Cheating and Stealing
In my undergrad, my two friends and I divided up our listening test list and developed a complicated set of signals to represent each piece. Tchaikovsky, I’ll scratch my ear. Chopin, I’ll rub my nose. That sort of thing. It was what is probably now considered old-school in terms of listening tests. The prof would drop the needle (literally) in the middle of the development section of a 20-minute symphonic movement by one of the late Romantic greats and you’d not only have to identify it, but what was happening at the time. Strings playing a fragment of Theme 1 from the exposition, but transposed to C# minor…you get the idea.
So a piece comes on, and my friend and I are thinking “what the…” and our other friend casually reaches back to scratch his ear. Good. We start writing down Tchaikovsky only to glance up again and see him wildly waving his hand behind his head in an “abort! abort!” motion. I think I got 30% on that test. We still talk about it every time we get together: a failed mission.
The next year, again pummelled by my workload and nearing the end of term, I was tasked with writing a 12-tone row and a bunch of variations on it for my 20th century music theory class. At 2 a.m. the night before it was due, I stared desperately at my textbook and thought, screw it. I’ll just invert and retrograde the example that’s in here (I don’t know why this was my solution, but it was). In class the next week, after marking the assignments, my prof announced that Gillian had come up with the best tone row of the whole class! and could she please explain to everyone how she did it? He wasn’t catching me; he was a very sweet man who truly believed I had done something amazing. I mumbled something about being inspired by the textbook and he pushed for a better answer, hoping that I could illuminate the rest of the class on how simple it was to create a tone row.
The moral of these two stories? Don’t cheat.
Ha! I’m kidding. The real moral is: don’t cheat without a backup plan.
I’m kidding again. (Or am I?) I don’t want to lose my job, so let’s say I’m kidding.
The reality is, we all know that students cheat. I got an email last week inviting me to a workshop to find out why students cheat. Um, no. They’re busy, lazy, overworked, and partying. And they have to do dumb assignments that they don’t want to do (except in my classes). That’s why. After my two relatively mild (and failed) attempts at cheating, I learned my lesson and didn’t do it again. Except the time my friend and I split up the homework in our French reading class and copied the other’s work. We got caught. Then I stopped. I almost used that as the basis for my speech at her wedding last year, and then I realized that I couldn’t start the night off with “when I knew Deb, she was such a cheater…”
I’ve had to pull students into my office and work my little plan on them to get them to confess to cheating – something I won’t explain on a public site, because it really works. Sometimes they leave crying, and I feel awful, because I try to do it in gentlest way possible. I guess professors are scary. I spend much of my working time trying to prevent cheating, searching online for my old exams, and busting students who weren’t smart about it, and I’m sure I’ve missed many of them.
Cheating is not well-regarded for obvious reasons. Look to the recent TDSB scandal or any similar story, and really, you can see why people are pissed off that their tax dollars are paying someone to google for 10 minutes and come up with something they wrote “themselves”. If there’s one thing school should teach you, it is that there are consequences to faking it. But that doesn’t happen. Everybody cheats.
This isn’t my latest country song. I’m not going down that road – cheating on your honey is a whole other issue that I don’t want to deal with in this post. I am, however, going down the “everybody cheats” road in music. Some hide it well: I only recently figured out that one of my favourite songwriters is kind of a plagiarizer, and I was initially upset about it, then I realized I was upset that I thought this person was original, and then I thought who cares, because nothing is original. People just learn to spin old material into a new format, and even if they don’t do it well, what’s wrong with hearing something from the past that you like?
Obviously it worked for Billy Joel (I think I’ve posted this somewhere before because I remember getting shit for it):
Easy to plagiarize Beethoven when there’s no Beethoven estate chasing after you. Anyway, it all came back full circle on Billy, sort of:
(Those who are pissed at me for leading this discussion with Billy Joel songs, just take a minute and listen to this one. Seriously. It’s a good song. What if Townes Van Zandt wrote it, or Johnny Cash? You’d be extolling its virtues; a fine example of songwriting at its best. You’d be posting your own covers to youtube. Am I right?)
Everyone forgets that before the Beatles – and that’s Rubber Soul, halfway through their career – nobody cared if a singer was performing their own songs. Our obsession with originality is a relatively new one.
When I went to the annual Banjo Special last week (if you’re ever in Toronto for it, go), the group opened with “Zip Coon” (sorry about the title), an old minstrel tune that spun off into a bunch of well-known folk songs. I’m sure all of you on this site are familiar with it and its children, but if not, can you hear ’em all?
And, as Ed said last week in another post, we wouldn’t have country the way we do, and certainly not the Carter Family, if A.P. hadn’t been hell-bent on gathering as many songs as he could find to record with the group. Screw oral tradition, when you can copyright that shit and make some cash. Anyway, it keeps the songs alive, right?
When can you get away with immoral behaviour and when can’t you? Are the best songwriters the ones who have us fooled the longest? Is it wrong to cheat when nobody is smart enough to figure out that you’ve done it? I’m still kind of obsessed with this idea of amorality, which may have been evident in my recent posts on drinking, breaking all your social connections, tossing God out the window, and spousal abuse. Seems to me, morality is better understood when you’re just worrying about taking someone else’s melody.
Or is it?