As I noted a few posts ago (“On Why I’ve Not Posted Much Recently”), I recently attended the U.S. Department of Education’s annual meeting on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention in Higher Education. One event I attended at this meeting was a “Town Meeting” (actually a fairly standard panel discussion, with short presentations by several panelists, followed by questions and open discussion) on the topic “Complementary or Contradictory Prevention Strategies: Finding a Balance Between Nonuse and Harm Reduction Messages.”
One speaker I found especially interesting was James Bryant, senior youth program specialist for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving’s UMADD program (basically MADD on university campuses). While most of the other panelists argued for a complementary strategy of emphasizing nonuse of alcohol for underage students, or those not wishing to drink on college campuses, alongside harm reduction messages for students who do choose to drink, Bryant, speaking specifically about underage students, argued forcefully and consistently for nonuse prevention strategies.
Bryant made a number of interesting arguments to this end. He pointed out that 18 – 21 year olds who go on to college have higher drinking rates than those who do not, an interesting correlation whether or not you accept his conclusion from this that there must be something about the atmosphere of college campuses that contributes to this (personally, I think he’s probably right on this), and that harm reduction strategies tend to reaffirm the naturalness of drinking on campuses (I find this claim plausible, but I’m not sure I’d consider it probable, much less proven – see my recent post, “Possible, Plausible, Probable, Proven.”)
His other arguments were basically that since underage drinking was illegal, and since students who don’t drink can’t drink and drive, then there should be consistent use of alcohol nonuse messages.
He then employed an interesting analogy. The rationale of harm reduction messages is that some students will drink anyway, so we should emphasize “responsible drinking” or “drinking in moderation.” He argued that that’s a bit like arguing that since some students will cheat on tests no matter what we do, that we should emphasize “responsible cheating” or “cheating in moderation” – something that, of course, no college campus would do.
While his talk was engaging and provocative, and while I do have the utmost respect for his organization, I ultimately found the analogy to be limited when applied to the university setting. There are two complications to the analogy. First, while underage students who drink might be “cheating,” students who are 21 or over are engaging in legal behavior when they drink – they’re not cheating. (They might do so illegally or illicitly if they drink in prohibited places, but their drinking per se is perfectly legal.) Second, while it’s true that people who don’t drink can’t drink and drive, it’s not the case that people who drink do necessarily drink and drive. That is, “drinking” doesn’t seem to me “cheating” (especially for of-age students) in the same way that “drinking and driving” might be, and harm reduction strategies are better suited to making such distinctions (perhaps in combination with nonuse messages for underage students).
In continuing to think about Bryant’s analogy, in particular the “cheating” side of thing, I actually began to realize that I tend to take a “harm reduction” approach to cheating. Bryant’s right that I wouldn’t ever tell students to cheat responsibly or in moderation, but in practice I tend to structure course assignments in such a way as to mitigate the harmful effects of cheating rather than emphasizing the policing of cheating. For example, I’m aware of how easy it is for students nowadays to copy and paste a document of the web to submit as a paper. When I assign papers, part of the assignment is to produce a number of shorter texts in stages (such as selection of the topic, an abstract, an outline with a detailing of the logical argument and sources of evidence for the paper, a rough draft, and a revised draft). In part, this helps students write better papers, and that’s my main reason for structuring the assignments this way, but it also means that it’s barely worth it for a student to plagiarize a text from the web, because they’ll have to recapitulate the process of having written it in the first place in order to get a decent grade (and they’ll end up learning something despite their best efforts not to).