Faculty Members Take Home Lessons from Scandal

Faculty say communication with students is key, and an honor code may be on its way

The week after Harvard made an announcement intended to put to rest its largest cheating investigation in recent memory, faculty members said they need to do a better job communicating course expectations to students and laying down the groundwork for academic honesty at a time when technology is blurring the lines of right and wrong.

Citing a lack of information from the University, faculty members interviewed for this article were hesitant to remark on the administration’s handling of the Government 1310 case, in which about 125 students were investigated for inappropriately collaborating on a take-home final in assistant government professor Matthew B. Platt’s “Introduction to Congress” course last spring. Instead, in private conversations and departmental meetings, professors said they have begun to examine the source of the problem and the role that they might play in combatting it.

History professor Andrew D. Gordon, who teaches a General Education course on Japanese history, said that based on the limited information faculty members have received, he thinks that the professor and students are jointly culpable in the Government 1310 case.

Drawing an analogy, he explained that the situation is comparable to the professor who leaves the house each morning without locking the door.

“You can say that the professor should have known better than to not lock his door because there are people who do dishonest things,” Gordon said, “but it still doesn’t mean it’s right to go in to steal stuff.”


Gordon added that faculty members need to do a better job accounting for and incorporating the technology that makes widespread information sharing possible. For a course he taught last fall, Gordon said that, with the help of a teaching fellow, he encouraged students to start a group Google document to share definitions and pose questions.

“I thought that was a fabulous type of group work. It should be encouraged,” Gordon said. But, he added, “we’ve got to be attentive to how we design courses and how we deal with an evolving landscape of information.”

Systematic biology professor Donald H. Pfister said that professors have become particularly mindful of collaboration policies in their own courses in the wake of the scandal.

“I think everybody that I know is trying to be as explicit as they can be about expectations about how [students] work with other students,” said Pfister, the one-time chair of the Committee to Review the Administrative Board, which convened from 2007 to 2009.

“I think it’s the faculty’s role to set out expectations, and that includes how students anticipate being in a course,” said Pfister, who is teaching a Science of Living Systems Gen Ed course this spring. “Good syllabi, good outlines—that’s all part of the job of teaching.”

Government and sociology professor Theda R. Skocpol said she assigns a take-home exam in her own United States and the World Gen Ed course, but has never had a problem with widespread cheating. She said she worries that the University’s handling of the case will cause faculty to lose sight of the value of collaboration as they tighten restrictions on group work.

“We cannot discourage people from talking, no matter what we do,” Skocpol said. “Teamwork is often a good thing in learning, and I just feel like a vague thing launched out there was causing people to forget about the basics.”

Rather, Skocpol said, faculty should redirect their attention to those basics—clear communication among students, teaching fellows, and faculty about course expectations and policies.

“Vague statements that there is a general crisis are not effective in encouraging people in learn to be better,” she said.



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