The Problem with Honor: Cold Wars and Hard Hearts

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?

“Honor Talk”

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.





22 responses to “The Problem with Honor: Cold Wars and Hard Hearts”

  1. Curry O'Day Avatar
    Curry O'Day

    Here's my problem with I don't think it truly addresses the problem. You guys have gotten hung up on the rhetoric of your positions and need to return to the heart of the issue.

    The reason I prefer Dr. J's approach is because it frames the issue in terms of honor. Plagiarism, while against university policy, is at it's base an assault on honorable academic discourse. If you plagiarize, the problem is not that broke the rules and got caught, but that you've presented someone else's work as your one…in effect, you've lied.

    Dr. J's method emphasizes the dishonorable component of cheating, rather than the mere illegality of it. If she catches a student cheating, she's in a position to say, "I trusted you, and you took advantage of that trust to cut a corner and submit unacceptable work." I feel like this hits closer to the reason why plagiarism is so abhorrent to academics. On the other hand, you are in a position to say, "well, I and some discrepancies came up, which are against the rules, so sorry." The student is then left with the feeling of, 'damn, I wasn't careful,' instead of 'wow, I really betrayed my professor.'

    It's kind of like those new traffic cameras that catch speeders. I've figured out where they all are and that as long as you drive 4 mph or less over the speed limit you won't get caught. So, when I approach a camera in a 30 mph zone, I drive 34 mph and I'm scott free. If I am speeding, I get a letter in the mail and I pay the fine. But if a cop catches me, he's in a position to say, "you know, there is a school right here, so you're really putting these kids in danger by driving so fast and I'm going to have to give you a ticket." That way, I leave understanding that I am endangering kids, rather than simply that I was driving 1 mph too fast. It isn't a perfect analogy, but it highlights that in one situation you can teach the proper lesson, and in the other you can simply enforce the rules.

    You guys are discussing the more philosophical implications of this issue, and that's good. But remember that, in the end, there is a reason that plagiarism is bad, and it isn't just because or school policy says it is.

  2. Dr. J Avatar

    Just a couple of brief remarks (for now):

    1. I didn't experience this exchange as being as rhetorically-charged as you did. So, let me first apologize for that and ask your forgiveness of my insensitivity. Hopefully, per ¶689 of Hegel's *PS*, heard hearts will melt. 😉

    2. Perhaps we need an entirely separate conversation about honor, independent of the cheating/plagiarism question, because I don't think I agree with your characterization of it or its operations. The first thing I would say on that score is that I don't think that honor "shuts down (reasonable, friendly, cooperative) conversation"– I suppose I can see where you're going with this in your what-I-wouldn't-say-in-front-of-the-President example, but I think you're laying the blame (for self-editing or docility or whatever) in the wrong place there. You're description of honor as an inegalitarian "status" operator is enlightening, though, and clarifies for me much about our earlier disagreement.

    3. I don't think that all operations of what we broadly call "authority" are the same. There's a functional difference between police and judges, for example. (I am inclined to say that when I execute my professorial authority through grading, I'm acting more like a judge than the police.) I wonder: if we lived in a world that operated on something like the Honor Code, would we have police? Isn't the heart of the Honor Code, effectively, a promise by each to "police" him- or herself? Certainly we'd still need something like judges and courts to adjudicate infractions, but as I tried to point out in my response, the monitoring, surveilling, threatening and preemptively securing functions of police are operations necessitated by a civic posture based in mistrust and suspicion. ("Guilty until proven innocent.") I think professors' use of Turnitin is "policing," and it is coercive in exactly the way that you say it's not (i.e., it *is* tied up with a "threat of force" and justified with a "mixture of juridical power and some specialized knowledge"). As I said to Stephanie in the comments section of my post, I may not have the same problem with Turnitin if were *only* being used by students to police themselves and their own work, and I understand that the service could be used that way, but I think we all recognize that's not what it was primarily designed for. It's a *gotcha* service, clearly created in response to the "plagiarism problem."

    4. Related to that last comment… I think the strongest element of your argument is the "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of punishment" sentiment. So, I *may* concede that if the students are using Turnitin themselves in this preventative way, it's useful and for the most part unobjectionable. Even still, I can think of a hundred other BETTER preventions than this one. What we're trying to "prevent," I assume, is students' engagement in intellectual fraud and, to that end, we're trying to train them in the (research, writing, thinking and editing) skills they need to avoid those kinds of violations. Turnitin may aid students in accomplishing the first, but it does precious little in helping them with the second. If a student "turns (his or her) paper in" and finds that it is in violation, s/he can correct the errors and avoid an infraction in that case. But what about the next paper? What *skills* has s/he learned, except how to use a short-cut CYA service? And what *principle* has been instilled in him or her? Not the principle of respect for academic integrity, I fear, but only a slightly-more-principled version of CYA.

    Finally, and this is as much for the benefit of your readers as it is for you:

    I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for you, my friend. I'm honored [sic] that you engage these questions, and me, even when it's unpleasant for you. You can trust me on that… and I'm fine with you verifying it, too. 😉

  3. Joshua Avatar

    Just a quick response to Curry: preferring the honor approach doesn't make it better.

    I don't agree that plagiarism (or speeding) is a matter of honor. We are all due equal respect, even if we sometimes go too fast or fail to cite a source. This may well be the source of my disagreement with Dr. J, but I don't think it's something we can both be right about.

    Interestingly, I've recently had a run in with the new traffic cameras on my way to work. Two small tickets later, and I don't speed on that particular road anymore… something that no end of moralizing seems to have achieved. Isn't that all that matters? Why not put up traffic cams everywhere, make the fines light and the speed limits reasonable, and reap the rewards of public health and safety? Does the value of my understanding the reasoning for the speed restriction trump the safety of the school children?

    This is analogous to my position on plagiarism, and I think perhaps it does help illustrate the issues that cause me to want to avoid talk of honor and merit.

  4. Dr. J Avatar

    @Josh: Honestly, I'm not entirely convinced that the safety of school children *does* trump your understanding the need for speed restrictions (or, more accurately, your understanding the need for law-abiding behavior). I mean, coercing you into driving at safe speeds by putting traffic-cams everywhere will (maybe, though not certainly) make school zones safer… but that's ALL it will do. Because all you have learned is to "avoid the penalty incurred by speeding," there's no reason for you to think of the safety of the schoolchildren at all, nor is there any reason for you to learn how to make the judgment– independently– to abide by the law in situations where you do not find the penalty for violating it sufficiently coercive.

    I think we may be getting somewhere now. The reason I am inclined to talk about plagiarism in "honor" terms is because I am less concerned with the actual act of students' copying than I am with their learning the reasons why "academic/intellectual honesty" is something that we value. So, at the risk of sounding like a REALLY HARD HEART, I suppose I would say– on your analogy– that I am ultimately less interested in the safety of schoolchildren in any particular speed-restricted zone than I am in instructing and conditioning drivers to respect the law (assuming that the derivative result will be that drivers respect the laws that keep those children safe).

  5. Joshua Avatar

    That's a very interesting response, Dr. J. This does indeed seem like a good way of prising apart our positions: I'm basically a consequentialist about law. If you could show that an internalized "conditioning" of drivers to respect speed limits produce better results (fewer accidents and fatalities) I'd support you, but I think that speed limits are arbitrary. There's no intrinsic justice to a particular speed limit, so there can't be any part of my soul that recognizes the limit's logic and respects that limit as a matter of virtue.

    I wonder if you could expand on your parenthetical "derivative result" clause, because it seems like you might agree with me that safety is the primary concern in speed limits and that we ought to choose our enforcement methods so as to produce that result. If so, then our dispute isn't really a principled one so much as a disagreement about which methods produce the desired results (an empirical psychological question about incentives and risk-assesments in drivers and paper-writers.)

    Alternatively, perhaps it is a disagreement about how to measure results, and how to weigh the tradeoffs between costs and benefits when they are incommensurable. Yet contrary to what I remember about your general position on commensurability, I think here you're saying that there IS a principled way to measure that tradeoff between honor and a student's originality.

  6. Adriel Trott Avatar

    I think it is possible that this is not a matter of honor, but of a certain relationship between the student and the professor. Whatever we may want to say about our students, I think wherever you teach, students want to do less work and professors always want them to do more. This does not make us adversaries, but it does produce a certain tension in the relationship. I think the question about why students plagiarize is interesting, and I have found that it often follows because of the way students think of writing assignments. They think it is a test of their skills instead of an opportunity to engage as part of the scholarly field in thinking about difficult questions that thoughtful people have been considering for centuries. When they learn that they need to reference to make it easier for their reader to follow, they tend not to think of the plagiarism talk as a lecture, but as direction about how to become a part of the scholarly community.

    All this said, I think that sometimes it serves students learning to have some policing. Not to ratchet up the discourse too much more than it already is, but if the point is not to police, why do we grade at all? Why do we require assignments and not just suggest them? I think it is because students need to do more work than they might want to and requiring it is a way to get them to do it. In the same way, I think it helps students learning at some stages to do some policing. When my intro courses start to slack off, I start giving reading quizzes and my students thank me (!) in evaluations every semester for keeping them on track with quizzes. I think AnPan is right to say that Foucault says complicated things about discipline and control (ie. it's not always negative). Maybe I just say all of this because I think my older sister succeeded in making me into a functioning social being merely by social mockery, the best form of social policing.

    None of this is meant to disregard the importance of honor, but I think honor too gets developed through shame (see ancient Greek and Jewish history) which is a form of policing and discipline, no?

    All in all, great convo.

  7. Dr. J Avatar

    I'll just say (as a kind of global and grossly underdeveloped statement) that I'm unconvinced that "being a consequentialist about law" makes sense. I mean, I think it makes sense to be a consequentialist about any *particular* law, but not about law qua "Law." (I've never denied being a closet Kantian.)

    And @Trott: Again, I don't think that grading is policing. The police aren't judges, and judges are not police. They're very different operations of authority. Yes, discipline and control are not always negative… but I'm inclined to say that, in the case of policing, they are.

  8. Adriel Trott Avatar

    @Johnson: But I am not saying grading here, but asking for submitted assignments. Isn't that policing? You are policing that they are doing work, that they are learning, that they are thinking. It's not just judgment which is what you do with graded work; it is seeking confirmation that they are working and thinking, by asking for submitted work and the fact that it will be graded (not the actual grading which is judging) which I take to be policing.

  9. Dr. J Avatar

    I guess we just see "policing" differently. If I had to find a analogue for our practice of giving assignments, I would say it's more analogous to the function of a legislator (determining the rules and procedures for participation in a community), but I think even that's an imperfect comparison. Still, it does at least preserve one important distinction between that practice and "policing," namely, that we have no say whatsoever in whether or not we are policed. The police, by definition, "police" us independent of our permission for them to do so. A student can always not sign up for my class, or not turn in the assignments, or drop the course. That is, they can decide not to be graded or judged. I can't decide *not* to be policed… which, again, is the situation I understand students to be in with Turnitin.

  10. Adriel Trott Avatar

    So the capacity to avoid some stricture is what would make something not policing? I'm not sure that stands as the distinction between being judged and being policed. First, I do not know if we can really "avoid" being judged in these ways. If your student does not submit work, they will suffer consequences. Just as if they submit plagiarized work, they will suffer consequences. Would it be different if it were not Turnitin, but your own judgment as you read the paper that it was plagiarized? Would that be judging or policing? It seems like then it would be judging, so is the real problem with the system instead of individual professors worrying about it?

  11. Dr. J Avatar

    Not to be polemical here, but c'mon AnPan and Trott… do you REALLY think that policing and judging are identical? And do you REALLY think that grading papers that students turn in to you is the same as turning those papers in advance to Turnitin? I'm all for a healthy deabte about these things, but I fear y'all are parsing my words at the expense of the OBVIOUS.

  12. Adriel Trott Avatar

    Wow, this series of questions misrepresents the positions presented here. I have not said that policing and judging are identical, at all. I just don't agree with these distinctions as you draw them. I think you do more policing than you want to admit to yourself, but you are letting yourself get away with it because you call it judging, and I think that should be admitted here. We police as part of what we do. We also judge, which is different, but we do police. Maybe there is a line, a matter of degree that you are not willing to cross. We should talk about that line. But I don't agree that you are not policing.

    We could go from there and bemoan the situation of the contemporary university that this is what is required of us, that this is the state of our student population, and so forth. We can dream about a world in which the university does not require policing, but I do not agree with this idea that we as individuals can just extract ourselves from that system as it is drawn, especially in academia. Well maybe at Bennington College. Or St. John's where it is custom to not view grades until graduation.

  13. Dr. J Avatar

    I will readily concede that I police– I never denied as much– if you both will also admit that all policing is not the same. And maybe also that Turnitin constitutes a mode of policing that is new and, at the very least, questionable.

  14. Joshua Avatar

    Hampshire College doesn't have grades. If only we could all teach at Hampshire!

    Though I wish we weren't using this metaphor, I'll admit that not all "policing" is the same. Specifically, assessing and evaluating student work is different than assigning and enforcing that work.

    However, I do think that forcing students to submit written work on a certain schedule is a kind of discipline like the policing you describe.

    I also police things like font size and line spacing. And for a long time now, I've been requiring that submissions be electronic, even before I used plagiarism detection. That lets me read more quickly, avoid the risk of losing the physical copy, and comment using a keyboard rather than a pen. This is all selfish, but as a result I grade quicker and more legibly, so the requirement of electronic submission goes in with the page limits and due dates.

    I just don't see how submitting the paper electronically through SafeAssign is such a substantial change as to make it a matter of honor. I check for font size, I check for line spacing, I make sure it's on time. Oh, and I let the database make sure that it's original.

    Clearly, for Dr. J something changes when I make that last check. But I don't understand what. The first cases of plagiarism I caught didn't involve any high tech, not even Google. I just realized, "I've read this before!" What difference is there between me making that realization and the computer doing it for me?

  15. Dr. J Avatar

    Seriously, UNCLE! I must have some major mis-wiring going on somewhere in my brain matter, because the things I'm putting out here are coming back to me totally unrecognizable. So, I concede… and I will admit that the misunderstandings are probably my fault.

  16. Adriel Trott Avatar

    Someone I know requires her students to have 1 1/4 inch margins and says she is serious about it…

    Dr. J. since your concession is the one of the most accusatory I've ever seen, I'm not accepting it. So let's try again:

    Sure, there are different levels of policing, but that changes the original terms of the debate which appeared to me to be honor vs. policing. AnPan and I challenged the notion that honor was so strictly opposed to policing. Now it seems to me that certain policing is tolerable, so I wonder again given the concession that there are different levels of policing, how would you recast your original opposition? Is honor contrasted to unnecessary policing? Is there honor that is self-policing vs. policing that discourages students' concern with their own honor? I'd like to see these terms refined to figure out what is at the heart of your rejection of Turnitin.

  17. Dr. J Avatar

    I *do* think there is an opposition between the Honor Code and policing students. The Honor Code, as I see it, effectively institutes self-policing (by the students, of the students, for the sake of the students and their EXPLICIT commitment academic integrity). To restate my original objection: if I use Turnitin, I am *negating* (or at the very least disregarding) their promise to police themselves.

    Grading their work is not the same. Nor is punishing them if I discover that their work is plagiarized after they have already turned in to me *promised* as honest work. But if I turn in their "pledged" work as a matter of course, I am dishonoring the Honor Code. Full stop.

    That's not to say that (regrettably) there aren't elements of my job that very closely approximate what I call "policiing." I don't think grading or assigning essays or administering exams or setting margin-limits count among them. However, I *am* invested in minimizing the policing elements of my job– which I see as preemptive, suspicious, unnecessarily coercive and inclined to orient students more towards punishment-avoidance rather than principle-development– as much as possible.

    (And also, for the record, my concession was not accusatory.)

    1. Joshua Avatar

      Just a few issues that might help us, if we wanted to explore the principles behind our disagreement:

      1. How does honor interact with shame to produce the right kind of institutional ethic? What should we do about the "bad man"? (I always think of the undergraduate George W. Bush: if somebody had been policing his assignments a bit better, we might have been saved the last decade.) This goes to my concern that inadequate enforcement leads to unearned claims of merit.

      2. What is the role of punishment? I think there's an opportunity here to frame this in terms of retribution and reconciliation. We sometimes contrast excessive public punishments that have a signaling function (DON'T DO THIS) with mild, regular punishments designed to curtail a behavior (traffic cameras). Generally, I'm under the impression that public health and safety folks think the best way to calibrate the severity of the punishment is in terms of how often and quickly you catch wrongdoers: you go for the big signal (YOU FAIL!) when there's infrequent enforcement, but small, certain punishments work better for producing the desired results. That's why small letter-grade deductions are fine for policing things like lateness: you catch every single infraction, so it's a swift, certain punishment. With plagiarism, if you're only catching one in five plagiarists, the disincentive has to be five times as big to get the right risk calculation. Since I "catch" every plagiarist, I can afford a light or even non-existent punishment.

      3. One thing I think of here is the institutional design issue, in the sense that Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year. A lot of their work is about how good institutions use incentives like esteem and honor (or shame and exclusion) in a way that's matched up with the circumstances using "folk insights" and tradition. So Ostrom's work on the "commons" and land rights has included some work on the "knowledge commons" and issues of plagiarism in cases like comedians or research scientists, and Williamson's work on how institutions are sometimes forced to choose between pay and esteem to reward work is also relevant here: we use esteem when we're trying to engender a commitment to an institutional culture rather than reward specific performances. Grading has a bit of both, as does the honor code and its self-enforcement by students.

      Anyway, just some thoughts about ways to bridge the divide here.

  18. Scu Avatar

    Just an fyi. I also want to thank everyone who has written thoughtfully on this issue. It has been really helpful for me.

  19. […] up on my claim in the last post that “honor produces error.” In my view, the problem is epistemic privilege, i.e. […]

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