Academic integrity and other virtues

I have been thinking a lot recently about academic integrity. What does it mean? Why do we care—what is it we fundamentally want students to do and to be? And whatever it is, how do we go about helping them become like that?

As a general principle, I think we ought to focus not just on prohibiting certain negative behaviors, but rather on encouraging positive behaviors (which are in a suitable sense “dual” to the negative behaviors we want to prohibit). Mere prohibitions leave a behavioral vacuum—“OK, don’t do this, so what should I do?”—and incentivize looking for loopholes, seeing how close one can toe the line without breaking the letter of the law. On the other hand, a positive principle actively guides behavior, and in actively striving towards the ideal of the positive principle, one (ideally) ends up far away from the prohibited negative behavior.

In the case of academic integrity, then, it is not enough to say “don’t plagiarize”. In fact, if one focuses on the prohibition itself, this is a particularly difficult one to live by, because academic life is not lived in a vacuum: ideas and accomplishments never spring forth ex nihilo, owing nothing to the ideas and accomplishments of others. In reality, one is constantly copying in big and small ways, explicitly and implicitly, consciously and unconsciously. In fact, this is how learning works! We just happen to think that some forms of copying are acceptable and some are not. Now, there are good reasons for distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable copying; the point is that this is often more difficult and ambiguous for students than we care to admit.

So what is the “dual” of plagiarism? What are the positive virtues which we should instill in our students? One can, of course, say “integrity”, but I don’t think this goes far enough: to have integrity is to adhere to a particular set of moral principles, but which ones? Integrity means being truthful, but truthful about what? It seems this is just another way of saying “don’t plagiarize”, i.e. don’t lie about the source of an idea. I have come up with two other virtues, however, which I think really get at the heart of the issue: thankfulness and generosity. (And in the spirit of academic thankfulness, I should say that Vic Norman first got me thinking along these lines with his paper How Will You Practice Virtue Witout Skill?: Preparing Students to be Virtuous Computer Programmers, published in the 2014-2015 Journal of the ACMS; I was also influenced by a discussion of Vic’s paper with several others at the ACMS luncheon at SIGCSE 2016.)

Academic thankfulness has to do with recognizing one’s profound debt to the academic context: to all those thinkers and doers who have come before, and to all those who help you along your journey as a learner, whether professors, other students, or random strangers on the Internet. A thankful student is naturally driven to cite anything and everything, to give credit where credit is due, even to give credit where credit is not technically necessary but can serve as a token of thanks. A thankful student recognizes the hard work and unique contributions of others, rather than seeing others as mere means to their own ends. A thankful student never plagiarizes, since taking something from someone else and claiming it for one’s own is the height of ingratitude.

Academic generosity is about freely sharing one’s own ideas, sacrificing one’s time and energy to help others, and allowing others to share in credit and recognition. Being academically generous is harder than being thankful, because it opens you up to the potential ingratitude of others, but in some sense it is the more important of the two virtues: if no one were generous, no one would have anything to be thankful for. A generous student is naturally driven to cite anything and everything, to give credit and recognition to others, whether earned or not. A generous student recognizes others as worthy collaborators rather than as means to an end. A generous student never plagiarizes, since they know how it would feel to have their own generosity taken advantage of.

There’s more to say—about the circumstances that have led me to think about this, and about how one might actually go about instilling these virtues in students, but I think I will leave that for another post.

About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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One Response to Academic integrity and other virtues

  1. Pingback: Academic integrity: context and concrete steps | blog :: Brent -> [String]

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