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Evolution of a Narrative

As more has been revealed about the AFAM scandal at UNC, the verbiage used to describe it has changed significantly from when the story first broke.

In May of 2012, UNC issued its first internal report into irregular classes in the African and Afro American Studies Department. Two-and-a-half years later, the local and national headlines scream about "fake" classes at Carolina. What follows is a look into the development of the narrative regarding the scandal and how the descriptive words the media has chosen to use in writing about the scandal have evolved over the last 30 months.

"Aberrant classes"

"Irregularly taught classes"

– Hartlyn-Andrews Report, May 4, 2012

UNC's initial report was issued in May, 2012, and described two types of classes under scrutiny in AFAM: aberrant classes, and irregularly taught classes. Aberrant classes as described in the Hartlyn-Andrews Report were what would later be known as the "Crowder paper classes" in that they required only a single written paper but no faculty member supervised the course or graded the work.  Irregularly taught classes were classes where a paper was assigned and graded but limited or no instruction occurred. These would line up most closely with the independent studies classes highlighted in the Wainstein Report. It is important to note that, while the Martin Report and later the Wainstein Report would delve much deeper into the whos, hows, whys, and how longs of the AFAM irregularities, the Hartlyn-Andrews Report essentially nailed what had happened from the very beginning. The foundations of the fraud are pretty much described in that report, and those foundations have not changed significantly in the two-plus years since.

Initial reporting of the Hartlyn-Andrews report by the media mostly used the terminology in the report, aberrant and irregular.

"Suspect class"

– Dan Kane and Andrew Carter, Raleigh News & Observer, June 8, 2012

Following up on the Hartlyn-Andrews report was this article from Dan Kane and UNC beat writer Andrew Carter. The headline read "UNC football players flocked to suspect class", referring to a specific class Julius Nyang'oro created in Summer 2011. We now know this was one of the six suspect classes he created after Debby Crowder retired.

"No-show classes"

"Paper classes"

– Dan Kane, Raleigh News & Observer, November 17, 2012

This is the article in which Kane first introduces Mary Willingham to the world. Kane describes the no-show classes as being billed as lecture classes but never met. He also introduces us to the term "paper classes", which was the internal term used to describe these courses since they only required a single paper.

"Anomalous classes"

– Martin Report, December 19, 2012

Governor Martin described the AFAM classes as "anomalous", but that term never grabbed hold in the media narrative. This was likely because A) so many in the media were disdainful of the Martin Report to begin with, and B) there was a better descriptor already in use.

"No-show classes"

Drake Group press release, March 14, 2013

This term appears in the Drake Group press release announcing it was giving Mary Willingham an award. While much of the press release is a re-hash of Kane's article from the previous November, "no-show classes" is pretty much the standard media term to describe the scandal for much of the first part of 2013.

"Academic fraud"

– Dan Kane, Raleigh News & Observer, June 8, 2013

Though it had appeared sporadically since the beginning, this is one of the first times Kane describes the scandal as a case of academic fraud, in this article which highlighted the request made by athletic academic counselor Jaimie Lee for Nyang'oro to add an AFAM paper course after Crowder had retired.

"Fraudulent classes"

– Jane Stancill, Raleigh News &Observer, October 7, 2013

Again, while the term had been tossed around from early stages of the scandal, this is one of the first times "fraudulent classes" is used in a headline. The use of the term was later helped to take hold by the indictment of Nyang'oro on criminal charges, which would come eight weeks later.

"Bogus classes"

– Troy Machir, Sporting News, March 31, 2014

Although used prior to this instance, I highlight this usage of the term "bogus classes" here because it was in conjunction with the Rosa Parks paper snippet, which was later found out to be bogus as well. But this term illustrates the significant shift in phraseology that has occurred, especially as it became open season on UNC in the wake of the Willingham controversies in the early part of 2014.

"Sham classes"

– Steve Delsohn, ESPN, June 6, 2014

This term was lifted from the Rashad McCants interview on Outside the Lines. It is interesting to note that while he confirmed the existence of paper classes, the thrust of his comments were that he had papers written for him, not that no papers were required.

"Fake classes"

– Dan Kane and Jane Stancill, Raleigh News & Observer, October 22, 2014

In the wake of the release of the Wainstein Report, the breathless headlines described the classes as "fake" and pretty much any news article written in the past three weeks will now use this descriptor.

So over the course of the past 2.5 years, the terminology used to describe the classes at the heart of the AFAM scandal has evolved from "aberrant" to "suspect" to "no-show" to "fraudulent" to "fake". And yet what the classes were and how they operated is essentially described the same in the Hartlyn-Andrews Report as in the Wainstein Report. In other words, the classes haven't changed, only the narrative-driving words to describe them have. As the stakes have gone higher, the verbiage has become more intense.

Which then leads to one final question: is "fake" the correct descriptor for the Crowder paper classes? I suppose it depends on your definition of the word "fake". On the one hand, the courses clearly were not offered as intended or designed. The courses received no supervision by a faculty member and the papers were not carefully graded, as nearly all students received high marks regardless of the quality of the work. On the other hand, fake connotates something that is not real, and the courses were real. They were course offerings from the AFAM department, and they were called paper classes for a reason - they required a paper to get credit. In fact, much of the email detail in the Wainstein Report involves academic advisers chasing down papers to ensure they were turned in to Crowder. Wainstein also noted there is no evidence that Crowder awarded credit without receiving a paper, so in that regard, they are not really fake.

In the end, this is the very difficult part and what will be a Gordian knot for the NCAA to unravel. It would be much easier if Crowder just made up some classes, enrolled athletes, and gave them grades, but she didn't. There were actual topics assigned (as evidenced in the Wainstein Report), and actual papers written. In fact, students didn't get a grade unless they turned in a paper. And the scheme appears to have been run the same for non-athletes as athletes.

Moreover, it would likely be nearly impossible to tell who made legitimate efforts at papers and who just cobbled together a cut-and-paste job. Likewise, it would also be impossible to distinguish what, if any, students or student-athletes knew Crowder was the mastermind (in fact, many of the Wainstein emails are students trying to contact Nyang'oro thinking he was in charge of the paper class).

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that patient zero in the AFAM mess, Michael McAdoo, was busted for plagiarizing a paper and receiving improper help from Jennifer Wiley, but he did so because he was apparently trying to complete the paper in earnest. If the fix was in and everyone knew it, why was he going to Wiley for help? And if he was legitimately working on an assignment, does that in fact make the class fake?

It's nuances like this why this entire academic scandal can't be summed up in pat terms that fit neatly in 140 characters, but that won't stop the purveyors of clicks from trying.