Thoughts on Basler
Issue   |   Tue, 09/25/2012 - 23:44

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.

A Senior (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/26/2012 - 01:00

I think the dominating narrative here of Basler, and potentially so many others, having some "writing insecurity" that makes plagiarism or cheating more likely is unfounded. The act of lifting entire passages of work from other sources speaks to someone who is deeply uncomfortable not with the act of writing, but with her ability to think, speak, and process information.

This news is a terrible shock to the Amherst campus, and I think the take-away is to think about ways to foster an environment where students feel absolutely comfortable speaking in their own voice, both socially, and also academically. If you feel as if you have something --- some voice --- to really contribute to the world, I can't imagine that you are drawn to the banal world of plagiarism.

A recent grad (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/26/2012 - 10:22

Plagiarism in academia is amazingly rare. That's a fact. Most cases involve accomplished white scholars, not scholars of color. This editorial and the feature article both demean and degrade students and faculty of color by suggesting that they are more likely to plagiarize than their white colleagues. After the editorial on affirmative action, this editorial and feature suggest that the Amherst Student - even when it is trying to defend a disgraced professor who brought EVERYTHING on herself - is hostile to students and faculty of color. Being of color, so to speak, does not get you guys off the hook. You have played into every last stereotype of brown people as incapable, prone to crime, and unable to work as hard as white people.

I wonder what other professors of color on this campus think, now that Basler and the Amherst Student have tarred them with this stuff. Think of Lopez, Parham, Ferguson, Cobham-Sander, Abiodun, Jaffer, Suarez, and others. They are accomplished scholars who surely struggled with writing, yet NEVER EVER CHEATED. Acting like this is not a serious transgression and leaving it at that degrades and demeans them are top-notch thinkers and scholars and implicitly brings them under suspicion.

Benjamin Lin (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/26/2012 - 10:53

I felt quite consistently that at Amherst we didn't actually talk about academic honesty and integrity that much - just continually lauded ourselves for being intelligent students and brilliant people generally. There were no orientation events about "what exactly is plagiarism" or "examples of academic dishonesty." We talk so much about alcohol and sex during orientation, assuming people have had diverse experiences with respect to dealing with these things in a new environment. Why don't we focus also on academic honesty, and making sure we are "oriented" in that sense as well? Given recent revelations about the widespread cheating allegations at Harvard, or the news with Prof Basler, I think it is warranted.

an author of th... (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/26/2012 - 14:06

Dear recent grad,

I understand your concerns that this article may seem patronizing to students and professors of colour, and I also understand that simply saying "we weren't referring to race or minorities who have insecurities-- just students in general!" is not an easy way out-- there are a lot of implict assumptions that go into who experiences insecurity the most and for what reasons, and it is true that it is assumed students of colour are the ones who experience insecurities the most because of institutionalized and subtle racism that invalidates their contributions. However, at the outset, we made it very clear that we are holding Basler responsible for her actions and not using a victim of racism narrative to remove her agency in committing the acts of plagiarism that she did. Rather, we wanted to point to the existence of a hostile, high pressure culture at Amherst that-- regardless of how many people shine and cope brilliantly with it-- still exists. And it's something the institution needs to address, because it's becoming a high pressure, meritocracy pushing, suffocating environment for many students.

As one of the authors who pushed for this article, my personal motivation was that I have had students -- both of colour, and white-- talk to me several times about how they feel that they are the only ones who are not able to cope with Amherst academics, and there's a disturbing lack of public platform to discuss these insecurities so as to realize that they are commoner than one might think. In light of the relevations from faculty-- that they can feel this high pressure too- it seemed like a good time to discuss this topic. We don't need more platforms because students of colour are unable to cope (because this is not true, and we cope just as well as the rest do or don't), we need more platforms because we have an institutional responsibility towards students not just to push them to achieve their limits but ensure that they are getting support every step of the way in their attempts to do so. We don't need more platforms because other professors of colour are going to replicate Basler's acts (or because Basler herself had no agency and was a victim of circumstances), we need more platforms because while people are responsible for their own choices, the institution is also responsible for creating circumstances where these choices don't seem to be necessary at all. The whole point of this article was not that there is this phenomenon of minority students struggling, but that there are certain institutional responsibilities that recent events have perhaps highlighted that the institution isn't upholding.

recent alum (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/26/2012 - 15:28

I thought this editorial was sickening in its advancement of the notion that it's partially the College's fault that Basler cheated because it promotes a competitive, meritocratic academic environment, which stresses people out. It's an affront to the vast majority of the Amherst community (myself included) who have felt insecurity and stress with respect to being as accomplished or as academically talented as their peers, but who have coped with that stress in ways that don't devalue the entire academic endeavor. I feel personal sympathy for Basler - how could you not? But the implication that the fault for cheating lies anyplace other than with her is absurd.

Recent Alum (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/26/2012 - 16:11

To hold anyone accountable besides the professor in question is insane. She has been cheating since graduate school. Why is this in anyway the institution's fault? Amherst should be a school which prides itself on having excellent faculty where novel research and thought is expressed and celebrated. Discussing a culture of "academic struggle" is an excellent dialogue to have in reference to helping students as they begin their academic journey. Amherst is not an institution that needs to prop up professors. We shouldn't be keeping professors because they struggle. We should have an open culture which allows professors to discuss with colleagues about difficulties, but someone who has struggle their entire career with the very thing they are trying to teach their students........Why should this be Amherst's fault at all?

Tenured Faculty... (not verified) says:
Fri, 09/28/2012 - 20:45

I have to say as a tenured African American faculty member at a flagship state university who has written one scholarly monograph, one textbook, and 12 peer-reviewed articles, I find this hand wringing foolish and incredibly insulting to minority faculty. This woman cheated period. Why? Because, she was too lazy to do her job, something countless numbers of minority faculty do everyday. Have I had tons of articles rejected? Of course. Have I had book manuscripts rejected? Yes. Did I feel frustrated about my writing everyday of my academic career? Of course. Did I decide to use another scholar's work and fail to cite them properly? Hell no.

Butch (not verified) says:
Sat, 09/29/2012 - 08:06

Agree with tenured faculty comment. Don't over think this or look for victims. Basler did a bad thing. It's rare at a place like Amherst but it happens.

Incidentally, speaking of writing styles, I'd suggest the Student editorialist(s) retake Writing 101. Awkward, roundabout sentences with needless rhetorical flourishes. A little insecure, as it were. Write directly, plainly and pithily. A good rule of thumb is to write the way you speak.

Colleague from ... (not verified) says:
Fri, 10/05/2012 - 23:23

This article is right and wrong. I do believe that the world would be a better place if we all shared our record of failures -- rejected articles, jobs not gotten, embarrassing performances on oral exams, bad talks given, and so on. It would humanize all of us and what we do. At the same time, I think I was 6 when I was told that copying someone else's ideas and putting my name on them was wrong (I had this idea that if I copied Little House in the Big Woods verbatim, I would become its author and therefore be Laura Ingalls Wilder). Later, I learned that the basis of academic inquiry was building on other people's ideas while giving them credit for having had them -- that research was fundamentally collective, but that we needed to distinguish between what had been done already and what we were doing now. What Professor Basler did is fundamentally antithetical to the project we are all in as scholars.