UA Council Discusses Remedies for CheatingBy Reuven M. Lerner
Academic honesty -- what it is and how to deal with it -- was the primary focus of Wednesday night's Undergraduate Association Council meeting.
The two-hour meeting, which brought about 45 students and several high-ranking administrators together in 6-120, was intended to be a preliminary discussion on what can be done to combat cheating. The council had previously discussed honesty on Feb. 5, when Associate Provost Sheila E. Widnall '60 addressed the group.
Joining the UAC on Wednesday night were Arthur C. Smith, dean for undergraduate education and student affairs, Nelson Y.-S. Kiang, chairman of the Committee on Discipline, Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for student affairs, and Samuel J. Keyser, associate provost for Institute life. Corporation Chairman Paul E. Gray '54 was invited to attend, but cancelled that morning.
What is cheating?
Many of those attending Wednesday night's meeting stressed the difficulty of drawing the line between cheating and helpful collaboration, especially in light of difficult-to-understand policies.
"A central problem is that we don't know where to draw the line," Merritt said. "Faculty aren't very good at drawing the line, and students aren't very good at asking faculty to draw the line."
Merritt said that while it is important for professors to hand out a list of guidelines at the beginning of the semester, students should appreciate the difficulty of coming up with such a policy. "It's very hard to do unambiguously," he said.
But as soon as this fall, faculty members may no longer have to write their own policy defining acceptable collaboration in their class. Smith said that he plans to write a statement "which all faculty will have to accept unless they write their own."
"It will be in the catalog, and it will say, `This will be the policy for all courses,' " he added.
Merritt reminded participants that this was not the first time that MIT had discussed academic dishonesty. "It's been in the air for all of the time that I've been at MIT, since 1964. So if you're under any illusion that this is a notion that has become current in recent weeks, think again," he said. Merritt added that the Institute is planning to hold a colloquium on the subject of academic honesty in the fall, similar to the "Teaching Within a Research University" colloquium last semester.
Bible bank considered
Most participants seemed to support the establishment of a bank for "bibles," collections of problem sets and tests from previous years. Several participants said that students living in some independent living groups had access to bibles in many subjects, putting them at an advantage over students living in dormitories or off-campus.
"It seems to me to be a splendid idea, assuming you can make it work," Merritt told the group.
Jeffrey A. Meldman, associate dean for student affairs, encouraged students to create bibles for classes, saying that many dormitories compiled and sold bibles when he was an undergraduate at MIT.
"If you thought the Baker House bible was better than the East Campus bible, you would buy that one. You could buy them all. They were all made available to other living groups as a money-making student activity," he said.
Smith, while agreeing that students benefit from looking at tests and problem sets from previous years, was not sure if it would be possible to coordinate a central bible bank.
"It isn't all that easy to produce a usable bible. The material you hand out to students you could make available, but things like problem set solutions, which aren't always written well, and which sometimes have mistakes," aren't very helpful, Smith said.
The council also discussed arranging for representatives of recitation sections to meet with lecturers on a regular basis.
"Every course should have a student representative whose job it is to get comments from the students. How such a representative is selected would be, I think, up to the students," Kiang said.
Responding to this point, Kai-Teh Tao '94, sophomore class president, suggested that "in every class, no matter how big or small, there are people who speak with the professor. Maybe these people should be the class representatives."
But students at the meeting reported mixed results from previous experiments with section representatives.
"I know my recitations never had representation at any of those meetings," said Gregory M. Lubinieck '94, a New House representative.
The issues of section representation and a bible repository will both be addressed by a new subcommittee of the UA Committee on Student Life approved Wednesday night. The subcommittee, according to legislation passed by an overwhelming majority, will "address the issue of academic honesty and sponsor events to encourage communication and discussion."