Against the Honor Code

In my first-year writing course, we were recently having a discussion about plagiarism and citations. My students easily grasped the concept of citations as a way of giving credit to other authors whose ideas they are quoting or paraphrasing. (They were less clear on the notion of citations as a way of pointing to an existing discourse that they are participating in—but learning to participate in such an intellectual conversation is one of the primary goals of the course.)

I then asked my students what they understood plagiarism to mean, and why they shouldn’t do it. Again, they easily understood what plagiarism is, at least in broad strokes. However, I was rather troubled by some of the answers to the question of why it should be avoided. In particular, one student said that plagiarism should be avoided because of the Honor Code.

First of all, the wording of Davidson College’s “official honor pledge” is patently nonsensical:

“On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.”

In particular, it is not at all clear what constitutes “unauthorized information.” To me, that phrase seems literally nonsense: how can information be unauthorized? Perhaps—and I say this extremely tentatively—the use of information could be unauthorized. But unauthorized information? Nope.

But far more important to me is the evident normative and coercive power of the Honor Code. Take, for instance, the ceremony in which first-year students sign their names to the Honor Code in front of their entire cohort, a ritual that is imposed on students. (Can a student refuse to sign? Is there even any room to question the ritual?)

The coercion that takes place from the moment the student signs the Honor Code was evident to me when my student presented the Honor Code as a reason not to plagiarize. The reasoning here is completely backwards: If the Honor Code is why you don’t plagiarize, then it is not creating “a climate of freedom” that “secures the commitment to academic honesty and social responsibility.” Rather, it is a weapon that members of the College community can wield against each other in whatever way they see fit.

Said differently, if the Honor Code was the principled social system that it claims to be, it would be the outcome of students learning why they shouldn’t plagiarize, rather than the reason not to plagiarize. The distinction between these is important: in the former, the student comes to understand how to participate constructively, collaboratively, and generously in an intellectual discourse or a social context; in the latter version, they are blindly adhering to a rule that has been told to them, without necessarily knowing why, other than that there may be undesired consequences for transgression.

Moreover, this difference—between the Honor Code as coercion versus as a living system of social relationships and values—is not merely an academic one. In fact, it has everything to do with the sort of values our students will embody. Do we want them to compliantly follow rules that are given to them without explanation? Or do we want them to see themselves as part of a society and communities in which their “honor” is determined not by rules, but rather by the way in which they participate in the networks of social discourse that make mutual understanding and responsibility much more likely?

(And all of this says nothing about how the Honor Code is not only coercive, but how its authority is asserted arbitrarily. As a rule imposed on the College community, it is necessarily an expression of the values of a particular majority group within the community; and as such, its implementation is subject to all of the racial, class, and gender biases that already exist within that community. In other words, if the Honor Code is a rule to follow, then it is always already a flawed expression of the concept of “honor.”)

I, for one, see no value in the Honor Code as it is practiced at Davidson. I no longer include any Honor Code language in my syllabi (although I do have plagiarism language there). And given the opportunity last week to discuss plagiarism and the Honor Code, I used that opportunity to question whether we were reversing carts and horses. What commitments do we have as writers who are participating in real conversations that exist among real people in the real world? In short, our commitments are to those other people—not to the Honor Code.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *