A few years ago, when I was going on college tours all over the East Coast, dorms, the gym and the dining hall were things I wanted to see on tours. Professors, course requirements and class sizes were topics I wanted to hear about during the information sessions. After five, 10, 15 college tours, all of these factors mixed together and lost distinction. One thing that stood out from school to school was whether or not the tour guides mentioned an honor code.
Coming from a public high school, an academic integrity policy was not very instrumental in students’ academic lives. We had rules against cheating, but an honor code wasn’t mentioned much at all. While punishment was inevitable if someone got caught cheating, I think more often than not students got away with it. Kids wrote notes on their palms, typed things into their TI-Nspire calculators and discreetly whispered to each other during assessments.
Because cheating felt so common and socially acceptable in my high school, hearing so much about honor codes at various schools was unexpected. Davidson College in particular had a strict and widely advertised honor code. A simple web search revealed entire webpages dedicated to explaining its intricacies and philosophies. When I searched for a Vassar College Honor Code, nothing came up. What I instead found was our Student Handbook and its “academic integrity” policy. Discussions on academic integrity exist at Vassar more for the purpose of rule enforcement and less for encouraging students to internalize these principles to promote honesty.
Superficially, an honor code or policy on academic integrity should be something that is found on every college campus so that all work produced is genuine and assessments are completed without any sort of assistance. Their implementation can also replace many trivial rules and regulations, too. Since it is widely recognized that each student is well aware of the strict rules and consequences associated with academic integrity, students at Davidson College, for example, can self-schedule exams, take tests home and take unproctored exams. This makes completing these assignments simpler and more convenient for both students and professors.
Having an honor code or similar policy integrated into a college’s philosophy also means that the school will not have to resort to cheating prevention methods that are invasive and excessive. On April 5, The New York Times published an article about software at Rutgers University called Proctortrack. The testing software ensures students taking exams online are not using additional resources or people to help them. Proctortrack confirms a student’s identity before testing by using their facial features and an image of their knuckles. It goes even further to make sure that a student, once their identity is confirmed, isn’t cheating while the exam is taking place. The software does this by monitoring facial expressions and movements, though even movements as simple as stretching can cause a violation. Methods such as Proctortrack may help prevent cheating, but a webcam monitoring you in your own home or dorm room is invasive and threatening. Taking an important exam is already stressful enough. If Rutgers and other universities that use methods and programs similar to Proctortrack relied on a strict honor code, they would not have to go to such great lengths to prevent cheating and instead focus on building a positive atmosphere and philosophy.
While I was always pleasantly surprised when a school mentioned their strict honor code during an information session on the college tour, it was not something I took into account when deciding which school to attend. I don’t remember if the tour or information session at Vassar mentioned an honor code. Any search for information about Vassar’s honor code ends up in the Student Handbook with content about the college’s policies on academic integrity. Students very rarely read the Handbook in its entirety, meaning that they will rarely come into contact with these policies. A web search at many peer schools, including Middlebury, Colgate and Bowdoin, reveals a webpage with information about an honor code or similar such philosophy. Why doesn’t Vassar’s website have a section dedicated to an honor code? Not only would it aid in preventing students from engaging in various types of cheating and plagiarism, but also it would instill a trust in the academic community that would make academic integrity a philosophy as well as a policy.
—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.