Dr. J responds to my criticism of her position on plagiarism detection. I am, she accuses, guilty of Cold War paranoia and preemptive warfare with my students:
That is to say, the classroom is a millieu in which everyone is suspicious and noone can be trusted, so every preemptive security mechanism one can employ should be employed. This is, in my opinion (and all due respect to AnPan), an awful way to conduct a classroom, especially a Philosophy classroom. That kind of CYA attitude is exactly what motivates students to cheat in the first place, convinced as they tend to be that grade-grubbing and ladder-climbing is more important than actually learning. I cannot stretch my imagination far enough to imagine a scenario in which condoning and confirming this world-view is beneficial to anyone. I am not my students’ antagonist. I’m not their enemy. We are not at war with one another.
“An awful way to conduct a classroom”? Ouch! But if Dr. J is right, I want to change my conduct. Is she? At this point, I feel like I’m no longer a good judge: some of the things she says in that post make me feel less receptive to her arguments, and indeed she suggests that my own use of the phrase “turning a blind eye” to describe her attitude towards cheating may have ratcheted up her own feelings of offense. In such a rhetorically hardened atmosphere, how can either of us expect to make accurate judgments? Phrases like “awful conduct” and “blind eye” are affronts to our honor: to accept that Dr. J is right would be to accept that I am an awful teacher, just as for her to accept that her policy towards plagiarism detection software is “turning a blind eye” would be an affront to her own participation in the Rhodes Honor Code, which requires signatories to report infractions. On this matter, we have hardened our hearts and our reputations are at stake: how can we have open minds?
It’s a conundrum, certainly. I believe it is a conundrum generated by the question of honor itself, which is one of the reasons we ought to avoid “honor talk.” One objection to the language of honor and deference is that honor cannot operate without the structure of the affront to honor which demands satisfaction. Any insult, slight, or impugnment threatens an honorable person’s status, and thus it calls for a response: a demand for retraction or satisfaction… the duel. For me, the problem with honor is that it shuts down (reasonable, friendly, cooperative) conversation. It renders some things out of bounds of polite, honorable discussion. As a person grows in status, this penumbra of the unsayable becomes larger: just think of the things you’d discuss with your friends that you wouldn’t dare mention in front of the President. But this expanded aura of respectability is merely a customary privilege. It can’t be due to every person, and so it is at odds with equality. And so, honor produces error.
I think this is one part of my objection to an honor approach to plagiarism that Dr. J does not really pick up in her response. In my last post I wrote:
The commitment to merit seems especially to operate among elites, who will not bear any questioning of their integrity and use this language to justify their privileges. […] Though we may not like this power, we cannot ignore our role as gatekeepers, giving grades and writing recommendations that will serve, in future, as the justification for claims of merit and honor. If those grades and letters are based on false premises, the subsequent merit will be similarly false. But oh, how its bearers will pretend otherwise!
Dr. J doesn’t bring this concern up, and when she does mention the passage from which I’m quoting, she doesn’t perform her standard charitable reading of my position (I think because my position was not clearly stated) and so merely reiterates her own:
For my part, I think we’re morally obligated to respect persons, and morally prohibited from holding persons in contempt, qua “persons.” Things like Honor Codes, on my view, enforce these principles. Honor Codes operate on the presumption that it is not required in advance that one “prove” oneself “deserving” of respect, though the implicit caveat of those same codes is that if one does violate the presumptive trust, then one runs the risk of being expelled from the community that the Honor Code governs.
Let me try to clarify what I meant. “Respect” is one of the classic examples of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance term,” insofar as it might mean many things in different contexts. When we speak of equality of respect, we generally mean something like the duty to treat each person as an autonomous end-in-themselves, both subject and legislator of the moral law. This kind of respect is intrinsic and indefeasible. It’s always a violation of a person’s equality to withdraw or refuse this sort of respect. It’s precisely this kind of respect that rules contempt for persons out, on my view.
But “respect” can also be an evaluative term, used as an analogy for esteem: we hold some in more esteem than others, they are “highly respected.” To my mind, there is a tension between the evaluative and the egalitarian conceptions of respect. We cannot both hold each other simultaneously as equal ends-in-ourselves and as better and worse. Conceptually, of course, we can distinguish the equality of persons and the inequality of their actions or characters, but we have a strong tendency to let the one bleed into the other. In metaphysical terms, we mistake a person’s predicates for their substance.
Even if it weren’t at odd with equality, it would still be at odds with epistemic virtue. The fact that it is more difficult to admit that we are wrong and to change our position when our status is under threat seems like ample evidence of that!
Bayesian Reasoning in Light of New Facts
If we are now at odds over status, there might still be a way to return our attention to substantive question. Here’s one place to start: Dr. J did not always feel so confident of her views on cheating and plagiarism. Back in 2009, Dr. J wrote this about her attitude towards cheating:
I’m not absolutely committed to my position on this. I would say that I’m about 80% committed. I can be dissuaded, but it’s going to take some convincing. That’s what the comments section is for.
In the spirit of finding a common ground, let me reiterate two facts that seem material, in hopes that they will reach the principled disagreement between us.
1. I have not prosecuted any cases of plagiarism since I began using the detection services. Prior to that, I prosecuted one or two cases each semester.
2. Here’s why I no longer need to prosecute plagiarism: students submit their papers for grading electronically through SafeAssign, and they can revise those papers to provide proper citation for any material marked unoriginal. I only see the revised paper, not the original with potential plagiarism concerns.
Here’s how I see these facts reflecting a principle upon which Dr. J and I might agree: this swift, sure, and minor punishment (non-judgmental revision) seems preferable to delayed, uncertain, and severe punishment (catching an obvious plagiarist and failing him or her for the assignment or class.) The principle, for me, is that prevention is always better than punishment. Prevention does sometimes involve preemption and precaution, but so what? Not every precaution is reducible to post-9/11 paranoia.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Dr. J would put her commitment at only 80% today, in part because in our discussions of the matter we’ve both taken a harder line. But what’s really changed? Back then, she cited three reasons: (1) detection isn’t worth the costs of time or lost trust, (2) philosophy professors are not police, and (3) “constant and ubiquitous surveillance actually weakens students’ ethical sensibilities.” Though obviously electronic plagiarism detection partially eliminates (1), these are basically the same objections she has repeated in this exchange. (Plagiarism detection no longer takes up our time, but it may still lead to lost trust.)
Dr. J also suggests that one of her motivations to attend less rigorously to plagiarism concerns than her colleagues is that the harm accrues to the student, that the cheater “suffers a paucity of reflection, a diminishing of his or her deliberative capacity, an incomplete and crippled world-view.” I agree with this latter, of course, though I suspect that our true disagreement is what our obligations are vis-a-vis those with “impoverished reflection” and “crippled world-view.” What are the reasonable accommodations for such disabilities? What costs will those who are fully able and trustworthy bear in the name of those who are trust-challenged? I think plagiarism detection software is a reasonable accommodation, and Dr. J does not. In large part, this is an empirical question: how much does plagiarism detection actually reduce trust between professors and students? It certainly makes me feel more trusting. How much does it “weaken ethical sensibilities”? How would we measure that?
Policing the Classroom?
Thankfully, we can escape these empirical questions for a while, because for Dr. J, the primary question is the question of “policing”:
I’m surprised that AnPan didn’t state more explicitly his objection to my objection to (preemptive) “policing,” because it seems to me that it is on this point that our positions fundamentally diverge. I don’t see anything in AnPan’s articulation of his position that indicates he has any problem whatsoever with being a policeman.
Do I have any problem (“whatsoever”) with being a policeman? Well, I call myself a pacifist, but in a weak way: I would use force in self-defense myself, and I believe it is often necessary to protect the vulnerable. I just don’t like guns or violence, and I tend to believe that there are few (if any) just wars. But that’s not Dr. J’s issue, which is why it seems like hyperbole to call plagiarism detection “policing.” One thing that worries me about the metaphor of policing is that there’s a big difference between the kinds of problems that come with the state’s monopoly of “legitimate” force and the kinds of issues that we’re discussing here. Both Dr. J and I are reaching towards higher-order conceptions of justice and political community to discuss this classroom policy. But while this does seem to require some discussion of the role of honor and respect, it doesn’t necessarily require us to invoke the language of warfare or policing. One of the pernicious effects of Foucault’s discussion of disciplinary power is that it has become tempting to reduce every form of control to the coercive methods of the prison or panopticon. But I think this is hyperbolic. There’s no threat of force, no mixture of juridical power and some specialized knowledge.
The only thing that smacks of coercion is the evaluative function of university courses, the way they are graded and those grades help future employers sift applicants. But we’re all implicated, there, whether or not we use plagiarism detection software! So yes, insofar as we enforce rules, we professors take on something like a policeman’s law enforcing function. Here are some things that some professors “police” in their classrooms: the use of electronics and cell phones, interruptions, sexist and racist language. In my classroom, I only police the last of those, as I welcome interruptions and don’t care about electronics or cell phones. Plus, of course, we all use our unilateral authority to set the length, subject, due dates, and standards used to evaluate students’ performance. Even Dr. J does that.
Do these things constitute a failure to respect our students’ autonomy or honor? They might, but I don’t think they must. We can treat electronics scans for plagiarism as a matter of honor, or we can treat it as a kind of technical requirement, like a due date or page length requirement. If we don’t treat it as a matter of trust and honor, then perhaps it will not be experienced as a matter of trust and honor. In any case, I am not sure that we ought to view an offended students’ honor as truth-conducive, given that I’ve already suggested Dr. J and I should ignore slights to our esteem or dignity to ferret out the truth.