tomemos talks plagiarism

It’s Saturday, which, as you know, is the day we here at The Kugelmass Episodes answer your letters.

In case you missed it, here’s tomemo’s insightful comment on my Jonah Lehrer post:

Joe, I’m totally in your corner on copyright. I also really like the idea of government-funded patronage, and in fact I’m pretty sure that’s the route we’re going to have to take if professional journalism is to survive. Nevertheless, I question whether this would be the cure to plagiarism you suggest. First, unless these grants were equally available to everyone who wanted to be an author—down to the lowliest Cowbird or fanfic writer—there would still be a gap between those who were writing for a living and those who weren’t. Thus, the incentive to plagiarize would remain.

Furthermore, while I agree that authors want to be read more than they want to be paid, there’s a corollary: since money isn’t the point, authors are harmed by plagiarism even if it doesn’t cost them anything. Some schoolwork of mine was once copied and turned in without my consent, and it felt like a heartbreaking betrayal even though it didn’t cost me any money or anything else tangible.

I don’t think the problem with student plagiarism has to do with what they write or don’t write (as you suggest, authors learn their style through imitation), but with what they think or don’t think about. In the age of the Internet, it’s more tempting than ever to suspect that all knowledge has already been gathered, that what you find at the top of a Google search represents established knowledge that only has to be dutifully repackaged. Plagiarism is just the least subtle manifestation of that belief; when I teach students not to plagiarize, I’m not defending an arbitrary line between criminality and style, but insisting that students construe their stance towards knowledge as active, not passive.

These are excellent arguments. Plagiarism isn’t eradicable. I don’t know of too many cases where, as happens on both Californication and Suits, two writers actually dispute who wrote what, but I’m sure it does happen. More to the point, students occasionally cheat. People attach fictional credentials to their job applications. Right now, however, financial gain represents a huge incentive for plagiarism. Furthermore, a lack of well-trained writers puts a lot of pressure on the educational system to improve writing skills across-the-board, which in turn lands a lot of students in writing classes they view, from start to finish, as a disagreeable and pointless hurdle. The issues are somewhat analogous to those surrounding legalizing drugs or restricting firearms. Such reforms would not eliminate illegal weapons and narcotics, but they would make these problems less severe.

To return to his conclusion:

In the age of the Internet, it’s more tempting than ever to suspect that all knowledge has already been gathered, that what you find at the top of a Google search represents established knowledge that only has to be dutifully repackaged. Plagiarism is just the least subtle manifestation of that belief; when I teach students not to plagiarize, I’m not defending an arbitrary line between criminality and style, but insisting that students construe their stance towards knowledge as active, not passive.

Absolutely. It would be wonderful if writing programs in this country adopted the terminology of what tomemos calls an “active stance towards knowledge,” which means not only “active learning,” but also thoughtfully articulating, contextualizing, and (if necessary) revisiting what one already knows. It would be far more lucid and useful than the discourses of “rhetoric” or “critical thinking.”

As I said in the post, some of this burden does fall on the teacher. The student may be right about the answer being available on the Web. For many years teachers absolutely prohibited using Wikipedia for homework assignments, and some still do, even though it is usually accurate and teachers use it constantly themselves. The official story was that this was because Wikipedia was untrustworthy — really, was the Britannica ever that much better? — but I suspect it was also to avoid updating research assignments that could now be completed with one click. Assignments have to be designed to permit and encourage a creative response.

At the same time, over many years of graduate school, it got pretty wearisome always having to defend writing on the grounds of its benefits to thinking (unless one was advocating for it as a business “skillset,” which was the other major camp). It’s not so much that I disagree that engaged readers and writers are better thinkers, because they certainly are. It’s that we’re using one thing (thinking) to justify another (writing), in order to make writing into an omni-discipline that can be required of everyone.

I don’t want to get that involved in mapping, or judging, how my students are thinking. Nor can I sell the idea that writing does more to encourage thought than, say, science or math. I no longer feel that everyone in the country should know how to write exceptionally well. It would be nice, but it’s impractical and a little unfair: I’m mostly passive about the scientific knowledge I’ve collected. But somebody should know how to do it. We can’t afford not to pay them. Not only are the humanities the R&D department of culture, but every single thing they do is “applied” in the sense of “applied science.” Making them dependent on royalties? That’s forcing them to go door-to-door, selling the cow to people who are already getting the milk for free.

Advertisements