If I participate in Turnitin, I am negating their Honor Code promise and, effectively, treating my students as if they never signed it. Quite simply, I do not know how I can reasonably expect students to take the Honor Code seriously when my actions indicate that I am not taking it seriously. It’s like sitting down at a poker game with a pistol under the table. Or being in a relationship where you secretly check your partner’s emails or text messages.
My own view is that teachers ought to “trust, but verify,” and that we can do this without threatening violence (the pistol under the table) or violating privacy (checking emails). Perhaps this is colored by the fact that I have never taught at a school with an honor code, but in my experience, undergraduate student plagiarism is common and services like Turnitin and SafeAssign can easily and quickly nip it in the bud. Gone are the days when I had to call a student into my office, show them the evidence, and deal with the stages of grief: denial, rage, bargaining, acceptance. They cried, I cried, but it was already too late to fix, and so the teachable moment always surrounded the possibilities of reconciliation and redemption. Now, the plagiarism just doesn’t happen: students turn their own papers in late rather than turning in someone else’s paper on time. In many cases, this is simply a matter of attribution: a paper with many uncited quotes will be flagged for the student to fix, and it will still be a good paper after the quotes have been marked as such and properly attributed or paraphrased.
So for me, the services do not generate much excitement, anymore: they’ve simply removed an emotional stumbling stone and helped a few of my students to understand the nature of proper academic citation. That’s a win-win. But Dr. J’s post makes me wonder if I’ve disrespected the integrity of my students by asking them to verify that they are due my trust. It seems to me that this is not a matter about which we can both be right: either Dr. J is wrong to treat plagiarism detection as a matter of honor and dignity, or I am wrong to treat it as a simple technical fix to what is in fact a deeply moral and communal problem.
Since I consider Dr. J a dear friend, I feel that I cannot ignore a disagreement about something so fundamental. If she has something to teach me, here, I want to learn it. I must therefore take up Dr. J’s arguments as I understand them.
- “What distingishes me from the police, I hope, is that I still believe the act of cheating hurts the student more than the consequences of being-caught-cheating does.”
Here, I take Dr. J to be describing some combination of the Platonic/Aristotelian theory of vice: to act immorally is primarily to do harm to one’s own soul. I believe she is suggesting that to cheat in an academic environment is to waste one’s tuition, to take on an instrumental relationship to education when in fact an education in the humanities is the best or even the only way to find the purpose towards which all means and instruments direct us. Dr. J also references Foucault (who has interesting and complicated things to say about surveillance, discipline, and punishment) and in her mention of the “consequences of being-caught” she seems to be suggesting that the two harms being compared here are the harms to one’s own soul and the harms to one’s career or academic record.
Yet this reminds me of one of the main arguments of Plato’s Gorgias, which is that the wise person should prefer that her own unjust acts be punished. Socrates suggests that we ought even to become advocates against ourselves, seeking punishment if it is needed, because the only thing worse than acting unjustly is to act unjustly and also to avoid punishment. To go unpunished is to be left to stew in one’s injustice, and perhaps to exacerbate that tendency in onself. I find Socrates more compelling here than Dr. J, but perhaps he is wrong. It’s a difficult issue, especially when the punishment is unjustly applied or is not proportionate to the injustice done. What do you think?
- “My institution operates under an Honor Code, which (at least ostensibly) governs the conduct of the entirety of the Rhodes communtity, students and faculty alike. […] I believe that the Honor Code is, at heart, a trust-agreement. That is to say, all of our (tacit or explicit) participation in it constitutes a kind of social contract to which we have all agreed to abide, and out allegiance to it, like all social contracts, is derivative of our faith in the virtue of the other members with whom we have agreed to constitute a community.”
One interesting thing about this part of Dr. J’s argument is that it separates her situation from mine. It may be that Dr. J has different obligations and norms to adhere to than I do, because my school does not have a formal process of contracting with its students in order to gain their cooperation with a particular brand of honor. There’s something very appealing about this, insofar as one needn’t pay Turnitin or Blackboard for the service of policing academic honesty if one can persuade the students to do it themselves. This, indeed, is how Dr. J once described it:
“Now, the cynical Sartrean in me suspects that there is more shame than virtue at work here. When students pledge their honor, they become like Sartre’s voyeur in Being and Nothingness, who hears a bump in the hallway as he peeps through the keyhole and is ashamed, not because he is actually caught, but because intersubjectivity always implies the potential to be caught (to be “looked at” instead of being the one “looking”). The Foucaultian in me also suspects that the Honor System is yet another disciplinary practice which allows institutions to exercise the power they need to be “institutions,” that is, the power to produce the kinds of subjects who reproduce the power that produced them.”
The benefit of “honorable” subjects is that they will, like Socrates, prefer to hold themselves accountable through self-surveillance rather than waiting to be caught! But interestingly, the honor code Rhodes is not only a personal pledge: it also requires each of its signatories to
“report any such violation [of lying, cheating, or stealing] that I may witness.”
This obligation to “rat” on one’s fellow students has always bothered me, insofar as it demands that signatories of the code not only self-surveil but also participate in the surveillance and discipline of their colleagues. But since turning a blind eye to cheating would be a violation of the Code it seems to me that the Code itself militates in favor of plagiarism detection services: the Code itself demands verification of one’s honor.
- “if my obsession with pre-emptive security mechanisms indicate that I assume you already are cheating, what’s the motivation for you to take seriously your duty, your promise, to be honest with me? And, even if you are honest, how can I possibly merit you with that honesty under these circumstances, motivated as it is by a fear of certain reprisal and not a genuine respect for integrity, for the trust-agreement, for your or my honor?”
Dr. J’s final argument deals with the issue of merit and signaling expectations. As my readers know, some of my principle concerns are status games and merit claims, which may be another motive that drove me to comment on her post. Here’s what I wrote in January:
From the perspective of morality, all persons deserve equal respect. Our evaluations of a person’s actions may truly reflect the justice or injustice of those actions, but the only truth-tracking moral judgment is one that reports that persons are of equal moral status. Therefore contempt is immoral.
If contempt is immoral, then so too are deference, honor, and merit. Yet though many people seem to agree with me about contempt and disgust, they still wish to preserve a place for merited honor. The problem with discussions of merit (and honor) is that they often assume that merit is the most important metric for evaluation and that it trumps all other considerations. Yet honor killings and aristocracy are two other ways that honor and merit find their way into our discourse, and most people agree that these are not laudable or praiseworthy forms of merit. Might there be similiar problems with our other uses of these concepts?
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. So following Rawls, I believe it falls to anyone who argues primarily from merit to justify the particular scheme of merit in some other terms. How does the praise of this virtue or the blame of that vice produce a just world or a sustainable community?
One account seems to entail the kind of self-surveillance that Dr. J describes, the one that Nietzsche praised in the The Genealogy of Morals as making of humans “an animal that can make promises.” But if Nietzsche is right, this kind of self-surveillance first requires an external authority that excoriates the promising animal until it learns to value its honor and its commitments. Every year, a new generation of frosh come into our classrooms, and they have not learned the lessons of honor and the value of education that we imparted the year before. It falls to us to help them when they fail.
Finally, 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!
I’m not a dogmatist about this, which means I want to be open to changing my opinion in light of new information. But perhaps I am failing to update carefully, for selfish reasons: I find SafeAssign to be a useful and non-intrusive method for enforcing academic honesty and fairness. I may well be wrong. So I ask my readers: what sort of information should cause me to change my opinion?