By Tess Steele
Almost 100 students flooded the Community Engagement House on February 8 to hear Tasha Saunders (C’17) present her senior Anthropology thesis, a thesis which critically assessed the current Honor Code system, a cornerstone of the University of the South.
The discussion opened with Saunders reading a journal entry from her last evening before suspension from Sewanee in 2013. Doing so made it clear that this project was deeply personal for Saunders, and those present could feel her honesty and vulnerability pulsate throughout the space. Saunders was reported to the Honor Council at the end of her first semester freshmen year, after copying a friend’s response to her final Psychology 101 homework assignment. She expressed feeling ostracized as a criminal because of the detached, formal, and institutionalized process of her experience with the Honor Council, a process which needed to feel genuine and be transparent.
To legitimize her emotions, difficulties, and frustrations with the current Honor Code system, she combined research with her own experience for her thesis. Saunders believes the Honor Council serves as a “performance” which upholds a limited definition of honor and fails to meet modern concepts of honor. Honor transcends the classroom, and the severity and rigidness of the current system fails to consider the whole of the individual’s character.
In August of her senior year Saunders began her project, collecting interviews and research throughout the semester. She interviewed ten students who had returned to Sewanee after being suspended for various Honor Council violations, dubbing these students “black horses.” The name was born when an interviewee could not recall the term black sheep when describing his feelings towards his rare position of having returned to campus after being found guilty of an Honor Code violation. Saunders continued using the term, incorporating it into her paper.
These interviews with “black horses” gave Saunders a reservoir of perspective for her thesis. She learned about misconceptions these students had about the Honor Code and about their individual experiences of returning to school after suspension. “My paper was a way to start talking about this experience. Honor is such a part of this community yet is never discussed. Therefore, honor is defined many different ways,” shared Saunders.
Saunders took issue with many parts of the current system, including the lack of transparency in the Honor Council system, the inadequacy of education about the code and about citations, the severity of punishment, and the formal, detached nature of Honor Council hearings. She feels that students should be able to explain how the code works prior to the signing of the Honor Code, maintaining a secure grasp of the system to ensure that they are never blindsided by the code.
With the most forgiving sentencing for an honor code violation being a one semester suspension, the severity of punishment is disheartening. In her research, Saunders found that many professors were in favor of degrees of punishment for offenses, not simply suspension. “Why do students on the Honor Council have more authority than professors? If professors want students to stay, why does the Honor Council have that power in the situation?” asked Saunders, challenging the council’s rigidity.
Saunders hopes to open the conversation about this difficult, yet fundamental part of Sewanee. Unintentional mistakes are not made into learning experiences, but rather are sources of anxiety, confusion, and trauma for students. She wants students to be critical of the system so others don’t have to “fall victim” to the code as she herself did. As the university evolves, tradition must follow suit if Sewanee is to foster growth and compassion amongst students, faculty, and community. She finished her discussion by encouraging those present to talk about honor and question the system’s immutability. “The goal of this paper is to redefine honor, because tradition is not always a good thing,” concluded Saunders.