I finally read about the Harvard “cheating” scandal. Based on the original Harvard Crimson article, I’m actually very sympathetic to the students. Mostly because I think I did the exact same thing at Stanford.

When I was an undergrad, Philosophy 160A (I can’t remember the official name but it covered formal logic up to first order logic) was considered the most difficult undergraduate course at Stanford. My major (Symbolic Systems) was thought by many to be CS-lite or CS for weenies, were it not for this course, a required one for the major.

And it was impossible. To compare, I took Chem 32 and that was difficult, but I did well. Phil 160 was almost literally impossible, and I did poorly. The instructor that quarter was a guest lecturer at Stanford, and in the first class he said “I know that this class has a reputation of being one of the most difficult – if not the most difficult – classes at Stanford. I’m new here, but I’ll do my best to uphold that reputation.”

And he did. The course is still just a blur. I honestly feel like I have a pretty decent grasp of the concepts of first order logic even now, but the difficulty of the problem sets was incredibly difficult. Each question felt like on the order of proving Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, only one of the most difficult logical problems ever, without having the benefit of possessing Godel’s genius. It didn’t matter how long I stared and thought about certain problems; I frequently (usually) could not figure out the answers.

As the course progressed, the class started collaborating more and more, because it was the only way we could even hope of turning in a completed problem set. Then the take-home final exam arrived and it took the difficulty to an even higher level. What ended up happening is that the entire class divided up the exam, each group taking different, small parts, and the whole class shared their parts together. I remember referring to completed exam solutions by people I had never talked to; somehow the parts just made their way around the entire class.

This was out of necessity. No matter how much time I could have been given, on my own I think I would have finished maybe 5% of the exam. It was that difficult. The only hope of completing the exam was by the entire class collaborating.

I don’t remember the conditions of the exam, whether we were allowed to collaborate or not. I’m guessing we were, but even if not, I don’t feel bad at all that we did. If a professor sets up conditions such that there’s only one way for something to be completed, one can’t be upset if that’s what happens. The Honor Code goes two ways, I think. Students should do their work with honor. But professors also need to their part, to make it possible for students to act with honor. I’m still mildly upset with that guest professor because I think he made the class unnecessarily difficult.

The Crimson article gives me the impression the same thing happened here. A professor who made the exam unreasonably difficult and then provided no resources for students to get help, so they were forced to turn to each other. So they did. Obviously, I don’t know the particulars, so maybe things were different and maybe they are worthy of suspension or whatever. Maybe we are right to judge them. But in reading the article, I’m not going to be the one to do it. I’ve done the exact same thing.

Not long after I took it, Philosophy 160A was revamped such that it was no longer so difficult. I was pissed, because everyone who goes through something that traumatizing wants others to go through the same thing. (I remember veterans of Statistics 116, also considered one of the hardest undergraduate courses at Stanford, being pissed when it was made easier before I took it.) I wonder what the hardest undergrad class is now. I’d guess something in Physics. I remember seeing the Physics majors in the dorms after taking exams in the 60 series freshman year and they looked like they had fought a war.

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