writing: November 2004 Archives


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[Via MetaFilter] A page of alternative "warning stickers" for your local schools' textbooks...

warning sticker

This page should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

[Update: It makes a lot more sense when I actually include the link to the page itself, doesn't it?]

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.

Nothing dramatic today. Just wanted to welcome Dave Rieder back to blogspace after a 7-month hiatus. He's back on the 'roll to the right.

Also recently added are a couple more SU bloggers. My colleague, Becky Howard, has finally taken the plunge, and has assured me that her site is unintentionally pseudonymous (and only then if you ignore the URL). Also, one of our ABD's, Jon Benda, who's currently teaching in Taiwan, has started "Notes of a Former Native Speaker."

I've got a couple more additions to make, but I'll get to them in a bit.



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This page is a archive of entries in the writing category from November 2004.

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