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My First Take-Home Test–Reflections on the Honor Code

By Shizhe Huang, Bryn Mawr ’84 and C.V. Starr Professor of Asian Studies and Associate Professor of Chinese and Linguistics at Haverford

As the Haverford community reflects upon the need for a Special Plenary after the Honor Code ratification failure, I find myself reminiscing about the very first Take-Home Test that I took at Bryn Mawr in 1982.

It was a non-eventful test for the English Composition class I’d been placed in. The students were instructed to spend sixty minutes on the test, and to finish it in one sitting without resorting to anything but our brains. That was the deal, simple and straightforward.

But it was a HUGE deal to me. Fresh from China where I’d spent my formative years during the Cultural Revolution, I had done self-criticism but had never heard of self-monitored tests, let alone taken one. So this take-home test was my first exposure to the Honor Code, and I couldn’t contain my jubilation. For the concept of exercising moral and ethical authority over oneself was not novel to me.  As widespread violence and chaos consumed society in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, and mistrust became the order of the day, the concept of “self” was usually the target for criticism or ridicule. Miraculously in that backdrop, I came upon the ancient Chinese teaching of 君子慎独 (jūnzǐshèndú; roughly: govern one’s behavior by moral and ethical standards even while alone), and I clung to that teaching as salvation for dignity in life; it was the closest acknowledgement of selfhood in the readings I managed to gain access to during the Cultural Revolution. I found it a powerful precept by which to maintain my selfhood and integrity, usually in small but meaningful ways.

As I write these reflections, I have in my mind’s eye the vivid image of my younger self, sitting by the small desk in my sparsely decorated room on the second floor of Pembroke West, getting ready to take the test. I first cleared everything off the desk—it was not cluttered to begin with, but the gesture was important to me, for I wanted a clean desk top (a clean slate, so to speak) for the test. Then I placed my watch on it; I had decided to start on the hour for my sixty-minute test, although theoretically I could begin at any moment as long as it lasted no more than sixty minutes. This being my first Take-Home Test, I didn’t want the unruliness of, say, starting at 6:47pm or some such irregular time, to ruin the beauty of my first experience. Then I opened the exam. The assignment was to analyze a long literary passage in terms of its symbolism. I wrote as fast as I could, with only four years of formal English training, and a few weeks of Bryn Mawr experience, under my belt. Afterwards, Ms. Holley, my teacher, told me that other than the fact that I had totally missed the religious symbolism of the fish in the passage, my writing was lyrical and beautiful. I knew she was encouraging me, trusting me to fill in the gaps in my knowledge base while continuing to enjoy writing. So just as the Take-Home Test was based on trust, my teacher’s praise, when I erred so miserably on the main task of the test, was based on respect. The trust and respect I experienced in taking this test had immeasurable impact on my growth at Bryn Mawr.

The Honor Code, as I saw it through this Take-Home Test, embodied selfhood and agency through which the entire community agreed to act in the “honorable” manner informed by our collective dedication to values and ideals. I found the Honor Code at once liberating and reaffirming.  

So my first Take-Home Test was a sacred rite of passage for me–-sacred because the trust inherent in this form of testing was so weighty that I felt elevated by living up to it. Thus initiated, I became a full-fledged member of the Bryn Mawr community.

To my great fortune, I have been teaching at Haverford since 1989, where life is also governed by the Honor Code. However, we are now experiencing a mini “crisis” concerning its future, and I naturally look back at my first Take-Home Test for what the Honor Code has meant for me. As my personal experience as a student and now as a teacher illustrates, the Honor Code is the result of a long history of its members living, upholding, and improving upon the principles of trust and respect; it is a living commitment to one another that requires care. When there is inadequacy in the members’ application of the Honor Code, the resolution, as I see it, should not be its abandonment but rather a collective effort both to examine the Code itself and to look inside ourselves, seeking to render the Honor Code more personally relevant and meaningful.

I hope the current students can imagine seeing in their mind’s eye, decades from now, their younger selves and realizing how important and central the Honor Code has been in shaping their lives toward their better selves. If they can, then they will know what to do at the Special Plenary.

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