April 28, 2001

An Honorable Time

My students know better than to assume the existence of some mythical Golden Age of families, education, or anything else. And yet I'm allowed a certain nostalgia for my undergraduate days at Haverford College, in part because we had an incredible luxury (and students still do, I assume), taking exams any time during finals week, without faculty proctoring. I remember deciding which three-hour slot during finals week I would take which exam, showing up 20 minutes before the start of the exam period, asking a student sitting at the desk for my sealed exam, going to one of the approved rooms, and completing the exam, typically with 5-10 other students in the room taking their own tests, usually in other courses.

My colleague Barbara Shircliffe argues that nostalgia is what we're allowed when there's an irreparable break with the past, but in this case, it's a spacial and institutional break, not a temporal break. I have specific times I require students to sit for their exams, and I wish it were not so. But the University of South Florida does not have what Haverford does, an Honor Code. The Haverford College Honor Council page describes the skeleton of how the Honor Code works at Haverford, a student-run system of collective self-discipline involving both academics and social life. Faculty members at the college generally follow the recommendations of an academic honor code trial, and the code in general is administered by an elected council of students. I once sat as a non-council jury member in a trial where a student had turned himself in. He had edited a take-home quiz response at the computer after the one-hour deadline and explained that he had violated the professor's rules. The professor was not at the trial, because the facts were not in dispute.

Haverford students are not saints, certainly. What is necessary for the operation of an academic code is some way to socialize students into the expectations and maintain those expectations. Haverford explicitly puts the code front and center in all materials for prospective students. Admitted students have to sign a pledge to abide by the code. Part of my orientation involved explanations of the code and several abstracts of real trials from the past (with names excised, of course, and some details changed to protect confidentiality). And several times a year, we found in our boxes one more trial abstract. Discussions of the honor code, "confrontations" of fellow students, and what constituted plagiarism and fair play towards peers, were usually low-key but omnipresent.

The guts of the honor code has changed over time, both in administration and substance. In the 1960s, if I recall correctly, the social side of the Haverford honor code included premarital sex as a taboo. Since the 1970s, substance abuse has become a far more prominent concern of students than it was before.

Faculty in this system have to both plan and trust a bit more. They need to provide exam copies for every student in advance of finals week. They have to trust that students will, on the whole, obey expectations. And, when they find a student has violated that trust, they turn over the trial to the Honor Council. (The final grade of course is a faculty member's judgment, which the honor code recognizes, but any other resolution, such as separation from the college, is in the hands of students.) Most faculty, I found, respected the system and trusted the students to work things out fairly.

Without such a system, faculty members become academic cops. Without some socialization, students either do not understand common academic expectations or behave as if they are not obliged to follow them. Having to sit in the same room while students write on pieces of paper that you designed is the ultimate example of academic policing. It is an unfortunate necessity. It is not a horrible evil, but having set times for exams is one of the small tyrannies of having an institution that does not trust its students, students who do not discipline themselves, and faculty members who carry the greatest burden of maintaining academic expectations.

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Posted in Teaching on April 28, 2001 3:27 PM |