The news of former professor Carleen Basler’s academic plagiarism came as a shock to the entire College community, with several students and faculty expressing intense dismay at the revelations about someone who is revered an idol, mentor and friend. While we at The Student do not wish to opine on the particularities of Basler’s case, we do wish to use this incident to highlight an important problem that not only plagues members of the College’s own academic community, but also elite institutions across the map: the lack of adequate support networks for the high pressures of academia.
At the outset, The Student would like to firmly register its ardent opposition to plagiarism in all manners and forms. This editorial does not serve to excuse or defend Basler’s actions, but merely allow the incident, along with observations of academic stress and difficulties amongst students as well, to illuminate a disturbing phenomenon in the culture of the College that could prove detrimental to all members of the community in the long run. The speculation of the existence of this phenomenon comes not just from this one incident, but the fact that this incident may complement the personal experiences of many students as well.
Although Basler did not herself give a reason for her acts of plagiarism, several professors have pointed to the fact that she felt insecure about her writing and believed that she could not share these concerns openly, despite the existence of supportive colleagues and resources. Students, both past and current, have also complained about being in similar situations: many talk about feeling isolated in their insecurities, as though no other student faces the same issues. There are two things to take away from this: first, that we should try and understand why such a culture exists, and second, look for solutions for this problem.
While it is fair to say that Amherst would not be unique in fostering a culture of competitiveness, high academic standards and academic insecurity, perhaps it is worth examining factors inherent in the College that could create such an environment. The small size and high prestige of the institution naturally lends itself to a sense of claustrophobia that accentuates the already existing pressures in the lives of those involved in academia. In addition, the lack of dialogue amongst students and faculty about insecurities further intensifies these feelings: “if no one else talks about it, no one else must be feeling it.” There exists no forum or platform through which insecurities faced by students can be shared and discussed. Many laud the “brilliance” and “startling achievements” of our student body, and while these achievements do need to be highlighted, the lack of balance further emphasizes to students who have insecurities that they are a small minority, when the reality is that a large majority of the student population have, at some point or the other, felt that they are not up to the caliber of the institution.
It will be difficult to seek solutions to a seemingly endemic problem to a top institution, but the Student believes that the first steps towards solving the issue are obvious: to create more dialogue amongst both faculty and students about these issues. Questions need to be raised as well: how effective is the Writing Center in addressing insecurities regarding writing, and is it used enough? If not, then how can the Writing Center or Q-Center be made more accessible and less stigmatized, if it is stigmatized at all? What other institutional (and non-institutional) support can be provided that makes student not feel like they are not alone, and that grades, papers or conversation skills in class do not reflect their worth, as either a student, scholar or person?
It is important not to write this incident off without analysis and use it to reflect on systemic issues to make Amherst a healthier and safer community for all.