What scares me about the first-year Ryerson University engineering student who ran a cheating site on Facebook for himself and his fellow students is not his revolutionary defence of his right to intellectually shortchange himself.

Or even that he is so full of himself: yea, he sayeth unto a faculty committee that he has built a new path of online righteousness out of bricks made of smelly sweatsocks, worn-out parents, roaches and stems and, pace Rush, malignant narcissism.

It’s that he seems to think he is the first to play this game.

I had so much moral superiority when I was 18 that I could have sold it in cans. There wasn’t anything I did that I couldn’t find a way to justify.

Part of the problem was that I was a young “firm-feelin'” woman, as Waylon Jennings sang, and it made me smug, though how I intellectually translated the bloom of youth into the feeling that I should not have got a lousy C in my term paper on The Love Bug in film studies at the University of Toronto âe” no, don’t know how I managed that.

The only difference is that I took my C paper into the washroom and flushed it, and comforted myself by smoking some dope and watching a class showing of The Passenger, where director Michelangelo Antonioni won praise for letting the camera just sit there while Jack Nicholson walked in and out of view. Inventive or silly, you be the judge.

Seeking failure

I would never have dreamed of telling the TA I deserved better. (I did not deserve better, for those of you who aren’t asking.)

The other thing that scares me is the small irony of the student’s name, Chris Avenir. The surname is French for “future,” and Mr. Future is indeed our future and I am sorely troubled.

The April edition of The Walrus magazine has an article about one writer’s efforts to track down a single student who has actually flunked out of a Canadian university, i.e., been asked to leave because of low grades.

He failed.

This is not good.

Avenir and his 146 Facebook friends say they were simply operating a study group for a chemistry exam. The problem is that he solicited peers to “post solutions to the assignments,” not appearing to have noticed that chemistry is a science, a specific rather than a theoretical one.

You can discuss Wordsworth in a study group till the cows come home âe” I suspect he has a poem specifically about that âe” but that’s a more social science, difficult to grade.

American historian Susan Jacoby writes in The Age of American Unreason that Virginia Tech mass murderer Seung-Hui Cho had taken a course in contemporary horror, featuring the film Friday the 13th and novels by Stephen King and Patricia Cornwell.

Students were marked on their “fear journal” reaction to the syllabus. Jacoby despairs, partly because a horror course would have been better stocked with Crime and Punishment.

Virginia Tech, protecting the killer’s privacy, won’t release his marks. Or is their motive their intense embarrassment that such a bird course exists, or is it that he got an A? Once again, failure would have been better.

Fighting fogeys

Avenir’s position is essentially that online is different. It’s cool and the old fogeys don’t get that.

True, many old fogeys don’t understand the glory of life online, but when it comes to research that has to be done alone to train the brain, cheating via typing is no different from cheating via meeting in person.

It’s troubling that Avenir doesn’t understand fine distinctions. He’s hoping to be an engineer, a field where fine distinctions determine whether a bridge stands or collapses. But he also doesn’t grasp that no engineering firm intent upon avoiding lawsuits would want an employee who isn’t meticulous about methods, as opposed to results.

Avenir has put Ryerson in a difficult position, but all universities have this problem now. They have to justify teaching.

A friend of mine who is a chemistry professor tells me that every class includes students wearing iPods, the glaringly white cords dripping from their ears. “It reminds me of the photo from the 1950s of moviegoers at a cinema showing a 3-D flick.”

I attended both U of T and Ryerson (also in Toronto), and do alumni work for both. U of T has my respect; Ryerson has my love (their journalism school got me a real-life job). Ryerson president Sheldon Levy is taking the matter admirably calmly. “The university has taken a strong position âe” that they don’t want cheating, whether it’s online, offline, on campus, off campus,” he said. “And I’m surprised that we seem to be the first on it. But so, let it be, that’s fine.”

I, on the other hand, am incensed on behalf of the very students who would automatically dismiss this column; they damage their own interests.

University diplomas are considered so basic now that I encourage students to get an MA as well. That’s five or six years of study just to get a job interview, and academic standards are so low that interviewers must be highly discerning.

Degrees don’t guarantee competence. Avenir is telling universities to lower the bar. This would be fatal.


Last night, I read Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a 1999 novel that I had long avoided, weirdly, for its being too highly praised.

It’s about how human cruelty is inevitably re-enacted in a chain, upon oneself, the professor, the peasant, the ordinary, the evil, and ultimately upon domestic animals who regard us with mute reproach as we euthanize them out of pity. Who’s pitying who?

Coetzee’s seedy English professor forces sex upon a naïve student 30 years his junior. The university brings him to book, and he admits his offence. They plead with him to defend himself, to fudge, maybe return to work after contrition and counselling and contrition. Be reasonable, they say.

But he refuses the compromise. He did it, he says, and he enjoyed it, the sexual impulse being essential to him. He wants an F, a truthful failing professional grade, from the committee, and they’re trying to force a mendacious B- on him, the opposite of the Toronto student’s dilemma.

The truth is, I hope Ryerson fails or expels Avenir, but, Portia-like, gives him a second chance next year.

Even if he gets a degree, he’s going to be Googled for the next decade anyway. Maybe he could change his name or take up another line of study.

You can collaborate all you like as you learn to be, say, a chef, but you will be graded every night of your life when the food you created ends up on the plate.

Me, I never send food back no matter how bad it is, never wishing to hurt the chef’s feelings. I always give the working stiff a passing grade; it’s the liberal in me. I am fond of young people. I got all kinds of breaks when I was a very young woman, and I smile âe” with both chagrin and gratitude âe” at the recollection of it.