"Something Borrowed," Someone Blue

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This entry would be a lot better than it probably will be, if only I had the expertise of Becky and the scathe of Jeff to bring to bear upon it. We'll see if we can't muddle through, though.

A few people (most notably Anil Dash) have picked up on Malcolm Gladwell's "Something Borrowed," an essay appearing in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. I mention Becky because the essay in question carries the subtitle "Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?" and is about Bryony Lavery's plagiarism of Gladwell for her Tony-nominated play "Frozen." Gladwell complicates things quite a bit, though, because plagiarism is a far more complicated issue than most people are willing to acknowledge. The ability to rip, mix, and burn is a crucial element of culture, so crucial that Lawrence Lessig (who's quoted by Gladwell at length) locates it in the birth of nearly every major form of mass media available to us today. In certain ways, culture is about "pirates" becoming "property owners," a cycle repeating itself over and over.

It was only a matter of time before this nuanced take on the relationship between intellectual or creative property and creativity was taken up in various academic discussions on plagiarism, most of which tend to abandon nuance in favor of a neoPuritanism, or what Gladwell calls "property fundamentalism." The discussion has begun on one of our field's lists, and will presumably begin over at Kairosnews, where Spencer Schaffner tries to think through Gladwell's article (without abandoning nuance) in conjunction with a recent encounter with a plagiarism/cheating "expert."

I mentioned Jeff above because the "solution" to the problem of plagiarism is a painfully conservative one--conservative in the sense of resistant to change. The argument runs that we must "educate" the "savages" through honor codes and increased surveillance, to rehabilitate those poor souls who, left to their own devices, can't help but turn to the dark side. The approved solution, one that administrators are willing to pay millions of dollars to support, is to fall back on conservative assumptions about education, to treat students like incipient criminals, and to police them vigorously. There are still plenty of people in my field who are like the professor Schaffner describes:

The other afternoon, at this panel I keep referring to, after we panelists had paneled, a professor in the audience stood up and asked a question. "How can I get my Computer Science students to stop plagiarizing? How can I get them to see that it is wrong to copy another person's work and turn it in as your own? They just don't see it as unethical!"

This guy is looking, it seems, for a way to teach the ethic of original composition ... but how can such ethics be articulated without also being critiqued as fetishizing the solitary writer and the marketplace of (TM) textual products? And even moreso, I am concerned, how can we advocate for this aspect of academic integrity when so many other aspects of our academico-socio-cultural fabric is so lacking in integrity?

The problem with those first two questions is that the professor who's asking them believes them to be synonymous, when in fact they're not. We all plagiarize, which of course is the opposite of what one list denizen accuses us trendy folks of believing: "It may be interesting, even fashionable, to argue there's really no such thing as plagiarism..." Yeah, ummm, no. We all plagiarize, in the sense that we learn language by copying each other, from picking up on words that we like, all the way down to learning which grammatical structures are acceptable and which are less so. Reading is ripping. We are what we read, from our heads down to our feet--check out Don Foster's Author Unknown if you don't believe me. The problem comes with the mixing, with how much we mix (or how little, in the case of copy-paste plagiarism). Academics are taught to mix well, and to use quote marks when we choose not to. But there is no zero degree of mixing--putting one's name on someone else's work is pretty damn close to zero, but it's not. What we think of as "original composition" is in fact a case where the mixing is done so well that the composing, the putting-together, produces the effect of originality. Even Gladwell, knowing that his words had been lifted verbatim and placed in Lavery's manuscript, testifies to this effect:

Then I got a copy of the script for “Frozen.” I found it breathtaking. I realize that this isn’t supposed to be a relevant consideration. And yet it was: instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.

Problem is, many of us in academia have come to believe, or perhaps simply assumed, that what we ask of students is itself a "grander cause," even if it's a mandated requirement in a mandated course that may have no immediate connection to a given student's interests or education. This is not the absolute answer here, but not every student sees an essay fulfilled for an assignment in one of my classes as "their own work." The grade is theirs, perhaps, but the work (in their eyes) is mine--it matters to me, but not to them. The question that the professor above should ask is whether or not there's a better way to teach the material, design the assignment, or build the course, a way that encourages the student to see the benefits of mixing. There are ways, you know. Ways to design assignments that don't lend themselves to what Jenny's described as the general equivalency of paper mill assignments.

None of this means that there is no such thing as plagiarism or cheating, nor does it mean that there aren't students who won't willfully attempt to achieve the best results for the least amount of work, even if there are honor codes prohibiting their behavior. But there are also professors who assign mind-numbingly bad assignments, ones that are eminently plagiarizable because they are so predictable. Instead of only asking why students plagiarize (and concluding that they're simply evil or stupid), we might also be asking why they're able to plagiarize, why our assignments are so meaningless that they don't see the virtues of actually completing them on their own. The problem is undoubtedly broader than bad assignments or indifferent professors, but neither of those factors is entirely blameless.

And discussions like these would progress much more briskly if the issue of blame weren't such a huge part of them. That is all.


And god bless you for this "all." And I'd like to take a moment to testify to where you've gone--remedies for meaningless assignments. At present I'm immensely enamoured of student-built assignments. Not the venerable expressivist "each person choose a topic," but class-built assignments. For the first time, some of that work in a class I'm teaching is online. At my WRT 109 class blog, I posted a first draft of an assignment. The first two of the topics listed on it were ones the class had already written about; the last two were topics that had recurred in class discussions. (What may not be obvious on the assignment itself is that the purpose is to revisit an earlier topic and think it through again.) The students commented on the class blog, sharing their questions and concerns. Then in our next class session, they divided into interest groups and generated questions from the topics, and those questions became the final draft of the assignment.
I'm not saying that nobody could or would cheat on an assignment that's developed this way; rather, I'm saying that very few people would want to cheat, because they've been involved in designing the assignment; it gives them options; and there's space for asking questions and sharing leads.
That is all.

Damn this is a good post. Do you mind if I forward it to WPA-L? They need to read stuff like this.

From a non-academic viewpoint, speaking to the "grander cause" issue:

"Problem is, many of us in academia have come to believe, or perhaps simply assumed, that what we ask of students is itself a "grander cause," even if it's a mandated requirement in a mandated course that may have no immediate connection to a given student's interests or education." I've had one class in which I've ever felt that my work was contributing to something. I was a music major, and the two semester Music History class was taught very well. We wrote one major term paper a semester, and one presentation a semester (in addition to regular tests and quizes). Throughout the course of the semester, our presentation work became part of the course work (ie, we were tested over the material our classmates presented). We also had to "defend" our term papers, in front of the class and a panel of faculty.

As a result, not only did we have a "responsibility" to our class, but we also had a contribution. In the long run, over the two semesters, we all developed a sense that we were contributing something to the future program. That professor uses some of our work to teach his classes. It was the most rewarding class I ever took, and the most work I ever wanted to do.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on November 21, 2004 3:17 AM.

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