Faculty reflect on honor principle

by Erin Lee | 11/17/14 7:01pm

Academic honor principle cases increased by 44 percent last year, with 11 more cases referred to the Committee on Standards in 2013-14 than the year before.

In 2013-2014, 57 percent of the 63 cases adjudicated by COS were academic honor principle violations, up from 38 percent of cases the year before. Of the 36 honor principle cases, 44 percent involved plagiarism, 39 percent involved cheating and 17 percent involved unauthorized collaboration.

Recently, allegations of cheating in Religion 65, or “Sports, Ethics and Religion,” have sparked conversations about Dartmouth’s honor principle.

On Oct. 30, religion professor Randall Balmer found a discrepancy between the number of students digitally submitting answers to in-class questions and the number of students present. Balmer asked the 43 students who had submitted responses but had been absent that day to stay after class on Nov. 11, and judicial affairs director Leigh Remy informed them of possible disciplinary action.

Since then, several of their peers have voluntarily reported their involvement, judicial affairs director Leigh Remy wrote in an email, declining to specify how many. These students electronically submitted answers for absent peers and account for 23 of the 43 responses from absent students. All students have requested individual hearings, which the Committee on Standards aims to complete before Dartmouth closes for winter break in late December.

The clicker incident has brought increased attention to the purpose and expectations of the honor principle, Dartmouth center for the advancement of learning interim director and government professor Lisa Baldez said. She said this opportunity should not “be taken for granted” and would ideally lead to more conversation among faculty and students.

Between summer 2008 and spring 2013, the COS found more than 100 students responsible for violating the academic honor principle, with sanctions ranging from reprimands to expulsion. Two-thirds of students were suspended, and two students with multiple violations were expelled. The committee considered the degree of the violation, the student’s willingness to share information, disciplinary history and compliance when determining sanctions for each case.

College President Phil Hanlon said students’ willingness to uphold the academic honor principle creates trust between faculty and students.

“I certainly think that maintaining and strengthening Dartmouth’s academic excellence requires strict adherence to the academic honor principle,” he said. “It’s important that each student accepts the responsibility to be honorable on his own as well as support the principle as it applies to others.”

In a survey emailed to campus Monday morning, about 30 percent of 160 respondents reported that they had cheated at Dartmouth. About 26 percent of respondents reported having participated in collaboration where it was not expressly authorized, 16 percent reported cheating on a homework assignment, 8 percent reported cheating on an exam and 1 percent said they had intentionally plagiarized. About 45 percent of respondents said they think about the honor principle one time or less frequently per term and over half said they think about it twice or more.

Faculty interviewed said the case offers an important chance to reflect on Dartmouth’s standards.

Philosophy professor Timothy Rosenkoetter wrote in an email that the honor principle establishes trust within the Dartmouth community.

“Precisely because there is an honor code, professors can — and, I would argue, have some obligation to — treat students as participants in a community in which one’s word is to be taken at face value,” he wrote.

English professor Michael Chaney, who has taught at Dartmouth since 2005, said incidents of student misconduct on campus surprise him.

“That surprise brings with it an obligation to talk to my students, the students whom I may believe are incapable of such atrocities, to talk about the ways we’re all human, and to talk more about not just academic honesty, but also a kind of culture of competition,” Chaney said.

English professor Thomas Luxon said he tried to reduce the temptation to cheat by making students choose their final paper topic in the first week of class, enabling them to work on the paper throughout the term.

Religion professor Susannah Heschel said she believes fear of failure can motivate cheating. She said that she tries to reduce her students’ anxiety by working with them on papers.

“I explain to them that writing an essay or research paper is an opportunity for them to express themselves and to express their ideas and to think for themselves, and I want to know how they think,” she said. “To cheat on something is to deny yourself a great opportunity.”

Engaging students on a personal basis can be difficult in large classes like Balmer’s, Luxon said. He noted that few courses in the humanities with large class sizes have good attendance. In large classes, professors tend to give assessments that don’t require professor feedback.

“That breaks the very important bond between the teacher and the student — a bond of trust, a bond of knowledge and familiarity upon which learning is based, and if you lose the trust and you lose the familiarity,” Luxon, who has taught at Dartmouth since 1988, said. “I’m not surprised that people stopped coming to class.”

Baldez said the large size of Religion 65 reflected the attractiveness of the course and did not lead to cheating. She noted that clickers can make large classes more interactive and provide the instructor with instantaneous feedback from students. The course, however, misused the technology, she said.

“Every class when you do something innovative and new, you run the risk of some kind of unanticipated consequence,” Baldez said. “In Professor Balmer’s case, what he’s created is an ironically obvious teachable moment in a case of widespread cheating in a class on ethics. What better time is there to talk about ethics?”

Like Dartmouth, Princeton University uses an academic honor code based in trust. Harvard University will adopt an honor code in fall 2015, following a large-sale cheating incident in 2012-13.