Advice to Honor Council
Doug Davis, Psychology
You have asked faculty members to share any concerns or suggestions they may have about the current implementation of the Haverford College Honor Code. I have voiced my own particular concern on at least a couple of occasions when members of Honor Council have appeared at Faculty Meeting, and I have voiced it in an open meeting to discuss the “Star Wars” case; but I will make one more attempt to explain my point of view. To put it as succinctly as possible: lose the funny names.
I understand the use of pseudonyms in reporting a complicated quasi-legal procedure in discursive form. Rather than fall into the legalese of “the confronted student” or “the confronting professor,” previous Honor Councils apparently decided to use common names to give Abstracts a discursive flow without betraying the identity of the parties. At some point, apparently, whoever was writing an Abstract hit on the idea of making the Abstract more engaging -- or perhaps simply more fun -- by borrowing a set of names from an easily recognized TV series, film, or literary work. This has always, in my opinion, been a bad idea, since -- to the extent that the names are readily recognized by people familiar with the source -- they will call up personal and distracting associations relevant to that person's experience of the drama or literary work. If these associations are shared by most readers of the Abstract, they will constitute an implicit, metaphorical running commentary on the case, in the way that a sustained allusion to or “quoting” of a well-known work does in film or fiction. If the source work is “popular,” the use of such names will diminish the apparent seriousness of the Abstract, and of the Honor Council proceeding it describes. If the work is “serious,” the use of literary names will introduce either a level of pretentiousness or a reverse sense that the authors of the Abstract are parodying or belittling the presumed seriousness of our Honor Code and/or of those professors and students who find themselves involved in Honor Council proceedings.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean with two examples. The most recent Honor Council Abstract, “Hamlet and Professor Polonius,” introduces the confronting party as “Professor Ophelia.” Since Hamlet is among the most quoted (and perhaps the most parodied) products of our English literature, no college reader will fail to meet these characters with some emotional and intellectual associations. If this particular allegation of misconduct by a student in fact deserves to be thought of in relationship to these fictional characters, one might for example wonder, “Are ‘Hamlet’ the student and ‘Polonius’ the second professor being compared respectively with Shakespeare’s grief and guilt-stricken young lover and with the father of ‘Ophelia’, whose unrequited love for ‘Hamlet’ destroys her? Are they in some kind of ‘oedipal’ competition for ‘Ophelia’'s affections? Is ‘Hamlet’'s distressing lack of interest in ‘Ophelia’'s course to be understood as an allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet's unresponsiveness to his Ophelia's love?” Perhaps this is taking the names too seriously, and we are simply to assume that “Hamlet” has more important things on his mind than “Ophelia”'s course. The question is, of course, do we want the reader mulling over these matters, or rather those posed directly by an Abstract that asks the question, “Is a student's enrollment in a course that may be well beneath the level by which he would be challenged, and his apparently resultant lack of participation, a violation of the Honor Code?”
Of course, I may have this all wrong. The use of these names may refer to a more recent and student-relevant appropriation of the characters of Shakespeare's drama. Given my age, the example that came to mind was Bob Dylan's takeoff on Shakespeare:
Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness.
I think you get the point.
As a second example, I'd like to offer a brief reaction to the Honor Council Abstract series that made me realize how upsetting this whole trend had become: “Star Wars.” With the appearance of the first Abstract, several years ago, I was initially perplexed. What did it mean that “Luke” and “Obe-Wan” were accused of having misused their “Jedi powers”? When the second Abstract appeared, I began to guess that an elaborately coded message was being sent to cover the fact that this case involved members of Honor Council being accused of violating the trust placed in them as administrators and exemplars of the Code. That is, the very seriousness of the case had led to this elaborate parody in terms of George Lucas’s sci-fi parable of ultimate Good and Evil. I attended a late-night discussion of the first two Abstracts (where I first made my suggestion that Jedi knights were a bad model for the participants) and had my suspicions confirmed. I was moved to increasing irritation at the idea that we were spending over a year coming to terms with such a serious breach of trust, and I became convinced that the effect of these Abstracts would likely be to create an active campus rumor mill in which the majority of students and faculty who were not privy to these proceedings would try to find someone in the know to help them break the code (no caps). The third Abstract (“Return of the Jedi”), as I recall, coincided roughly with the reemergence of “Star Wars” films, and I found myself wondering if this might in fact prove to be a decades-long series, as we were encouraged to rework the entire history of the Haverford Honor Code in the metaphorical space of cosmic confrontation between the Light and the Dark sides of Haverford College: “The Phantom Menace,” “The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,” etc.
I'm proud of Haverford's Honor Code, and I think it has served us well. I treasure the high level of trust that generally exists between teachers and students here, and I feel privileged to teach in an institution where I can take my students’ academic integrity almost for granted. I've also known literally hundreds of students who were members of Honor Council and who served on trials. I've often wished that they could be spared the lengthy and sometimes agonizing proceedings, but I've been consistently impressed with their seriousness and their fairness. I do not write this to criticize the Code or Honor Council. I think you have simply become trapped in a bad practice, and that it is time to change it.