Saturday, December 19, 2009

Celebration for moving up to a higher echelon or for ending the nightmare?

The history keeps repeating herself everywhere. Every year about the same time, students at my department (and highly likely at other departments of other schools) came to the finishing line of their graduation thesis (or senior thesis with nothing to do with the honor program) by copying a large amount of materials from Master dissertations and pasting them (almost without editing) to their papers. Evidence abound. This year is of no exception. Two papers I read cited two references (one in English and another in Chinese) on page 1 but they were not in the references section. Poor folks! To me, their creditability was gone due to that detection. Here is what they (well, most of them) do. Students only read one paper (in Chinese, I bet) in which the author cited those papers. [I am not saying that the latter must have read those papers.] After copying and pasting them in a minute or so, our students did not even spend time to track down those references. Some time ago, I had a conversation with one of my friend who is a big shot at some good program. What I suggested him to do is the following. Let his student cite a non-existig paper (dealing with a hot topic) in the student’s thesis. Given the reputation of my friend and great influence, I bet that in five years this non-existing paper can be a common reference in many Master dissertations in Taiwan. Will it interest editors at AER?
Could be.

Knowing how students finish their papers, I honestly do not find any reason to feel happy about their coming to the finishing line. But they all looked so happy. So, I must be wrong about it. I then came to a hypothesis. They must be celebrating for two reasons. One is that they knew by heart that they did not really learn a good deal from course work and use those as ground work to write a paper but luckily they fooled everybody. Another is that they worked hard and saw the harvest. Both are good reasons for them to celebrate. The question is: how many of them belong to the first category? And the second category? Here is an analogy which may not be politically correct. My apology and disclaimer go first. After decades of searching, a woman finally got married. Her excitement might be (1) finally a poor man married her as a result of information asymmetry and will suffer immensely till the day he dies, or (2) her long search for true love is finally justified. We truly wish it is (2) should we be her guests at the wedding.

While I was in the doctoral program back to the late 1980s, one day at the toilet, I overheard a brief conversation between a young Assistant Professor and another one. Both were teaching management courses, not economics courses. They did not know me. “Gee! Finally it is the (Spring) break! I swear that no book, no paper, no reading, no writing for me for the entire week,” proudly said by that Assistant Professor. He lost my respect since then.

My advisor, James Foster, was the opposite. Lucky me! As a matter of fact, I must be blessed to have all my professors and mentors coming from another category. Pursuing the truth, learning, and striving for excellence are all habits, not endowed gift. Some have them but some don’t. The V.P. (very powerful) (lady) M is a character. I know that many people around, with myself included occasionally, say nasty things about her. I am pleased to live with that because I know that many people also dislike me, well, not necessarily for the same reasons. So, as far as the unpopularity contest is concerned, she might get more votes than I. Even for that matter, I have every reason to wholeheartedly wish her live longer, work harder, and just do not retire before I do. On December 18, out of my surprise she showed up for the graduation papers showcase. She did not give a speech and leave. Instead, she picked a seat on a row at the back and paid good attention to all papers presented. I must also add that somehow she must be having a very good mood by judging from her comments given. I read all the papers before that day but she did not have such information. Still, she asked good questions, showing that she was not wasting her three hours by sitting there. A paper with a serious flaw was immediately pointed out by her. By the way, her expertise is about language instruction, which is far away from business field.

Now, can anyone tell me why we should celebrate?