On my honor…

Here’s my Honor Code confession. I was an undergraduate at a school with a deeply-entrenched honor code, and I thought it was terrific. Princeton University’s (then exclusively white male) undergraduates adopted an honor code in 1893, and its continuous existence since then is an enormous point of pride for the university. A student cannot matriculate there without signing a written pledge to abide by the honor code—meaning, essentially, that the student will neither cheat nor allow cheating to go unreported. I thought this was a tremendous idea: treating us as mature adults capable of acting ethically was sure to encourage us to do so.

I now teach at a college with a long-standing Honor Code, and it similarly prides itself on its effectiveness. Davidson College’s Honor Code website notes:

The Honor Code remains one of Davidson’s most cherished traditions, with its beginnings dating to the college’s formation in 1837. A student-run honor system has existed at Davidson for more than 100 years, and the Honor Council has existed in its current form since its inception in 1959…

The spirit of the pledge students make upon entering their first year helps engender an atmosphere of trust. Every signature helps sustain a climate of freedom and further secures the commitment to academic honesty and social responsibility that characterizes a Davidson education.

Lofty and admirable ideals, to be sure, but in reality, an honor code seems little more than a way to intimidate undergraduates and impose restrictive social norms that may be, at best, tangential to any given individual’s social and academic context and experience.

The main problem with honor codes is that they refuse to recognize the ways in which ethical scholarly conduct varies: by discipline, by institution, by culture, etc. It is like using a sledgehammer for a job that requires a series of screwdrivers and fine-pointed chisels—it’s too broad and unwieldy to serve its intended purpose. As scholars, we abhor cheating in any form, as it threatens to undermine our commitment to ideals of research, independent critical thought, and engagement with the ideas of others. But any one of us can surely recognize that these ideals are not universal, that they vary from context to context. Different disciplines have different conventions for attributing ideas to other scholars, or even for assessing what needs to be attributed. Behaviors that in one context may be considered cheating could very reasonably be seen as acceptable practice in another context.

Davidson College has a sentence that it refers to as its “official honor pledge”:

“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.”

The language of this honor pledge is obviously problematic: What exactly is meant by “unauthorized information”? (As a writing instructor, I consider the very concept of “information” to be irrelevant to the teaching of effective written argument—which clearly does not obviate the possibility of cheating on a written assignment.)

But the vagueness of the brief honor pledge is not where the confusion ends. The college’s website further states, “Additional guidelines for each class may be determined by its professor; each Davidson student is responsible for knowing and adhering to them.” While at first glance this stipulation may seem to allow for the sorts of contextually particular interpretations that I’ve mentioned, it in fact accomplishes the opposite. Students are presented with a series of regulations under the aegis of a universal honor code. These regulations definitely vary from professor to professor, and from class to class; and they almost certainly conflict with each other. This inherent flexibility and variation would be challenging but not fatal for the system, but for the fact that students are told that any violation of any individual set of ethical values will be punished under a single and universal notion of “honor.” The system is, in fact, a series of fine-tuned tools—that is, until the honor council steps in and uses the sledgehammer to obliterate them.

I certainly don’t mean to single out Davidson College here, since most American college honor codes operate on the same template. And neither do I want to suggest that the faculty, at Davidson or elsewhere, is culpable for any internal difficulties that an honor code may have. (In fact, from a faculty perspective, an honor code is a rather neat solution to the potential problem of academic fraud; it’s not particularly easy to catch cheating in an environment without an honor code, either.)

Rather, I argue that the real difficulty of the honor code is the way in which students come to internalize the perceived restrictions and regulations that it imposes. There are a few features that are common to all of the honor codes I have seen (either first-hand or through media):

  • The honor code is always positioned as a student institution—a document or set of academic practices that are created and carried out by the students themselves. This is important, because institutionally it says to each individual student that the honor code is a social system and is only as strong as the participation of each member of the student community.
  • The honor code is defended by an honor council, comprised solely of students (perhaps with faculty advisors), who have the authority to rule on alleged honor code violations and to impose penalties for violations, sometimes up to and including expulsion.
  • Honor council proceedings are conducted in secret, and therefore are not subject to any public scrutiny. (At Davidson, accused students have the option of making their “trials” open to the public; not all institutions offer this option.)
  • The public discourse of the honor code is always framed as a set of communal values that must be defended: honesty, trust, respect.

Some of these features are more noxious than others. The secrecy that surrounds honor council proceedings, for instance, means that students are unlikely ever to know how the council functions, unless they themselves are accused of a violation and thus experience the council firsthand. Consequently, despite the stated goals of building a university community based on trust and respect, the behind-the-scenes work of executing the honor code is shrouded in mystery and is subject to any number of abuses or misuses. How is a student ever to be sure that the honor council is protecting her interests as a member of the college community when she has no access to the way in which that institution functions? The honor council, at its worst, can seem less like an upright body defending the integrity of the college, and more like a star chamber whose power is absolute and arbitrary.

However, it is when the various features of the honor code are taken as a unit that one can fully appreciate its potentially harmful impact on a student community: a vague set of guidelines for academic behavior, enforced in secret by a handful of students that dispense punishment in the interests of the college as a whole. And moreover, because the honor code is framed as a particularly student institution, each individual student is encouraged to internalize its normative values and to perceive what is a broad social problem (cheating and plagiarism on a college campus) as an individual problem—which makes productive critique difficult, if not impossible. How does one critique the honor code when one’s college life literally depends on adhering to its tenets as they were laid out for you (and in which you had no say)? How can students ever be expected to think critically about what it means to behave “honorably” when they publicly sign their name to a document that will not change to reflect changing values, or the diverse values of different cultures?

The answer, of course, is that the honor code by design is an institution put and kept in place to prevent the kinds of outside-the-box and anti-normative thinking that might reveal its own hypocrisy. The honor code is, by definition, hegemonic and normative. By operating in secret and according to vague and arbitrary guidelines, it makes impossible any sort of internal challenge to its mode of discourse—a discourse in which only normative values of “honor” are given voice, and any other perspective is suppressed. In other words, an honor code functions not to ensure the honesty and trust of an academic community, but rather, to ensure that an academic community works and thinks according to the hegemonic values of a college’s ruling class. And it forestalls any challenge to its authority by encouraging students to act as its agents of enforcement—enforcing not necessarily their own values, but instead, the values of a small, elite sector of the population.

For proof of an honor code’s nefarious and malicious function, one need look no further than what is perhaps the country’s most notorious of these institutions: the University of Virginia. In a 2002 article for the Chronicle of Higher Education (login required for access), one former participant in the Honor Committee described the deeply flawed nature of the process:

“The rules can change week to week, and many decisions are made based on who in the committee is friends with whom,” says Gregory T. Hunter, a former Honor Committee counsel and 1999 graduate of UVa’s law school. “It’s a system where people can hide behind egos and confidentiality.”

That same article suggested that the Honor Committee has been prone to racist behavior:

Most students elected to the committee are white. But the Honor Committee expels a disproportionate percentage of minority students. In 1998-1999 academic year, 63 percent of those expelled were black, Asian, or Hispanic; UVa’s campus was then 68 percent white.

Of course, this is not to accuse any particular Honor Committee member of racism, but rather, to point out how an honor code can highlight the systemic biases built into a process that is designed to enforce a narrow set of normative values masquerading under the guise of universal “honor.”

Perhaps one of the most stinging critiques of the UVa system came not from someone writing about the Honor Committee, but rather, from a female alumna recounting her harrowing ordeal as a victim of sexual violence on the Charlottesville campus. Jenny Wilkinson wrote in the New York Times earlier this month that in 1997 she was the victim of sexual assault, and that the University ultimately determined that the man she accused of assaulting her had, in fact, committed the attack. His punishment was “a letter in his file” and a direction to participate in “a program of sexual assault education” (which he never completed, with no consequence). In contrast, Wilkinson says

Compare this with the fate of the dozens of students, perhaps hundreds, who violated the school’s honor code, which deals with lying, cheating and stealing, during the same period. If you are found guilty of violating the honor code, there is only one sanction: expulsion.

Here is the ultimate perversion of the upstanding intent of the honor code: any student under any circumstance found to have cheated academically (regardless of context) is expelled, while a student know to have committed a sexual assault on another student remains in good standing at the University. Take separately these two procedures—inquiries into sexual assault and into academic infractions—and one sees an unfortunate contrast of disparate University institutions. But take them together, and these can be nothing other than a University culture that is determined to maintain the patriarchal hegemonic values that were inscribed in the honor code by students whose families owned slaves.

Honor codes, in short, want college communities to believe that there is some universal sense of honor to which we can all ascribe, when in fact, these are tools of power little different from the biases we see every day in anti-gay legislation and racial profiling and violence by police. “Honor” is only a privilege of those willing to conform to a narrow set of values and identities; in contrast, “honor” is a cudgel to punish anyone who does not conform. To paraphrase a cliche (and a recent Chronicle article), there may be honor among thieves, but I’m not convinced that there is any among scholars.

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One Reply to “On my honor…”

  1. I find your critique incisive and suggestive of the problems with Honor Codes at Davidson and elsewhere. Though it nearly always operates as a panoptic presence, its force as a Davidson-specific disciplinary mechanism is made all the more brutish and blunt when plagiarism is defined in such a capacious and odd fashion. I can only surmise that the offensive quality of “unauthorized information” must come from some now-antique notion of epistemological soundness. Plagiarism is an act of fraud and deception, which can quite resolutely be inferred using comparative methods. Passing off another’s words as one’s own has nothing to do with the writer being unauthorized to do so. “Information” is likely a term adumbrating both alphabetic and numerical texts, but like you, I find this a problematic term principally because it is typically not information but ideas, special terms, analyses of data, and analyses that are credited to sources. Almost no one in the academy traffics in information per se. The term “information literacy” speaks to a central misunderstanding of what intellectual discourse involves. But that’s another story.

    Our Honor Code deserves to be recast in language that differentiates between fraud and error. One is considered an ethical transgression; the other is a mistake amenable to friendly correction. I worry about the misuse of our disciplinary mechanism which distributes its power unevenly and is fueled by a characterization of plagiarism that seems unique to Davidson.

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