The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation?

Steven Volk, November 22, 2015

Where would we be without Wikipedia? The online, crowd-sourced encyclopedia which faculty have found to be at the root of many an honor code violation, can also inform us about the origins of the honor code. So here it is, duly cited, even though it is actually incorrect. (Memo to students: Just because the internet says it doesn’t mean it’s true!)


John Davis, University of Virginia

John Davis, the dean of the faculty and a law professor at the University of Virginia, was shot on campus on November 12, 1840, the culmination of some “contentious relations” between students and faculty. He would succumb to his wounds two days later, but before he shuffled off this mortal coil, authorities asked him to name his (presumably undergraduate) assailant. He refused, arguing that if the man in question were honorable, he would step forward of his own accord. (Cribbing from the student sitting next to you at an exam seems small beer in comparison! Davis’ murderer, in case you’re wondering, was later identified as eighteen-year-old Joseph Semmes, a member of a wealthy Georgia family. Semmes posted a huge bail, skipped town, and never stood trial.)

Henry St. George Tucker, Sr., Davis’ replacement, recommended the institutionalization of a code of “honorable” behavior in 1842, arguing that, in the future, students be required to sign the following statement on their exams: “I, [name], do hereby certify on my honour that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatsoever.” The students, for their part, seemed to like the idea. But the linking of Davis’ murder and the creation of the UVA honor code seems to have been a nice, if imaginative, 20th century addition. As Coy Barefoot, the author of “The Evolution of Honor” wrote in 2008, “It can be argued that the beginning of the Honor System at the University dates rather to March 1825, when the first student had his name entered in the matriculation book. By entering his name, the student pledged to support the University’s principles, ideals and regulations—rules that forbade lying to professors and cheating on tests.”

In any case, the Honor Code became a part of UVA’s undergraduate life, and was soon expanded to cover a myriad of issues both there and at different institutions: rules about smoking, cheating at card games, honor within relationships, etc.

historyofoberlin01flet_0009A quick look through Robert Samuel Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War has not disclosed any evidence of an Oberlin honor code that predates UVA’s, so I’ll assume that Oberlin’s adoption of such a code came later. (Help me out, colleagues: any information on when it originated?) What we do know is that, according to the Honor Code Charter, “The student body of Oberlin College, with the approval of the General Faculty, originated and adopted the Honor System, which places full responsibility for academic integrity on students.”

In a discussion of the Honor Code at a 1997 faculty meeting, one student proudly noted that “The Oberlin honor code is a really special and rare thing. Only a few small liberal arts colleges have something like this.” Which is nice, even if it isn’t accurate. Quite a few liberal arts colleges have honor codes, and at some, like Haverford or Bryn Mawr, the honor system is an more integral part of campus identity. Haverford, for example, highlights its Honor Code, created in 1896, as “one of [its] oldest and greatest traditions.” Students at Haverford, gathered in a “Plenary” meeting, debate, revise, and vote on their honor code every year. Haverford credits it Honor Code with helping students “enjoy a bond of trust and mutual respect that shapes all aspects of their academic and community lives.”

Furthermore, the Haverford Honor Code

“encompasses both the academic and social spheres of life, influencing everything from the spirit of intellectual inquiry to personal interactions. The Honor Code is not a set of rules, but rather an articulation of ideals and expectations emphasizing genuine connection and engagement with one another, and the creation of an atmosphere of trust, concern, and respect. The Honor Code is also completely student-run — one of the clearest demonstrations of this trust.”

The Honor Code at Oberlin

Oberlin’s Honor Code, while an important part of our academic and student life culture, nevertheless does not reach such Haverfordian heights. The charter, last revised in 2008, calls for the creation of a Student Honor Committee (SHC) which, in turn, “allows for the student body to be accountable to each other based on the principles of academic integrity. The SHC ensures that trust and academic freedom are maintained for the scholarly pursuits of the Oberlin College community.” The purposes of the system, as stated in the Charter, are “to maintain a high standard of academic integrity in all curricular work, to respect students’ ability to adhere to this standard, and to encourage further development of this ability through the efforts of faculty, administration, and students.” Finally, the Honor Code

provides the foundation for the intellectual freedom that is encouraged and shared by all members of the academic community and embodies the belief that true academic freedom and discourse can only exist within a framework of honesty, integrity, and responsibility. With the privilege of pursuing an Oberlin education comes the responsibility of supporting both the expectations and the spirit of the Honor Code. This requires each individual to respect all fellow members of the Oberlin community and to vigorously support the protected nature of intellectual property.”

In sum, the Honor Code operates with the three following expectations, responsibilities and requirements:

  1. Students signal their adherence to this set of principles by signing “honor code” pledges on all their work: “I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.” Furthermore, students also
  2. Take responsibility for the “maintenance of academic freedom in the community” by pledging to “report possible infractions potentially harming the community.” Thus the responsibilities of the Honor Code, while shared by faculty and students, are by design mostly the responsibility of students, since
  3. Faculty, based on these presumptions, “do not proctor exams, but trust that students adhere to the Honor Code.”

Questions, anyone?

A few weeks ago, a number of faculty members, including many newer members of our community, met in a Brown Bag Pedagogy session to discuss the Honor Code, its operations, potential short comings, and steps that might be taken to strengthen it. What became clear is that, unlike their counterparts at Haverford, for example, new faculty are rarely socialized into the workings of the Honor Code at Oberlin, either in terms of how it operates or what its underlying assumptions are. Thus, to cite just one example, newer faculty might find out about the “no-proctoring” rule when they give their first exam and are told, in no uncertain terms, to leave the room. Not a good way to find out about it.

Still, in the course of the Brown Bag session, it became clear that there are a number of aspects of the Honor Code that need to be discussed among the faculty (and perhaps among students as well), if not updated.

Underlying assumptions. The primary reason that the Honor Code exists is to place students in the position of responsibility for upholding the integrity needed for an academic institution to thrive… and to recognize that, since this will not always happen, rules and regulations are necessary. (I often ask students in my colonial Latin American history class why they think laws were written in 17th century Lima that dealt with children of nuns.) As the Honor Code charter states, students are a part of the College’s “community of scholars” and, as such, they need to be “accountable to each other based on the principles of academic integrity.”

I have no doubt that the vast majority of our students adhere to this, that the responsibility we give them by leaving the room during exams is well placed. But, of course, rules are most often written for a tiny minority of individuals who do not adhere to our aspirational goals. Of the 10 pages of the Honor Code Charter, a little more than 9 pages are devoted what happens in the relatively few reported Honor Code violations that arise every year.

Four questions have come up in this regard: (1) Is it fair or reasonable to expect students to “police,” monitor or otherwise be responsible for each others’ behavior. Isn’t it enough for them just to take their own exams without looking around to see who is consulting his smart phone? (2) Are the actual procedures of the Honor Code working? What are faculty to make of the fact that many Honor Code violations are not resolved before they have to give assignment or final grades? (3) As pedagogy shifts increasingly toward student collaboration, peer study groups, peer work-shopping of papers, and other elements of constructivist pedagogy that encourage student-to-student learning, are the rules of what is allowable within the terms of the Honor Code clear? And, (4) as more international students join our community, can we expect that everyone has the same preparation and understanding of what integrity in academic work means?

Let’s take these one at a time. My purpose here is not to answer the questions that have arisen, but to suggest that if the basic rules of the Honor Code are unclear to faculty (and perhaps students), the time is ripe for a broader discussion. [Added Nov. 23: Faculty should also be aware that further information on many of these points is available here. Of particular interest are clarifications on grading of student work when an Honor Code violation is under review.]

  1. Student responsibility under the Honor Code. The basic principle of the Honor Code couldn’t be clearer: students have asked to be the most responsible agents of their own academic integrity. This is not a burden that the faculty have placed on the students, and my guess would be that if the students wanted to be relieved of this responsibility, we would accept it as a faculty. Therefore, if we think that there are problems with how the system is run, it is incumbent on us to raise these.

At the same time, to quote a former U.S. president (oh, how it pains me to say it!): as faculty, we both trust and verify. When papers come in that have all the hallmarks of plagiarism, we will follow up to the extent of our time and abilities. It is harder to do this on in-class exams, and even harder if a student has been given an accommodation to take an exam in another room.

Technology has changed some of our assumptions here. We can state clearly what the rules of a closed-book exam are, but short of frisking students to remove their smart phones, we will have to rely on, well, their honor. The new question is whether technology, specifically the ubiquitous presence of smart phones, requires us to reexamine any assumptions here, particular in terms of in-class exams and accommodations for students to take an exam in a room unmonitored by either students or faculty. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we will agree that technology has not changed anything and that we expect all our students to hold themselves to required standards of integrity; but we do need to have the conversation.

  1. Procedures. Faculty have complained that, as currently run, the Student Honor Code Committee is slow, does not report back on suspected infractions of the Honor Code that have been filed, and most often comes to a conclusion long after faculty have had to give a student a final grade in a course. Certainly steps should be taken to expedite and improve communications in the system.

But other issues have been raised with the operations of the Honor Code that suggest some limitations as it is currently written. Section F.1. of the Code states that “All members of the Oberlin College community are required to report potential violations of the Honor Code when they suspect one has occurred.” Perhaps I am putting myself in violation of the Honor Code by suggesting that this is a rule that is more honored in the breach. (Always the hamletpedant, I note that the phrase “honour’d in the breach,” which comes from Hamlet, meant just the opposite of what we now mean by it.) In point of fact and based on my own behavior, I suspect many faculty (and probably many students) have observed “potential” violations of the Code and did not report them. Faculty often use those opportunities to talk personally to students who we think either don’t understand that what they have done is a violation of the Honor Code or who we think would get more out of a one-to-one discussion with us than being entered into a formal proceeding. In either case, to have a requirement that is more often than not ignored does not make for a good legislation.

I’m not unaware of the other side of the argument, which is that if no report is filed, students who are repeat offenders cannot be identified. Still, and in particular reference to many international students who are still learning about the principles of academic integrity in a U.S. setting, the requirement that all members of the community report all potential violations seems in need of further clarification.

  1. Pedagogical shifts towards collaborative learning. Most of the aspects of the Honor Code are quite clear: plagiarism, falsification of sources, copying from your neighbor’s exam paper, using outside sources in a closed-book examination, etc. While some (plagiarism) might require further explanation, particularly for international students, most are fairly obvious. Still, others seem to be open to interpretation or, at the very least, could serve as the basis of an interesting discussion. I refer in particular to the following “example of cheating”: “Collaborating on a project that was to be completed individually.” Obviously this doesn’t apply to projects that are expected to be completed with other students. But, at the same time, many of us routinely encourage students to speak to each other about their projects, to share drafts of a paper, to work with writing tutors or get help from the OWLs. Where does “cheating” start?

The Honor Code has taken this into account:

“The default assumption covering all academic exercises is that students are required to do their own work only utilizing the help and resources considered appropriate for each academic exercise, including sources of assistance routinely offered by the college to students, such as reference librarians and writing tutors. Notwithstanding, in all cases, the professor in a specific course may further restrict or expand what resources are approved or not approved for use in a particular course or assignment.”

But confusions abound and one way to deal with this is to be explicit in your own instructions about what is allowed and what isn’t. For example: “I expect you to take your draft to the Writing Center, but you are not allowed to send it to your mother or elsewhere off campus.”

Will we know if said mother had a hand in the final draft? Probably not, but at least we can be clear in our expectations. On the other hand, many of us have gotten papers with WTMI (way too much information), footnoting every conversation with a classmate or pearl of wisdom that we have dropped in an off-handed manner in class.

What I would suggest is that these can all be teachable moments. Our ideas are always grounded in other ideas. As faculty, we have learned to collaborate widely; we wouldn’t think of sending an article to a journal or a manuscript to a press without having friends and colleagues read it first and give us their feedback (and which, if all goes well, we will acknowledge in the article or book). To talk about the value of collaboration in scholarly work is to engage our students in the heart of how knowledge is created and can move any discussion of the Honor Code away from its disciplinary moorings and towards a more engaging conversation about epistemology, creativity, and the values of collaboration.

  1. International students and the Honor Code. In “Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges,” an “Article of the Week” from a few weeks ago, I raised some particular concerns about how the Honor Code works for our growing number of international students: “International students may come from academic cultures that have different standards for citation of sources, different expectations for when collaboration is permitted, and a different sense of the limits of what kind of collaboration is permissible.” I suggested, and will repeat here, that thinking about how we approach the Honor Code with international students can only help us to think about how we apply the Honor Code in general. “The more we can be clear and explicit about citation practices,” I argued, “how certain kinds of paraphrasing can be the equivalent of copying, what materials should carry citations, etc., the more we will help not only our international students, but all our students.”

Release_flier_for_THE_CODE_OF_HONOR,_1911But I also raised the issue of the very term we use to talk about expected academic conduct, “honor,” and how we need to be aware of different meanings the word holds in different cultures. If our intent is to build a culturally responsive environment at Oberlin, we need to think about these issues. Since the Honor Code is essentially about both “integrity” and “accountability,” perhaps we could devise a new name for it that is not as freighted as our current one.

In all, even if we see no reason to update our Honor Code system, with many new faculty coming on board every year (not to mention a quarter of our students), this would be a good time to engage a discussion of its meaning, principles, and functioning.

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