In years past, the course, Introduction to Congress, had a reputation as one of the easiest at Harvard College. Some of the 279 students who took it in the spring semester said that the teacher, Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government, told them at the outset that he gave high grades and that neither attending his lectures nor the discussion sessions with graduate teaching fellows was mandatory.
“He said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,’ ” one accused student said.
But evaluations posted online by students after finals — before the cheating charges were made — in Harvard’s Q Guide were filled with seething assessments, and made clear that the class was no longer easy. Many students, who posted anonymously, described Dr. Platt as a great lecturer, but the guide included far more comments like “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken.”
In other words, a substantial number of students at one of America’s elite educational institutions expected a gut course, and were appalled when they were expected to learn something and given exams where there was some risk of bad performance.
The other oddity of this case is that I’m baffled why you would make an exam in an intro course with questions this narrow and specific a take-home rather than an in-class exam. I’d be interested to know what other instructors out there do, but I only give out take-home exams in upper-division courses where there are broad essay questions that would make inappropriate levels of collaboration obvious. This isn’t a defense of the students if they did what they were accused of — leaving aside the pathetic sense of entitlement, they violated rules that were clearly specified in advance, and that’s cheating. But it also seems pretty obvious to me that unnecessarily creating rules that are extremely difficult to enforce is going to lead to more cheating than is necessary.