At Goucher College, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about the Academic Honor Code. If I had to guess, I would say less than half of the student body has gone online to read it—but most of those just skimmed a bit and then closed the tab. Maybe a third of the students who visited the page actually read a section; perhaps one third of those actually read every section. Probably only the people who sit on the Academic Honor Board have really parsed through the document to understand and interpret it.
This lack of constant discussion of the Honor Code can be seen positively. I think that many professors believe in their students’ abilities to understand and follow the code. First year writing courses address citation at least in MLA format, and professors who assign writing that requires a different format often go over this form of citation briefly in class before the essay is due. Although professors do not spend as much time discussing why students should not cheat on exams, another topic that the Honor Code covers, I do not find it remiss to say that students know that they should not cheat. In short, if someone asked me whether students at Goucher College understand what is said in the Honor Code, I would probably say, “Yeah, for the most part.”
I would not, however, say that students know why citation is so important. Sure, students can cognitively say that plagiarism is stealing and stealing is wrong, but there’s a difference between knowing that stealing is wrong because your parents taught you that and knowing that stealing is wrong because someone robbed your house. I think that this emotional, moral aspect of the Honor Code is not taught—cannot necessarily be taught—in our undergraduate careers.
It’s easy to write off the importance of “academic integrity” when it comes in the form of an honor code written years ago and abstracted into a vague idea built from rules and regulations. It is especially easy to write off the importance of citing sources when it is so often treated as a chore. But the reason that students don’t understand academic integrity is because the average student is not thinking about the author of the piece he or she is citing—the student is thinking of him or herself and how much time it will take to write up a bibliography entry.
But the authors who are writing the articles and studies that we are citing are not writing these articles because it was an assignment. The world of academia is one populated by people who love their studies, who are truly pouring their time and effort and love into the work they’re producing. That’s not to say they don’t want their work to be shared or used in an undergraduate essay—quite the contrary, in fact. The scholars who write the works we cite want their ideas circulated everywhere, which is why they’re researching and publishing them, but they want everyone to know it was their idea.
A typical undergraduate probably isn’t producing work that he or she is absolutely in love with. Sure, it’s possible to be proud of an essay written for a class in your major or even for a class that was taken to fill a Liberal Education Requirement, but at the end of the day, most undergrads are not publishing work that they are utterly obsessed with.
Until last year, I was in the same boat. I had written some essays that I was proud of, but I never thought about the idea of anyone ever being interested in using my ideas in their own work. I didn’t think of how I would feel if someone wanted to cite me.
After going abroad to a school where I was producing approximately 4000 words of writing every week, however, my opinion began to change. Suddenly, I was coming up with work that I loved—work that I wanted to share with everyone. My parents got sick of Skyping me because I would spend the whole time explaining the brilliance of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” One of my professors even liked my writing enough to say that with revision and more work, it could become a publishable piece. For the first time, I realized that maybe one day, I would come up with a paper so good that someone would cite me.
Now, when I think of academic integrity, I don’t think of it as a chore. It’s not some abstract concept in a document that the vast majority of people at this college have not read but pretend they understand anyway. It isn’t even a matter of respecting someone else. Academic integrity is personal: it is a matter of respecting oneself.
Academic integrity is not an abstraction. It is not vague. It is not a series of rules and regulations. Academic integrity—like all forms of integrity—is something we must all take personally. An offense against academic integrity is a personal attack on us all. This is not simply because we are members of an academic institution. It is because we are people, and people have ideas. To steal an idea, to lift a particularly brilliant sentence from an essay, to glance over at someone else’s exam—this is not simply an offense against Goucher College: it is an offense against humanity.
Humanity is built on ideas, and we want to share them. I am not a believer that people should not be sharing ideas and using each other’s most brilliant words to support newer, perhaps more brilliant ideas. Intertextuality and the mixing of thought is the way forward, and while originality is important, we have to face the fact that everything comes from something else—especially when it comes to writing, be it fictional or academic.
That said, giving credit where credit is due is not just some chore you have to do when you write an essay: it’s a way of saying, “thanks, I loved your idea, and I’m going to use it as a foundation for mine.” Citation is not a task: it’s a way of bestowing honor. Academic integrity is not a matter of following the impersonal rule that says you shouldn’t steal. Academic integrity is personal and emotional—it is a true love and respect for humanity and its ideas.