May 6

Submitted May 4: A prof gave us an in-class midterm. He stuck around to time us. We began the test at --:19. The instructions on the test said that we had sixty minutes. He forgot what time he started the test. He asked the class with five minutes left, "How much time left?" I had been neurotically checking my watch in my panic, and the class told him ten minutes. The class convinced him to give us fifteen. "I'm such a pushover," he said. Our class didn't cheat anyone but him because he doesn't teach two sections of the same class. Do I have a responsibility to tell him that he was tricked? I didn't have the voice or confidence to tell the truth when he asked in class.

The question of academic honesty has come up several times this year. In the January 14 ethicist column (see PERC website), Sarah Dimick responded to a question about some of the issues related to take home tests. There was also the following anonymous reflection in PERC’s ethicist caucus about the same time:

Haverford College is well-known for its Quaker honor code, as are a few other prominent liberal arts schools like Reed. The ethical questions codes like this raise are interesting, I think. On one hand, faculty place an immense amount of trust in the students and this reflects positively on the student body. However, the idea that if you yourself witness an honor code violation and do not come forth to report it constitutes another honor code violation makes me uneasy. There has been much discussion about this topic at those institutions, but I wonder what Carleton folks who aren't subject to a code this strict or idealistic would think.

Perhaps some additional conversation by the Carleton community would be helpful in reflecting on the very significant ethical issues at stake in all kinds of academic work. Whether any changes are needed or the current system is working well, there at least appears to be some confusion over what students and faculty ought to expect from one another.

In terms of this specific question, as the writer suggests on some basic level it is clearly unethical to lie to the professor regarding the time remaining for the test. Furthermore, this ethical situation is not unique to academia. I think most people would agree that intentionally answering almost any work-related question of information (time of a meeting, day that a project was supposed to be done, who had responsibility for something, etc.) wrong is unethical. It may break an official policy of a corporation or a college, but it certainly breaks the basic social contract that enables a healthy environment. In any particular case there may be mitigating circumstances that suggest another more ethical course of action, but in general we expect peers, professors, co-workers, etc. to be honest with us and we have the responsibility to be honest in return.

However, without having been present, it is difficult to analyze the specifics of this case. Did the rest of the class pay attention to exactly what time the test started and therefore know they were deceiving the professor by five minutes? Did the professor’s question suggest a desire to be somewhat flexible on the time? Did the professor’s willingness to add another five minutes when the class begged confirm this? Only the professor would know for sure. Asking about it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. While trust is key to the health of the Carleton community, I would wonder if some subtle indicators were shared in this case that opened the door to a bit of well-intended (and perhaps self-serving) truth-stretching. However, the very fact that it has made at least one member of the class uncomfortable suggests some of the inherent risks, especially in a situation like a midterm that may be already quite stressful.

Doug Mork,

PERC Director