Boots and Rallies

by Aaron Pellowski | 1/8/15 11:06pm

As a veteran whiner, I’ve found it useful over the years to get deep inside the object of my complaints. With due diligence, I research information that permits me to locate the tenderest zone of the person or institution I want to lambast, and there lay the jackhammer tip of my pen. Slurs and lies just don’t wound the way facts do.

Yet there are some things that boggle me so severely that I doubt I will ever understand them well enough to render a truly rigorous and systematic critique. One example is found in those who are somehow still ignorant that Winnie the Pooh is supposed to be the ghost of Christopher Robin’s dead infant brother. If it isn’t blazingly clear from the text, the internet should have filled them in at some point.

Another example — the people who come into One Wheelock and the Top of the Hop and begin playing the pianos. What is with you lot? You just walked into an entirely silent room of studying students and concluded that what these folks need most right now is your divine musical talent, and you, the 21st Century Orpheus that you are, could not settle for any of the sound-proof practice rooms available to students downstairs? You really thought it utterly chill of you to penetrate my tranquility with your dreamy blandscape personal composition?

Oh, and you’re going to sing along, too?

Good Christ. Either you have some truly Jurassic cojones, or you are just bizarrely clueless and selfish. I can only suppose your mother either never hugged you as a child, or hugged you far too much.

Another thing I don’t understand at all is cheating. The recent coverage of the so-called “Clickergate” has piqued my befuddlement in a few ways. Item one: our apparently helpless commitment to affix ‘-gate’ to the name of every last scandal. Nausea wells in me as I contemplate an incoming generation unfamilar with the historical origin of this awful bit of linguistics. Item two: Last November, The Dartmouth published its comparative report of the cheating scandal at Chapel Hill. In an ironic quirk, one professor trotted out his course as a good-faith example of an attempt to accommodate athletes struggling with overcommitment. Which professor? Just Randall Palmer, the religion professor who taught “Sports, Ethics and Religion.” The episode came into the public’s eye a week later: Balmer’s students are the very ones who are the alleged perpetrators of Clickergate. Though our scandal hardly compares with the gargantuan “shadow-curriculum” affair at UNC, the tone of the article’s interviewees is overwhelmingly suggestive of a holier-than-they, can’t-happen-here attitude — an attitude that I expect was somewhat damaged a few days later.

I, too, would have dismissed rumors of a “culture of cheating” as a myth, mostly because I don’t understand cheating at all. While I wipe the crow-feathers from my jowls, however, I still feel great confusion over the matter. Now to be fair, as a mere exercise of the mind, I regularly think about how I could cheat on a multitude of assignments, just as I frequently indulge myself in contemplating the means to a perfect murder, as many others do. But why someone would ever actually cheat beats me to smithereens.

Because, for me, taking a class is about feeling smart. I try really hard in difficult classes because if I do well, it will make me feel smart. I’m more lackadaisical about easy courses since doing well or poorly there doesn’t really indicate much. My transcript reflects this attitude. Until I was brutalized by a class on the reconstructive linguistics of ancient Greek, my lowest grade had come in Italian 02 my freshman winter, which was by all means a cheesecake course. That same term I had taken an intensive five-person seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In order to feel smart, I dumped almost every hour of my free time into preparing for the class. I did substantially better in a course untangling a tome of overblown German obscurantism than I did in an introductory course on the Italian language.

But no one can feel smart by cheating. Scanning a transcript of nothing but flat As could make one feel successful, but if these grades were obtained fraudulently, one could hardly say he or she felt smart. It’s not dishonesty or disrespect for a professor that concerns me here, since I concede the possibility that there are some professors whose conduct disqualifies them of the respect of their students. It’s about priorities.

Still, I am concerned with the discussion about the culprits, many of whom are athletes. I also wonder whether their status as athletes alters the ethics of the matter at all. While I do not want to apologize for or appear to endorse cheating, I do think that an athlete who cheats has to be judged differently from a NARP. I have always held great suspicion and distaste for students who speak pejoratively against the intelligence of athletes and, by extension, the legitimacy of their place at Dartmouth. Our athletes, though they are not the best in the country, are still miles above the median. They also have much more work to do, in the form of games, travel, practice, lift, etc. I am very careful about my use of the word “elitist,” since I feel that it is often a term hastily applied to winners by losers. But I can’t help but detect an elitist vibe in conversations in which Dartmouth’s status as an academic institution is given such unjustified priority over its status as an athletic institution — thus eliciting a lot of sneering remarks against classmates who have unbelievably higher amounts of commitments and expectations.

Unlike me, athletes are not enrolled at Dartmouth exclusively to satisfy two goals — namely, to feel smart and to feel academically successful. They also have a third goal — they hope to feel strong or fast or precise or whatever attribute relevant to the sport they play. Even an extremely talented individual may have difficulty handling all three. Focusing on two of these goals, while doing what one feels is one’s only option in order merely to survive, not excel, in the third strikes me as a little less morally repugnant. Anyone who cheats in order to look or feel successful or smart is a criminal unto society and themselves. But cheating for other reasons, while not forgivable, can’t be considered quite so vicious.

Bigger questions should be asked. Is it just or fair that Dartmouth subjects some of its students to additional burdens without sufficient compensatory accommodation? Is it emblematic of a good and healthy culture that we tolerate these burdens and even perpetuate them through unquestioned negative stereotypes of athletes? I think no, but as I stated up front, I don’t really understand the issue perfectly. There’s a good chance I’m just laying the groundwork for a secondary argument that students should be allowed to major in pong.