I think it was my sister’s school, Wellesley, that had the Honor Code thing down right. The actual text is available here, but as she explained it, students could take their final exams when they wanted, where they wanted, and in the presence of whomever they wanted (within the limits of reason, of course). The logic behind such flexibility was simple: the students at Wellesley were bound by the school’s Honor Code not to cheat. When a student begins their education at Wellesley, they make a pact with the school to abide by the Code, and in exchange the faculty and staff extend their trust to the student body. They trust the students to honor the Honor Code. Contrast that to the code by the same name at OU Law.

OU’s code is noticably less clear-cut than Wellesleys. In truth, when one considers how OU’s Honor Code is invoked in daily practice, from my experience a violation seems to consist of “Obvious academic misconduct, plus whatever else the faculty in question says is infringing.” Case in point is my own Honor Code debacle in the Spring 2005 Contracts final. For students taking their exams on a laptop, the University provides tightly restrictive exam software (oh so aptly made by a company named “Extegrity”). It locks your computer from any functionality beyond a basic word processor until the exam is over. As had numerous students, I had the unfortunate habit of not actually launching the exam software until I was ready to use it – I simply left my laptop blank on its Desktop as I worked through multiple choice or essay preparation. This neglectfulness caught up with me in my Contracts exam when forty minutes in, another student brought to the professor’s attention that some students had not yet started their software. This resulted in a major headache when the teacher approached me and very nearly charged me with academic misconduct on the spot. Fortunately after many apologies and a check of my laptop’s activities through the IT department, I was vindicated (and aced the class!). Yet through it all the professor insisted that while she understood and believed that I was not cheating, I was still “in technical violation of the Honor Code” by not starting the software. Oh?! Since when is the Honor Code designed to prevent me from impressing everyone with the might of my World of Warcraft desktop wallpaper? No, it was a violation of the Honor Code because the professor said it was, thus giving her all the flexibility she would need to prosecute me for academic misconduct if she had any doubts.

My larger dispute with OU’s Honor Code is that at some point it ceases to have any value. What is the point of an Honor Code if the students obviously will not be trusted in the slightest? Is it just a loosely defined crutch the faculty can use to justify restricting any conduct of which they disappove? Is it an appeal to the students’ morality not to cheat (but just in case, we’re going to employ a little “extegrity” as well)? The latest instance has arisen with tomorrow’s Conflicts final: the professor is afraid to allow students to use their laptops to refer to their notes (open book, open note exam). If the Honor Code had any real value, not only would that be an option, but what would be the practical reason barring students from even taking their exams on unsecured laptops and turning them in on thumbdrives?

How can a school expect its students to value an Honor Code when they, themselves, see it as worthless?

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