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Sep 6, 2008

On Academic Ethics

Last night (yes, Friday night), I met with my doctoral class, EDF 670, Introduction to Research Literature. We had four guest speakers – faculty from our college, to whom I am very grateful. The class is focused on helping doc students to write their literature review chapter. However, as the evening progressed, the conversation came to ethical questions. Who do you include and who do you exclude from your lit review? What do you read and what do you skim? How do you deal with disagreements on your committee? What do you stop taking all recommendations and assert your ownership over your own dissertation project? Can you approach a scholar you don't know? The conversation just made me reflect on how important the ethical considerations are in doctoral education. The professional norms are more important than legal and policy frameworks. Of course, there is a plenty of abuse and just bad behavior, but a doctoral degree still means a specific moral commitment to seeking truth with evidence and rational argument, to scholarly egalitarianism, and to integrity of scholarship craft. Training a doctoral student is intensely personal, and a largely altruistic job.

We don't have the same understanding with undergraduate and even Masters level students. Thos relationships are much less personal, and are guided by policy and law more than ethics. Some of it is understandable: we teach many more undergraduates than doctoral students. However, there is still an issue that needs to be addressed. NO faculty will sign her or his name on a dissertation project that is not good enough and can be an embarrassment. But many people will give a grade to an undergrad student without much evidence that the student has a good enough competency. We have quite a few students that "slip through the cracks." Every college professor probably had this experience, wondering how this or that student ever made it that far? In most cases, we let them through even further, wanting to avoid conflict. And after all, he has enough points to pass.

In a private e-mail, Dr. D.Raja Ganesan suggested to me that the names of professors should be printed on student transcripts, along with the title of the course, and the grade. I think it is an excellent idea, and can add a measure of personal responsibility to our actions as teachers. It will also encourage more university professors to care about their reputation as teachers, not just researchers. It will allow more interactions among professors about specific students, and may even help aligning curriculum and protect against the curricular drift. Because all student transcripts are available to all professors on-line, I imagine more conversations among professors like this: "So and so got an A in your class, but has problems with mine… How can I help her?" "So and so claims you never covered this concept in your class. This does not seem right, but I want to double check with you." "Was so and so absent a lot from your class, too?"

I bet it is very easy to implement now, with unified registration database. All we need is a faculty Senate discussion and a decision. In a mid-size university like ours, it will be the most interesting to try.

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