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(This is not a duplicate of questions like Homework questions - avoiding giving a complete solution or How do we enforce the homework policy?; it's about handling differences of opinion, not about the preferred policy. Since there was a misunderstanding about this, I want to emphasize that I'm not voicing an opinion of my own on the homework policy; in fact I don't have a strong opinion on that, whereas I have quite a strong opinion on the meta-issues I'm addressing here.)

I was somewhat disturbed by some of the comments at https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/63817/limit-with-nothing-but-x-and-triangles. As I wrote there, I respect that people hold strong views about homework and tests. These tend to be professional educators themselves, and it makes sense that people who give out homework and tests themselves tend to have stronger views on how to deal with these.

However, there are also other views on this site, some of which were voiced in that comment thread (obviously the OP took another view, too), and having strong views doesn't license one to be disrespectful towards others with other views. What I found particularly problematic was the fact that there were three upvotes for a comment that said that reasonable people cannot disagree about these things, and two upvotes for a comment that equated asking for help in "cheating" to racist and homophobic comments. (I would also prefer not to read comments like "scram, cheater" on this site.)

I strongly disagree that reasonable people cannot disagree on tests, and I find it disrespectful to imply that others are not being reasonable when they disagree. There are entire educational philosophies that don't believe in things like tests. Also, circumstances differ, and reasonable people can disagree about how to view a given situation (as exemplified by some of the comments in that thread).

My intention with this post is twofold. First, I'm hoping that we can form a consensus to respect each other's different views on this topic, quite apart from how we decide to deal with the issue in practice.

Second, there seems to be a more practical problem in that people not only hold views about how they themselves want to deal with homework and test questions, but also about how others should deal with them. The discussions I found about the homework policy never really address this; they only discuss what might be a good way to deal with homework questions, but not whether it's important that there be a unified approach to them or whether it's OK for people with a minority view to answer homework questions as they see fit. Since there was quite an aggressive tone in some of the comments against people who provided hints or answers for the test question, I think it's important that we clarify whether the homework policy is a well-considered suggestion or something that should be "enforced" as a community norm. (That latter option is of course compatible with respect for the minority view, just as holding a minority view is compatible with adhering to the community norm if good arguments in favour of a uniform norm have been given.)

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    $\begingroup$ Adam Smith was being unreasonable. The answer to the OP's question is available in the first pages of most calculus texbooks, and in a lot of webpages. I do not understand the need for hoarding it like a great intellectual secret. $\endgroup$ – George Sep 12 '11 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ Two comments. First, in my mind there is a huge difference between someone asking for homework help and someone asking for help cheating on an exam. I think it is important not to conflate these two issues. Second, I don't see how the existence of educational philosophies that are opposed to tests is relevant here. Is your hypothetical person arguing that tests are wicked and we should help people cheat to fight the system? If so, they should be fought tooth and nail, and I will make no apologies for doing so. $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 12 '11 at 7:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam: There could be various such hypothetical persons. Some might argue as combatively as you suggested, but I was thinking of a more innocuous hypothetical person who simply doesn't believe that tests are a useful part of an educational system. You might argue that as long as the existing system uses tests, it is unethical to subvert them, but this, too, can be debated. It's quite a fundamental and difficult question how to act in a system that one disagrees with, and advocating that the system be systematically ignored is certainly one reasonable option. $\endgroup$ – joriki Sep 12 '11 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam: I have no problem with that view; I understand it. I have a problem with the view that one cannot reasonably disagree with this view. $\endgroup$ – joriki Sep 12 '11 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam Smith: I am not familiar with the United States education system -- one confusion is what is great the difference between take-home test and homework when homework is also graded? But I understand that one is generally allowed to check one's notes and books for a take-home test. My point remains that if the OP were lucky enough, he would find the answer detailed in his calculus textbook. There may be some ethical issues; but I do not believe that they are serious. This uproar is a storm in a teapot, much like prosecuting a long court case for stealing a small coin. $\endgroup$ – George Sep 12 '11 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ While I don't agree with equating cheating to profane comments (which I happily delete), I do think that it is an extremely serious matter. A take-home test is probably the most important part of a course that someone could cheat on math.SE - in my experience (in the US), nothing labeled a "test" permits collaboration with anyone in the class, much less asking strangers for help. Even if the test were open-book, that would still have required that Joe figure out what the question was asking enough to look up the answer - which, in my opinion, it's clear that he wouldn't have been able to do. $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Sep 12 '11 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ As I've emphasized, I'm not deleting the answer because that is the least bad policy I can think of. Since it is impossible to enforce everyone's desire about what it is that everyone else does, I think the best solution is to be essentially as permissive as possible and leave everything to up/downvotes and comments. $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Sep 12 '11 at 8:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Dan : Credit = getting a good grade. Understanding = learning the subject. $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 12 '11 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ Adam, as a person who has spent the most recent half of his life outside of academia, it's hard to remember what is a grade or why it should matter. My question was rhetorical. I don't post on stackoverflow, but hypothetically if I had a tight deadline and I implemented something from a verbatim solution I got there, I can't imagine my boss would be anything but proud. $\endgroup$ – Dan Brumleve Sep 12 '11 at 8:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Zev Chonoles: In a another situation, you might argue like that. But for this particular case, the answer to the OP's question is worked out in complete detail in many calculus books. If the OP simply flips through 2-3 books, he will find it and will be able copy it verbatim, without any understanding whatsoever. Same if he were to type the question somehow into google. You are being too hard here. This is almost like someone who picks up a currency note from the street is being called a thief for grabbing wealth that was hard-earned by someone else. $\endgroup$ – George Sep 12 '11 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam: I believe that the sort of "moral clarity" (a.k.a. disrespect for opposing views) that you propagate is far more destructive than any "cheating" on any test could ever be. I happen to disapprove of killing animals, perpetuating social and global inequalities, wasting energy, and a lot more things that many or most other people do. If I took the view that there's no point in trying to reason politely with people who perpetrate or advocate these "evils", I'd be an insufferable conversation partner. $\endgroup$ – joriki Sep 12 '11 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ Zev and Adam, to clarify my rhetorical question further, the credit I get from posting on math.SE is understanding. And if I can help a young person see things the same way, then I've been doubly successful. I get that the "cheating" issue is sensitive, but I think that we should presume honesty and not play judge and jury. $\endgroup$ – Dan Brumleve Sep 12 '11 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ Also, your analogy doesn't hold - the teacher doesn't need their students to do this work for some external reason, the entire point of a test is to inform the teacher of the students' ability. If an employer is doing employee evaluations, and found out that a manager or senior employee was inappropriately taking credit for his underlings' work for the express purpose of getting a better evaluation, I would hope that manager would be fired. $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Sep 12 '11 at 8:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Dan : You really think that the OP is going to cite math.SE in his test? Was I the one who was being accused of being naive? $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 12 '11 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ Adam, yes, that is what I think an honest person would do. I realize that my comments are off-topic but I would like to impress upon you that there are many points of view here on math.SE, some of which you may not have encountered in your own classroom. I do not see where anyone has accused you of being naive. $\endgroup$ – Dan Brumleve Sep 14 '11 at 11:53
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It seems to me that most of the comments are answering the question joriki didn't ask and ignoring the question(s) joriki did ask. The question is how to deal with differences of opinion, and the answer - in my opinion - is, with respect. At a very minimum, this means not calling each other names, no matter what our opinions of each other might be. It is fine to say, "I think what you are doing is wrong, and here's why...." It is not fine - it should (in my opinion) be forbidden - to say, "You're a cheater."

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    $\begingroup$ Labeling people is never the answer. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Sep 12 '11 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ @JM: Except for when asking "What do you get from concatenating the words "labeling" and "people"?" :-) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Sep 12 '11 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ +1 Esp. for the method of minimizing hyperbole. But be careful, those ellipses could prove scary. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Sep 12 '11 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ I think that labels should only be used if they are strictly factual. It would be unacceptable to call someone a jerk (or worse) or the like. You also shouldn't accuse someone of doing something without proof. However, the word "cheater" simply means "someone who cheats", and the OP admitted to cheating. It's an ugly word precisely because it is an ugly act. As far as I know, it carries no subtext beyond the simple statement that the person is trying to cheat. $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 12 '11 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam: A person being labeled as "Jewish" is one thing, while labeling him as "cheater" is another. Some labels are best to be kept for private communiques. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Sep 12 '11 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam, it's an ugly word, and I'm recommending we don't use ugly words to describe each other on m.se, whether we think they are accurate descriptions or not. We find other ways to express our disapproval. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Sep 12 '11 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam: Calling someone a cheater is one thing, writing "Asking people to help you cheat is, in my view, morally equivalent to posting racist or homophobic comments" is quite another - nothing factual whatsoever here. The "in my view" doesn't help here. $\endgroup$ – Hendrik Vogt Sep 25 '11 at 9:46
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I am going to be quite blunt with my opinions after reading both threads.

How do we deal with the differences of opinions?

In as calm, as reasonable and as nice a way as possible. Throughout the thread, Joriki gives a model example of this.

However, using a very harsh tone, resorting to ridiculous accusations, making threats of seeking out the person in real life to turn them in, and also telling them to leave the site entirely is just awful, and entirely against anything that we should allow on this site.

Regardless of whatever point is being made, and no matter how strongly the user feels, such behavior is unacceptable.

In almost every normal case, User "Adam Smith" would be suspended. I definitely think he should be, I personally don't like seeing this type of behavior on Math Stack Exchange.

I do not believe that writing Prof on the profile page should give anyone the right to act that way.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think my accusations were ridiculous. I accused the OP of cheating, which he basically admitted to doing. I also didn't say that I was going to track them down (there would be no way for me to do so) -- I said that I think the administrators of the site should do so. If you catch someone cheating on a test, then you have a moral obligation to bring them to justice. The harsh tone and suggestion that the OP leave the site were entirely justified. If people feel like they can cheat with impunity, then the entire educational enterprise is threatened. $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 12 '11 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ Quote: "You blew off class and then you come to this website and ask us to help you cheat." There is no possible that you could know he blew off class. Period. People miss class for a wide range of reasons. Field trips, sports teams and even strange family things. Also, there are drivers license tests and religious holidays. Why would you make such an accusation? Perhaps in any case it would have been his responsibility to contact the teacher, but that is not what you said or what you brought up. My problem is with how you acted, and how you chose to do things. It's not acceptable. $\endgroup$ – Eric Naslund Sep 12 '11 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Eric Please try to keep such discussions as abstract as possible. There is no need to shame specific users in public. Instead, please discuss any concerns about specific user behavior in private with the moderators, after community discussion has established norms, policies, etc that may have been violated. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Sep 12 '11 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill : I'm a big boy and perfectly capable of defending myself. $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 13 '11 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Eric : Having dealt with any number of students begging for me to adjust deadlines, I have learned that students who have any kind of reasonable excuse will give it without prompting. Moreover, if he had (for instance) a religious or family excuse, his teacher would have given him an extension. And the OP's later explanation (he had to miss class to talk to his art teacher) sounds pretty much like "blowing off" his class to me. In any case, academic dishonesty is a very serious matter which warrants harsh treatment/language. Otherwise, the bad guys win. $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 13 '11 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Adam The impact of personal attacks is global. Even if the target is not bothered by the attack, such posts influence the dynamics of the site. When other users see that such posts are allowed, they make presumptions about what sort of behavior is permitted. Allowing content containing personal attacks will serve to encourage future such content (cf. broken windows theory). Professors here should strive to be role models for students - both mathematically and otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Sep 13 '11 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ cont.: If you saw a boy beating up another one on the street, would you politely ask him to stop? I know this analogy stretches it a bit, but I am trying to paint the perspective of someone who feels that a morally very bad thing is happening in front of his eyes. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Sep 13 '11 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex B: For the last year, you were campaigning relentlessly for a harsh and aggressive attitude to homework posters and others. You had been consistently obsessive about it. I do not know what makes you so vindictive. If you temper yourself with a little bit of mercy, it will result in less stress for everyone involved in such discussions. May I quote Shakespeare's lines, "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, [......] It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."? $\endgroup$ – George Sep 13 '11 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ I only starting reading math.SE recently, so I am not super-aware of the history of arguments like this. However, I want to state for the record that I have no problem with helping people with their homework as long as they are upfront about it (though I am strongly opposed to just giving out the answer -- a hint is better for the student). I encourage my own students to talk to each other about their homework, and if they can find someone on the internet to talk to, more power to them. Tests are an entirely different matter. $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 13 '11 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ I have seen "take home tests" where students are allowed to refer to books; I've seen "take home tests" where student are allowed to ask for help, provided this is stated in the answer sheet. And I've seen "take home tests" where the students are required to abide by an honor code whereby no outside help is allowed. I have no way of knowing how this user's test was supposed to be administered. Personally, I would not provide help or an answer in the absence of clear, unambiguous, and unimpeachable information that it is allowed (cont) $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Sep 13 '11 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding @Bill's first comment, why are we not applying this standard to Adam Smith, who specifically shamed Joe? $\endgroup$ – The Chaz 2.0 Sep 13 '11 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) And I may very well feel strongly enough in such stituations to attempt to contact the teacher and alert him/her that the request is ongoing, to let the teacher deal with it as the teacher feels is appropriate. Don't really see much point in berating the poster (though I've almost certainly done it in the past): if he is indeed attempting to cheat, I somehow doubt being told off by a stranger will make any difference; and if he wasn't, it is unlikely to be productive in any way... $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Sep 13 '11 at 5:13
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    $\begingroup$ @George I suggest that you stick to the topic at hand and that you read my comments more carefully. I have no idea where you have read obsession or vindictiveness. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Sep 13 '11 at 5:27
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    $\begingroup$ @The Such standards should be applied universally. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Sep 13 '11 at 6:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Eric : So you don't view explaining why my behavior was reasonable as being on-topic? $\endgroup$ – Adam Smith Sep 13 '11 at 15:19
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This answer has been moved to CFV: Proposal for standardized meta-comments, to avoid main-site meta discussions.

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