Saturday, April 5, 2014

Honor, Freedom, and Honors

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences last Tuesday discussed the proposal to adopt an honor code. The item was formally moved, so it could be voted at the next meeting.

Several comments were offered to the effect that there would be something wrong with asking students to write the formulaic honor statement repeatedly. No decision has been taken as to how frequently the affirmation would have to be made, and that seems to me a problem with the legislation. As the Crimson accurately quotes me as saying, there is a big difference between affirming one's commitment to academic integrity once at matriculation, or once a year, and reciting the commitment like a ritual prayer on each item of submitted academic work. (CS 20 students have to answer "check in questions" on the reading the night before every class. There are just three or four questions and they are multiple choice, click-click-click and you are done. Would they be expected to type out the honor pledge in addition?)

I observed that it seemed to me unlikely that a defiant soul like Emerson would have ritually and uncomplainingly written out the honor pledge for four years. Wouldn't he and some of Harvard's other eminent nonconformists at some point have refused? What sanction would Harvard want to have visited on such young cranks, destined for greatness, for the perfectly logical sin of refusing to affirm their own honesty? I am trying to imagine Harvard's great logicians, Quine and Putnam and Sacks et al., explaining to their logic classes that yes, "I am being honest" is a self-refential, semantically challenged proposition, but it didn't matter, they had to keep saying something like that anyway, because the Faculty had voted to require it of them.

Part of the rationale for the code is that we have a cheating problem, and schools with honor codes have less cheating. A literature review was offered in support of the latter thesis, but upon reading it, I am not convinced that it actually supports any such conclusion. (Alas, the literature review, like the draft honor code and implementing legislation, is confidential by the protocol of Faculty meetings, not to be shared with those who are not members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.)

Even if it were true that reciting the pledge made people less likely to cheat, I wouldn't favor it. "Why not, if it works?" Because there are values more important than effectiveness. It might also work to lower the room temperature or to paint the walls pink, but academic integrity is not a matter of behavioral manipulation by tried and true methods of psychological trickery. If it were, we'd just hire an ad agency. And getting people to be honest at Harvard is not the objective anyway; we want to graduate honest people. When Harvard students become corporate executives or political leaders or professionals, there will be no one there to make them recite the pledge that reminded them to be honest while they were students. Integrity has to come from some deeper place in their beings.

A requirement that students affirm the honor pledge, repeatedly, feels to me like an infringement of students' right to free speech, which includes not only the right to say what they wish but also not to say what they don't wish.  Rather than training students to recite formulas, we should be educating them toward exactly the opposite frame of mind, to resist and challenge attempts to require them to say things.

At the end of the day, I think the honor pledge is an attempt to find the solution to a problem under the lamppost that is easiest illuminated.

Students cheat for a variety of reasons. But one important reason students cheat, especially in catastrophic cases like Harvard's Gov 1310 or the Dartmouth CS course a few years ago, is that they feel they are being cheated. Students tend to work hard when they think the course is making an effort to teach well and to make fair demands on students; they cut corners when they think the demands on them are unfair, or they reason that lazy professors should expect little work in return. This is a version of Harvard sociologist Chris Winship's Low-Low Contract between faculty and students: "Faculty pretend to teach, students pretend to study, and as long as parents and others paying the bills are oblivious, everyone is happy." A major cheating scandal disrupts the oblivious compromise, but making students recite the honor pledge without changing faculty behavior isn't a solution to the real problem.

Here is what I think is really going on, aside from those egregious examples of catastrophic failure. The Faculty, as a corporate body, honors students for basically only one thing: Grade Point Average. For honors a student requires a departmental recommendation in addition, especially for High and Highest Honors, but a large component of the basis for those recommendations is itself based on GPA. Of course, even to graduate without honors a student needs grades that are above a very low minimum. So grades are the coin of the realm, whether you are struggling to meet the minimum standard or vying to graduate summa.

We do nothing to control the currency. There has been no Faculty-wide discussion of grades in years. Instructors used to get information about overall grade distributions, but such information is no longer routinely distributed.

The only person who ever asks about grades is Professor Mansfield, and he always couches his question as one about grade inflation, sometimes, in my opinion, incorrectly.

The result of the lack of effort at conversation, much less standardization, is that the grading practices of individual faculty members have drifted apart. The only people who realize that this is happening seem to be the students who go from one course to another and are surprised, at the end of the term, to discover that quite different standards have been applied. Sometimes students make life-altering decisions as a result of their very limited view of Harvard grading practices. Economics Professor Claudia Goldin recently discovered quite stunning differences between the way men and women respond to getting B's in introductory economics. If Econ gives a B for the level of work for which English or Computer Science gives an A–, the variability is important, regardless of the compression. (I have no idea whether that might be true, but we did decide a year ago to offer a SAT-UNSAT track through our introductory course.)

I have thought about things that my own Computer Science colleagues might do without a College-wide reform movement. We could certainly talk to each other about our grading practices, and we have started to do that. A more radical step would be to stop basing our honors recommendations so much on GPA. We might, for example, collectively examine and discuss students' programs, and reward, quite subjectively, the programs that are ambitious and daring as well as meeting some more relaxed standard of achievement. This would have various problems -- there could be inconsistencies and biases, and students would still have to meet certain College-wide grading standards to actually receive honors, whatever the local faculty group might recommend. It might be unworkable and it might be unfair, but the alternative is not without its own problems. Carrying out GPA calculations to five decimal places to check against a numerical threshold, when the input data are so noisy, uncalibrated, and unreliable, ought to offend the sensibilities of any proper scholar.

Students, to the extent they understand that they are playing a game (one course from each of 8 Gen Ed areas, so many for the concentration, grading standards all over the place, and your goal is to exceed GPA x in the concentration and GPA y overall, while relying on assumptions and gossip about the grading practices in individual courses), are likely to cut corners when they decide the rules of the game are meaningless and the objective is arbitrary but valuable. One way of cutting corners is to take the easiest courses. Another is to take the courses you already know the best, and from which you will therefore learn the least, because the only metric for which Harvard will reward you is the grade you receive. And another is to skim the edge of honest behavior and hope you won't get caught, especially in a course where the professor doesn't seem to care much about what students are doing.

I wish we could go after the real problem rather than the symptoms. I don't look kindly on cheating and I wish there were less of it (though I don't really have the sense that there is a lot of it in my courses). But to say that we need to respond with an honor code to our cheating problem, rather than taking up some of the larger educational issues that lie behind it, is a mistake. It feels like the patient has cancer and we are treating the acne, because acne medicine is what we have available to us.


  1. An even more radical suggestion would be to eliminate grades entirely. Perhaps the real problem is that students perceive the value of what they have learned to be less important than the grade they are assigned by the professor.

    What does Harvard lose if it eliminates letter grades entirely? Professors would continue to evaluate work as they have always done, but the evaluations would be a purely private matter between the student and the professor.

    Honors, if Harvard feels compelled to award them, would need to be decided in a more complex way, as you have indicated here, but would no longer need to include a computation of GPA at all.

    But again, I would ask: what does Harvard lose if it does away with the awarding of Honors?

    1. Or we could just let the inflation continue until all grades are A, which would have exactly the same effect ;)

  2. Two very minor suggestions about the problem.
    1) Courses should have extra credit that does not help the grade at all but is taken into account when a prof writes letters and (at Harvard) determine who the honors students are. Such problems are graded by the professor.

    2) (I am sure Harvard already does this) Some students take reading courses or research courses on topics not in the usual courses. These should count for honors somehow.

    Both of these are efforts beyond the gpa which is good
    (I didn't capitlize gpa since I've been spam filtered for too many capitols.)

  3. In regard to Davids thought-provoking suggestion:
    "Evaluations [could be/should be] a purely private matter between the student and the professor."
    Please let me say that this practice works excellently well in medical residency programs, where academic glory — for those who seek it — is conveyed in the final year of residency, not by evaluation of the professoriate, but via peer-election as Chief Resident.

    Relative inter-school prestige is assessed by school-wide performance in Board Certification Examinations — rather like certain schools are perennial contenders in the William Lowell Putnam Competition.

    The prospect of implementing private-grading reforms in undergraduate programs — where student-teacher ratios commonly are nearer 50-1 than the one-to-one typical of medical residency programs — is perhaps comparably likely to implementing the pianist Glenn Gould's recommendation, in an essay of the same title. "Let's Ban Applause" (1962); an essay that is celebrated for Gould's maxim:
    ''The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.''
    Perhaps Gould's objective is one that students must choose to pursue (or not) of their own free will.

  4. While we are imagining alternative universes, I always liked the old HBS scheme: A fixed grading curve, but students not allowed to disclose their grades, on pain of being excluded from use of the HBS placement office. Prospective employers had to figure out for themselves whether students knew anything, which is in practice pretty much the way it works in my neck of the woods right now -- the tech recruiters don't ask for grades, they ask for you to solve problems in real time. Alas, they got rid of that system a decade or so ago, at the insistence of students, who wanted to be able to boast …

    1. A student once asked me to explain to him the Buffon Needle problem since he heard it was a common one to be asked by a Tech recruiter. is that gaming the system? Prob yes, but he did learn and understand it and wanted to. Of course, this attitude pushed to the extreme would call `cheating'' `taking initiative'

    2. Bill, that is a great example. Sometimes people complain about SAT prep courses which drill students to learn vocabulary they should have learned in school. Of course there are socioeconomic biases built into a system that relies on such private tutoring to do things the schools should have done. But is it cheating or gaming the system to learn vocabulary this way?

      Pretty much the way bar review courses work to teach law to law school graduates, by the way.

    3. With respect to
      " recruiters don't ask for grades, they ask for you to solve problems in real time",
      keep in mind a new graduate's grade point average is usually a factor that determines whether they'll even get to that stage of an interview process. Prospective employers try to optimize each layer of the screening process and a number (the GPA) makes that easier.

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