Editorial: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

David Ehrlich, Editor

Originally published September 2008.

200805CS12Our second-year students recently underwent training in teaching. This training was mandated by the division and graduate school administrations. It was aimed to help us teach and research appropriately and was led by sundry faculty from across the university. It emphasized the importance of the honor code frequently. These sessions illuminated a widespread problem with ethics at Emory: not prevalence of misconduct but of an approach to ethics that stifles the growth of a trustworthy, intellectual community.

The current ethical dilemma at Emory runs very deep. It is rooted in an attitude towards the student population that contradicts the prestige of the university. Many of the training sessions portrayed the Emory undergraduates unbecomingly, preparing us for run-ins with hordes of cheaters, plagiarists and liars. This attitude came most surprisingly from graduate students, newcomers to the Emory community who were relaying opinions picked up in only a short time. Although not universal, the message was common and clear: Emory’s undergraduates will cheat and plagiarize, and it is our responsibility to preempt their assured attempts.

To approach the problem of academic dishonesty we must understand what motivates misconduct. It seems like a simple decision based on risk and reward, the expected value of getting caught versus boosting a grade or free time. While this often plays into the decision, there are important factors at work that are easily overlooked. The presence or absence of pride can weigh heavily on a person’s decision to cheat. A proud member of an academic community values its brotherhood. If he cheats, the brotherhood is lost, independent from punishment. If a member views his peers as cheaters, there is no pride at stake and his decision to cheat becomes much simpler. With this in mind, our academic community should retool its approach for fighting ethical misconduct and promoting academic honor.

Ethics at Emory is in a potentially dangerous spiral. The administration trains the teachers and assistants to be watchdogs, vigilant against cheating. This biasing of teachers inevitably has an effect on interactions with students. When a teacher enters a classroom without respect for her students, the students feel no accountability to her, only to the grade book. Emory is built on student-teacher relationships; if our respect for our students falters the academic community shrinks. If we are not proud of our students, they cannot be proud of each other. Under this system, cheating will rise and we will have continually less faith in our students.

When Emory was founded, the student body consisted of “southern gentlemen” who developed an honor code rooted in accountability to their peers. Under this system, ethical conduct flourished because students felt great pride for inclusion in such an honorable community; the pride was worth much more than the reward of cheating. Today, we retain the same idealistic honor code but, from fault of the administration, teachers, and students alike, we have strayed from the proud, honorable community of old.

As teachers, we are in the best position to effect the necessary change. We sit between the administration which sets the ethical standards and the students who manifest them. By exuding an attitude of respect for the students and pride in our community, we can convince the students they are worthy of the ever-greater task of proper ethical conduct. By promoting Emory as an academic community where cheating is simply below the people we welcome as members, we can develop a place where ethical misconduct is rare because it serves nothing to our common purpose- the pursuit of knowledge and truth. For this to happen, we must share that purpose with our students and treat them with the respect members deserve. We may not catch as many cheaters, plagiarists, and liars this way, but we may not create as many either.

Got an Opinion? Write an Op-Ed!! Email editorial to amahan@emory.edu

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