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


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! :)


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):


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?


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.



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?


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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