/her. I don’t feel you have any moral obligation to get into it further.

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  • Catzmaw

    Well, as one who also teaches I think you had exactly the right response. I have to say, though, that the whole incident reminded me of the Rodney Dangerfield movie where a rich industrialist goes back to college but doesn’t want to do the work. At one point Kurt Vonnegut appears and hands him a paper which the rich man has hired him to do on one of his novels. A few scenes later he gets the paper back with a mediocre grade on it and the professor tells him it’s because he doesn’t understand Vonnegut at all.

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