On my honor

The latest release of annual data on honor code violations at the College shows cheating and plagiarism is not abating. Though it is difficult to gauge the real prevalence of academic dishonesty among students, any of us could take a cursory look at the academic pressure cooker and notice acts of dishonesty large and small, the majority of which students will get away with. National data suggest that high rates of cheating are par for the course at American colleges and universities, but we as a community can and should aspire to reduce cheating and plagiarism as much as is possible.

Though some will point out that dishonorable individuals will likely act dishonorably in perpetuity, the more important question in students’ minds seems be to what it even means to act dishonorably. Ask yourself: What is the College’s honor code? Most students probably know that you can find the “Statement of Academic Honesty,” which was adopted in 1971, on PeopleSoft. Checking off the three required boxes – one each for the Honor Code, the Statement of Academic Honesty and the “Guidelines” regarding academic honesty – comprises the only interaction with the Honor Code most students will have all year. It states on PeopleSoft that the College Honor Code consists of the Statement and the Guidelines. In checking the box (or “signing” the Honor Code, rather) you are also expected to “understand that it is my responsibility to be familiar with and to abide by the college regulations stated in the Course Catalog, the Student Handbook, and in official college notices published online and/or delivered to student mailboxes throughout the academic year.” That begins to sound like the Honor Code also covers the social matters delineated in the Student Handbook, and while it does not, one would be forgiven for finding that confusing.

What the Honor Code truly is remains nebulous in students’ minds. Most students know where the line is between cheating and not, but often students find themselves in situations with overwhelming workloads where, for some, cheating seems like the easiest way out. We at the Record feel the Honor Code currently does not help foster a shared sense of honor in the community – thus some students may see honor offenses as calculated decisions rather than moral ones. The Statement of Academic Honesty states, “A student who enrolls at the College … agrees to respect and acknowledge the research and ideas of others in his or her work and to abide by those regulations governing work stipulated by the instructor. Any student who breaks these regulations, misrepresents his or her own work or collaborates in the misrepresentation of another’s work has committed a serious violation of this agreement.” Most members of the faculty clearly state their expectations for academic honesty at the beginning of each term, but the differing language and standards by which the Honor Code is thus articulated obscures efforts to paint the Honor Code as something that binds students and faculty together in a community. The Honor Code appears to do its job when honor offenses are brought to adjudication before the Honor and Discipline Committee, but it seems too easy for students to get away with overlooking rather than internalizing the Code in its current presentation.

We appreciate that the College has taken steps in recent years to better introduce first-years to the Honor Code’s conception of academic honesty, including making first-years sign an honor book at the beginning of the current semester. But the administration should explore more effective ways of creating the sense that the College community is one of honor.
One step could be to increase the use of a concise pledge similar to “I have neither given nor received aid on this exam,” a phrase that appears on many tests at the College already, in order to provide students with a memorable and weighty statement they can internalize.

The College should also remove the requirement that students check a box on PeopleSoft every year acknowledging they read and signed the Honor Code; for too many students, it is a meaningless exercise that carries no significance. If the College intends to get serious about establishing a community of academic trust, it should make students perform the physical act of signing an honor code – perhaps with one’s academic advisor at the beginning of each fall semester. Students will be much more likely to read the Code in print, especially in the presence of a faculty member, and the act of physically signing one’s name better conveys the gravity with which we should regard the Honor Code at the College.

The College should also increase messaging about the Honor Code during periods in which students are under high amounts of academic stress. And since students should not feel they must breach the Honor Code in order to make a tough deadline or pass a course, professors should be urged to grant extensions (when possible) to students who appear overstretched. Myriad other resources are available for students who feel overwhelmed by their workloads, and perhaps increased collaboration between the Dean’s Office, Academic Services and Psychological Counseling Services could help students manage stress that might otherwise lead them to cheat.

The problem of cheating and plagiarism will not easily go away, but cheating will only become less pervasive if the College community can establish and strengthen a shared culture of honor. Only then will questions of cheating become ones of morality rather than convenience.