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my word

13 april 2009

I was somewhat disappointed in Susan Blum's My Word, which promised to be a keen investigation and revisionary analysis of attitudes toward plagiarism. In the event, My Word turns out to be a padded-out look at how hard college life is at selective universities nowadays, eked out by some not-very-amazing research on how college kids today like to quote from movies or songs without spelling out what movie or song they're quoting from.

This is a shame, because plagiarism in the age of the Internet seems to be on the increase, almost spiraling out of control. Teachers either need to take drastic preventive measures, draconian punitive measures, or (as Blum concludes) lighten up a little. But in order to choose any of these three alternatives, we must know more about the practices we are policing.

"Plagiarism," as Blum very sensibly notes, is a catch-all term for some very different practices, which unfortunately all end up labeled as co-equal crimes in the inflexible codes of academic justice. Plagiarists take books about the Roosevelts and copy bits of them into their own books on the Roosevelts. Plagiarists buy term papers from commercial suppliers. Plagiarists copy their friends' papers. They have their moms write papers for them. They cut and paste liberal swatches of prose from Amazon, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, and I dare say even from lection. They include quotations from sources without proper attribution – meaning that a couple of curly quotes and a parenthetical citation can turn a capital crime into a Best Practice. Plagiarists borrow Neil Kinnock's childhood, pass it off as their own, and are eventually elected Vice President of the United States.

These are all very different behaviors, and it makes sense to wonder whether one penalty fits them all. In fact, scholars in rhetoric and composition have wondered this for some time, as Blum acknowledges. Ten years before My Word, Rebecca Moore Howard published Standing in the Shadow of Giants, a study that advocated rethinking prevailing and somewhat pedantic attitudes toward plagiarism. Influenced by Howard, a whole decade of composition teachers have seen "patch-writing," improper citation style, collaborative work, and the problem of when to cite or not to cite a source for "common knowledge" more as teaching opportunities than as occasions for calling out the Text Police.

When Blum follows Howard, she's on fairly safe ground. When she discusses student behavior more generally, she falters.

According to Blum, we live in a radically new age that has given rise to a radically new breed of student. College students in the 2000s form close-knit communities, talk to one another a lot, spend a lot of time with peers, and speak in an argot studded with quotations from popular culture. (The latter dynamic makes them radically intertextual, and less likely than other generations to be reverential toward authorship.)

This news makes me feel young, actually, since I spent my undergraduate years in the 1970s continuously hanging out with my friends, carrying on entire evenings' worth of conversations made up solely of quotes from Saturday Night Live. But then, I was one wild and crazy guy. A samurai student, really, repeating "Beisbol been berry berry good to me" while consuming mass quantities.

Seriously, I can't perceive that college students today socialize or are socialized much differently than they were thirty years ago. I have been around college students – my father's students, my peers, my own students, and now my son's peers – for nearly half a century now, and they seem as gregarious and verbally playful now as they ever were; but I don't see how any of this speaks to plagiarism.

At one point, to bolster a claim that today's students are radically collaborative, Blum is reduced to invoking an image of two students listening to music at the same time by sharing a pair of earbuds proceeding from the same iPod. Believe it or not, though, students used to listen to music together in the 70s, too. We did it by putting a record or a tape on a stereo and sitting in front of the speakers. This may or may not have been a form of radical communitarianism, depending on whether you were listening to the Grateful Dead or to Kiss.

What has changed, of course, and what has made plagiarism both harder and easier to catch, but also more universal, is unlimited access to an Internet that did not exist when I was in college. If you assigned an open-prompt "reaction" paper on a literary text in 1979, students tended to read the text and come up with something more or less cogent. If you assign the same open prompt in 2009, many students will simply copy something from the first, or if they are particularly dastardly, the second page of Google results on that text.

Now, it may well be that a student's motives for copying in our cut-and-paste age are inflected by postmodernism and the "performance self" that Blum invokes, a self geared toward goals and results instead of interior processes. Last year I found a student's assignment had been copied verbatim from a public website. She was indignant when I pointed this out. She hadn't copied from the website, she said; she had copied from the dust jacket of the book. She could show me the book, so there.

At work in my student's response is, indeed, a different theory of textuality than my own, a different assumption about what constitutes "writing." What could be better to submit as part of one's final project than text sanctioned by its presence on a dust jacket? How could a dust jacket ever be wrong? But this student's theorizing is not, to me, evidence of a paradigm shift between generations. I don't find it radical and exciting. It's a simple matter of ignorance: some students today don't know where one text (including their own) begins, and another ends. The Web has had its role in that, of course. When you read the same texts liberally cut-and-pasted across dozens of websites, you do get confused about who wrote what. (And Wikipedia, mentioned only briefly in Blum's book, is another great unsettler of authorship and attribution, as she rightly notes.)

Nevertheless, one can, with some time and effort, untangle the web of words on the Web. Time and effort seem to be at a premium among today's students. Most of Blum's book is not about plagiarism in any sense, but is just a kind of hand-wringing exposition of how much pressure is on students (particularly at selective universities) these days. No wonder they cut corners.

Blum concludes her book with a monitory anecdote. On a take-home final exam, one of Blum's students submitted a paper cloned verbatim from a website. Confronted with her plagiarism, the student negotiated a second chance at the paper, and plagiarized that one too. Her excuse? Overwork. A third try was the charm, resulting in a passable paper. Blum's conclusion:

Perhaps I had not explained clearly enough. . . . I had had this student in two classes, and she appeared to understand. But even in these circumstances, I failed to convey the needed information. How can we expect a single sentence—"Avoid violations of academic integrity"—to suffice? . . . We probably should admit, frankly, how hard this kind of enforcement is. We can also admit the artificiality and cultural specificity of our standards. (176)

Or, perhaps, we should admit that (as, probably, since Plato found the youth of Athens copying off of Aristotle's papers) some students will just aim relentlessly toward the path of least resistance, which nowadays involves a mouseover and Ctrl+C. We can do things to reduce plagiarism. We can give better individual assignments. We can encourage open and monitored work in collaborative forms, with clear pedagogical aims in mind. We can, as Rebecca Moore Howard and many compositionists advocate (and Blum does too), use quasi-"plagiarisms" (papers that try to cite correctly but fail) as educational rather than judicial opportunities.

There's all that – and then, there's the student who will just take any opportunity to do as little work for as much reward as possible. I think that Blum was ultimately right in giving her student a third chance at that paper, by the way. Where I think she's wrong is in trying to understand her student's plagiarism as the cri de coeur of a troubled generation. Perhaps they ain't no delinquents. Perhaps they're misunderstood. Or, just perhaps, they're only anti-work. But one thing they ain't is the first generation to make a bricoleur's ludic appropriation of pop lyrics; and they should not be excused on that score.

Blum, Susan D. My Word! Plagiarism and college culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.