Teaching Help: A Case of Dirty Hands?

December 13, 2011

Political Theory


In today’s academic world, the interaction between students and teachers has become very involved, with extra office hours, one-on-one help and extra credit. Grades have become very subject, even in classes that seem to solely rely on tests. But when does this help become too much? How many breaks can a teacher cut a student before the interaction becomes unfair? As a highly-motivated student, I have personally probably asked about 80% of my teachers for some sort of way to remedy my grade in cases where my scores have gotten me into trouble. Whether asking for a round up from an 89 to a 90, extra time for assignments, or help with an essay, I have definitely used this resource to my advantage.

Despite my liberal use of this system, I never really considered if it might be wrong – after all, teachers give help out to students all of the time. They’re always available, so couldn’t anybody could get the same help? Perhaps not. Being able to talk to teachers is definitely something that depends on your personality and confidence. Some people might be intimidated by professors or be embarrassed to ask for help, while others such as myself view the process as something that is almost routine (although a real bruise to the ego it may be). I’m not saying that I’m some manipulator or suave individual, but I’ve always been comfortable dealing with my professors, GSIs, and high school teachers as well. So does that give me an unfair advantage?

It seems as though teachers themselves never know where they’re going to draw the line until they actually do; college-level teachers seem to have pretty good control and easily recognize how much aid they can give out, but I remember a few instances in high school where I got away with murder. But obviously this is not just the case with me – it seems as though most people  who I talk to feel similarly. But that again brings us back to the teachers themselves: how do they feel about this? It is not their job to be cold, heartless machines who are completely numb to students’ issues; they are here to help us learn, not churn out a GPA.

So finally, do the benefits of teachers’ aid outweigh the potential moral costs? Where is the line between enough and too much help?

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7 Comments on “Teaching Help: A Case of Dirty Hands?”

  1. nozomigg Says:

    In general, I believe teachers are here to, as you mentioned, help students – not cheat with them. With that being said, I think anything that involves providing assistance to a student to work on assignment is something that is acceptable in teaching. However, anything that involves something like changing a grade afterwards, or manipulating the education system, crosses the line and make teachers just as bad as the students who ask for it.
    The best way to view this would be to look take Socrates’s view of education into account. He believed that an education was one that prepared students to think about the world and understand life. With that in mind, he would undoubtedly offer any of sort of help to students completing an assignment as long as, in the end, they were able to come to some sort of wisdom. He would guide them through good work ethic. What he would not care about is the grade being received afterwards, because not only is that not always a true measure of the ability being displayed, but it’s used mainly for artificially reporting success to colleges and employers. This is not what the purpose of education is – to get your student into a good college – but many teachers lose sight of that and offer engage in manipulating the role of a teacher to do so.

  2. hannahlevitt Says:

    The issue of teachers helping students can be evaluated in terms of dirty hands. As mentioned above, one common case of help from students to teachers is rounding grades up, i.e. from an 89 to a 90. If the teacher wants to give a student a grade that he or she thinks the student deserves, he or she has the right to do so, right? Isn’t that their job? This can be a tricky issue, however I think Machiavelli would argue in favor of the teacher helping the student out if the student deserves it. Even if the means are a little unethical, the outcome is the one desired. I agree that it is up to the teacher to decide what grade his or her student deserves, and therefore if they have to offer a little extra credit or bump up a grade, that is within their right as a teacher. It is when the student doesn’t deserve it and the teacher helps the student because he or she likes the student as a person, is family friends with the student, etc. that this issue gets trickier.

  3. isobelkraft Says:

    I think you bring up a good point about the ability to deal with professors and GSIs being attributed to one’s personality. However, I don’t believe that this can be considered a point of unfairness. It is not someone’s fault that they are shy or nervous (or possibly too proud) to receive help from professors or GSI, but it is also not the person willing to ask for help’s fault either. It is fact in the world that those who have more confidence and understand how to work the system (like talking to professors to get help or raise their grade) will make you more successful in life.

    As for your question about the line when it comes to professors giving aid to students, there is definitely a point where it is too much. The professors, like you said, should be able to set their own limits on how much they are willing to help with giving extra time or “rounding up” grades. For example, the professors should be aware of the students that are continuously asking for these types of things, so that they don’t abuse the system. However, when it comes for asking for help assignments, there really should be no limit to a students own prerogative to do better.

  4. chkeeler Says:

    I strongly believe that the majority of teachers, especially at a prestigious University like the University of Michigan, are here to help students understand material and help them perform well in the class. Because of the level of difficulty within the class, GSIs and professors offer their resources and time to students who are willing to go outside their comfort zone and ask for help. If students show concern that they want do succeed in the class and engage in the material, there should not be a limit to the amount of help teachers and GSIs provide.
    If teachers are willing to provide help, they must feel the material within the class is challenging and worthwhile, and will go to every effort to prepare their students. Most of the help provided, I fell, is in good intent. I agree that sometimes teachers provide answers rather than explanations when giving help just to make their jobs easier, more so at the high school level. This ultimately hinders the students ability to think critically, and makes them expect easier tests from future professors. If a student wants to succeed in a class, he/she must take into account the type of teacher they have and ask for help accordingly. There is no moral wrong in asking/providing help.

  5. tyhughes2014 Says:

    I am not seeing a very strong connection between students receiving additional help and Machiavelli’s dirty hands problem. The way I interpreted the dirty hands problem through the reading, lecture, and discussion was committing an act that may be seem unmoral or unjust but in reality is providing a greater good to society (or a just specific group of people). I may agree with your argument that by meeting with a professor or GSI you are committing an immoral and/or unjust act by bumping up your grade (although this would only hurt others if the class were graded on a curve). I, however, do not agree with the portion of dirty hands that says by doing this, you are benefiting the greater good of the overall organization (the class in this case). I believe that the only person that serves to benefit from such an act is you.

    My personal opinion on the matter is that, as long as the class is not graded based off a curve, the interactions that go on between a professor or GSI and a student is between those individuals and if both parties feel the grade change is just, there is no problem. Other students should not complain about the matter because they have the same opportunity. Using your professor and/or GSI is a resource and if you choose to utilize such a resource, you also deserve any reward that comes from it.There is no moral cost to such an interaction.

    Overall, the idea is interesting and thought-provoking, but I just do not think it can be directly applied to Machiavelli’s Dirty Hands issue because of the lack of a greater good.

  6. verlong Says:

    This is a really interesting post. I had never really thought about this topic until you brought it up. I’m a really busy person, and usually have something scheduled for every professor and GSI’s office hours. The past couple of years I have just shrugged it off and dealt without the help like I did in high school. However, this past semester I have been able to make more office hours, and have even scheduled extra ones with my GSI’s to see if I could get some help on assignments and concepts. I found that getting together in a one-on-one environment is really helpful, and am regretful that I didn’t start doing it earlier. It really can help a lot, both in understanding the material and having the GSI realize your work ethic (maybe even giving you the benefit of the doubt later on, including maybe even giving you an extension on papers, etc.).

    Now the problem is what about students like me who are too busy to make the office hours, but are too shy to schedule outside ones? Or maybe just too shy in general, but could make the office hours? Some people may say that they should “suck it up” and go. These people don’t realize how hard it is for some people to do that. I think in cases like these, it is partially the responsibility of the teachers to help catch the students that may be falling by the wayside. They should not have to babysit, but a good teacher can see when someone is struggling. Maybe that extra boost would help take the confidence up to the next level.

    Overall, I don’t think that extra help is cheating. It is a resource that is there for a reason. Some utilize it, some don’t. You can’t blame people one way or another. Some people need the extra teaching help, and some don’t. Although receiving an extension or having a grade boost can sometimes be seen as fishy, under most circumstances it is understandable and acceptable. Teachers don’t want you to fail, and want to help in anyway they can. And if you take the initiative, even better.

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