Tuesday, June 3, 2014

An Odd Sort of Honor

I've said quite a few times that I believe in honor and wish there were more of it in the academy. I just turned down an invitation to go to China during term time, something that would not be against the rules, or at least not against any rules that anyone enforces. It just seemed to me dishonorable not to show up in the classroom when it is my job to teach, and when I consider it a privilege to be able to do so. Whether there are any applicable penalties or even rules seemed to me beside the point.

So one of my concerns about the Harvard honor code discussion is how distant it seems to have gotten from matters of conscience. Instead we read about psychological studies which, allegedly, show that reciting an honor pledge on a certain reinforcement schedule will tend to alter behavior, as though B.F. Skinner had put those quaint notions of conscience and honor on a firm scientific footing and we no longer needed to talk about dishonor, only its symptomatology.

So I reacted with some despair and bemusement when a friend pointed out to me that edX's Honor Code is embedded in its Terms of Service, just like iTunes and the like, right down to that terms-of-service classic gotcha: We can change these terms any time we want without telling you; not our fault if you didn't realize we'd changed the rules on you.
Please note that we review and may make changes to this Honor Code from time to time.  Any changes to this Honor Code will be effective immediately upon posting on this page, with an updated effective date.  By accessing the Site after any changes have been made, you signify your agreement on a prospective basis to the modified Honor Code and any changes contained therein.  Be sure to return to this page periodically to ensure familiarity with the most current version of this Honor Code.
Now I am completely fine with an "honor code" that is really a contract between student and institution. That is the way I interpret Harvard's current rules; when you accept our offer, you agree to abide by our rules. (But then there is no need for repeating the honor pledge. Once is enough to sign a contract.)

So a contract, yes. But an honor code as a contract of adhesion, which can be altered by one party without notice? Yes, the MOOC world will generate some interesting experiments. And I know Harvard is now a bit player in edX, even though it was a founding member. But really, do the people who dream this stuff up have any idea what words like "honor" actually mean, and how odd it is -- dishonorable actually -- for an academy of higher learning to tell people, cynically, that they should go back to some web page full of legal language and see if it has changed, if they don't want to risk falling afoul of some new rule?

1 comment:

  1. The analogy is regrettably precise: MOOCs are to the university, as terms of service are to honor.