Academic ethics for a new year

by Beacon Staff • September 9, 2009

This year, I celebrate my silver anniversary in teaching. Over the past 25 years, I believe I've had the best job in the world. Listening to voices of a younger and enthusiastic generation while researching and teaching has shown me one thing: When things are going well, life is good.

And yet, when things are going wrong, academic life can become wearisome and challenging. Few scenarios are more difficult to deal with than when students cheat or plagiarize. Ethical quandaries involving students are exhausting. Yet it's critical that we make every effort to ensure exemplary classroom standards.

As an academic year begins, nearly 1,000 students arrive at Emerson for the first time, and returning students prepare for another year of tests, performances and papers. I do my best to communicate the course requirements, classroom procedures and evaluation components in my syllabi.

That said, I have had to deal with students who cheat on exams, steal words from other published works and hijack papers from a Web site as if these were steps along the way to a college degree.

I offer the following advice to students as they take another step in their college journey. These suggestions have been made before, yet they bear repeating, given the temptation that can lurk in the dark moments before deadlines.

This is not an Emerson problem-I know my close colleagues struggle with issues of academic ethics at other institutions. I truly believe that at Emerson, in particular, the overwhelming majority of students are academically ethical.

Still, the pressure to succeed and to get an A can lead a student's moral compass awry.

1. You may not know everything.

Some students do better on exams than others. Yet taking an exam does not and should not license students to surreptitiously level the playing field with respect to their exam behaviors. Professors know the routine: expressing an affinity for the palm of one's hand, holding an exam up in front of one's face, fiddling with a water bottle as one reads the crib note inside the label, and so on.

The examples are as endless as are the opportunities to cheat. If you don't know the answer to a question, all is not lost. Nothing requires you to know everything asked of you. Certainly your professors don't know all there is to know.

2. When in doubt, search it out.

One of college professors' primary responsibilities is to help you. They can be your first stop for any academic query. In addition, the dean of students' office remains your ally in your quest to be more judicious and ethical. Also, any sort of ethical question can be answered by contacting Emerson's student conduct coordinator, Brad Hinton.

3. Cash in on the credit.

Many students look at the Internet as a vast, uncontrollable repository of free information.

Yes, anyone can use information with little or no effort. But it all boils down to eight syllables: Give credit where credit is due. It is unacceptable to take another's words and claim them as your own. Even paraphrasing requires acknowledgment of the original source. You also need to understand that such software as turnitin.com is available to professors to verify the originality of your written work. The communication industry-be it journalism, film, creative writing, theatre-all rely on the respect of bylines, copywrites, authorships, etc. This goes beyond academic ethics: These are the ethics of our respective fields.

4. After being dirty, come clean.

So, what should a student do if he/she is caught cheating or plagiarizing? First, ensure you understand the accusation. Second, don't ignore the professor. Third, recognize the seriousness of the discussion. My own experiences suggest that candor and honesty go a long way. So, be an adult about it. Your moment of stupidity should not be overshadowed by subsequent moments of na'veteacute; and disregard.

Although my call here is to students, I also believe that professors have an ethical responsibility to spell out their code of ethics for each class. Students should understand that there are appropriate classroom protocols. Professorial expectations on test taking, for example, should be clear.

Although much has changed since I stepped in front of my first college classroom in 1984, academic integrity has always been a concern. My wish is for all of us to cultivate a climate of understanding and to remind us that the intellectual, artistic and ethical reputation of a college is critical. Good luck this year and aspire to be your best!,Dr. Richard West