She Do the Plagiarists in Many Voices: An Anthropologist's New Rationale for Academic Dishonesty

Peter Wood

Is there anything new to say about plagiarism? Turns out, yes. Back in March, Susan Blum an associate professor of anthropology at Notre Dame published a short essay in Anthropology News describing some research she has been doing on student attitudes towards plagiarism. Blum’s essay, “The Internet, the Self, Authorship and Plagiarism” is a foretaste of a book she is working on, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Not so incidentally, in Blum’s previous book, Lies That Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths (2006), she ponders the irony that Americans place an extremely high value on truth but also excel at manipulating language. 

In her March article, Blum focuses on how the Internet affects student plagiarism. She readily admits that some students simply find it easy and convenient to engage in academic dishonesty by copying materials from the Internet. “But,” she says, “that is a different subject.”   Her subject is “the relationship between the self and its words” and how this is changing among American adolescents who “are often at the forefront of cultural change.” Blum reports that her three years of research among undergraduate students at the pseudonymous “Saint Pastoral’s University” have clued her in to a profound shift in outlook.

Some students, it seems, have shrugged off the old illusion of authorship in which “authors had a moral right to their own words and ideas” and have embraced instead “an ever-changing version of a self” involving “flexible social interaction and creative collaboration.” Authorship in this world is collaborative and “fluid.” It “celebrates the kind of creativity that comes from selecting, from accumulating a pastiche, a patchwork, a sample of others’ work.”   Blum invokes Facebook, Second Life, Wikipedia, Open Source software, YouTube, Flickr, iPods, and sampling in popular music as evidence of this de-authored world. 

And she concludes with a warning to the effect that we academics had better get on board: “Faculty can attempt to enforce traditional academic citation norms, but we are well advised to recognize that a large portion of the students we encounter do not share traditional academic values of originality, singularity and individualism in intellectual creation.” We enforce the old rules against “the students’ common sense.”

If this sounds like Blum actually sees wisdom in this new style of magpie writing, yes, it appears she does. Along the way she invokes various figures who, over the years, have challenged simplistic notions of authorship. Bakhtin reminds us that words themselves are a common resource; copyright matters more to booksellers than authors; we aren’t so individualized as we like to think, etc. I expect Blum’s forthcoming book will fill in this picture even more because Blum spots what she seems to think is a delicious irony. Anthropologists have doubted the “authorship ideology” for some time, and now, lo and behold, a “generation of students” has come along that “matches” these supposed anthropological insights. 

As far as I can tell, Blum’s short article in Anthropology News hasn’t ignited a movement among college professors ready to embrace the de-individuated style of these adolescents expressing their fluid selves with kleptographic élan. But bad ideas begin somewhere and, in American higher education, they seem all too easily to find faculty members eager to give them a try. In the spirit of trying to head this off, I’ll venture a few observations. 

 First, the readiness of some students to search for their identities in words written by others is nothing new. Intellectually avid teenagers have been memorizing and quoting their favorite authors for centuries. Long before the Internet, many people kept “day books” of interesting passages they copied out and lines of verse they didn’t want to forget.   I have a correspondence from the 1840s between my great-great grandmother and her seafaring husband that consists largely of quotations from popular songs. Young writers in particular are often tempted to quote too much or imitate too closely.   Blum may well be right in linking such behavior to an adolescent’s unsettled sense of self. But the adolescent search for answers to “Who am I?” questions are part of ordinary human maturation, not, as Blum would have, some novel development of the Internet Age.

Second, we send students to school and to college to help them get an education. Sometimes this means correcting errors that they didn’t realize were errors.  Stealing other people’s work and passing it off as your own is an error. If there are students who don’t understand that, we should indeed teach them. In any case, we should teach students the conventional methods of citation, because there are indeed conventions that have to be learned. They don’t manifest themselves spontaneously as some kind of psychic emanation of “individualism.” Presumably even the fractured selves of postmodernist headbangers can learn to use quotation marks.

Third, playfulness with quotations is one thing; the rules of formal exposition are something else. Do the students at “Saint Pastoral’s University” that Blum describes as immersed in free-floating collaborations truly not understand the difference between writing their own words and copying someone else’s without citation? I am skeptical. I suspect these students generally know to write their own names on their checks and would be humiliated if they were caught by a boyfriend or girlfriend re-using someone else’s profession of love for their own. Quotation has its own rules in popular culture—rules which generally emphasize the importance of the other party recognizing the allusion without your having to spell it out. This too is nothing new. It is a mark of social incompetence to announce who you are quoting from, imitating, or parodying in contexts where the very point is to demonstrate facility with insider knowledge. When Shakespeare quotes Marlowe, he expects his audience to appreciate the maneuver without his having to call it out.  Students playing with Facebook or Second Life encounter the same expectations. But knowing how to play these games doesn’t preclude learning how to play by the rules of academic exposition too. 

Blum’s description of a kaleidoscopic sense of self among students matched to insouciance about sources strikes me as mostly a fantasy. I have dealt with enough cases of students caught plagiarizing to know nothing prompts the spirit of creative excuse-making among students as being called to account for having copied paragraphs of someone else’s text into their own papers. Even efforts to thwart plagiarism-detection software (such as by changing a few words can be boldly set forth as evidence of authorial originality.  But I have not had the experience of a student explain that he was just channeling different voices in an effort to collaborate with his Second Life avatars. 

In Dickens’ novel, Our Mutual Friend, an adolescent named Sloppy is credited by another character for his dramatic reading of the newspapers, “He do the police in different voices.” T.S. Eliot famously quoted the line in The Wasteland—and originally used it as the title of his poem, which is every bit as fractured, kaleidoscopic, and multi-selved as anything yet to emerge in our age of Open Source software and hip-hop sampling. Of course, T.S. Eliot also knew how to write essays in beautifully distinctive English prose. 

I don’t deny that there is art to being a good ventriloquist. Sloppy is an admirable character and The Wasteland remains a powerful poem. But ventriloquism has its limits. We should aim to give our students their own command of English beyond what can be achieved with even the nimblest quotation. The thrust of Blum’s article is that professors should accommodate the supposedly rising tide of blurred identity in writing. I think that would betray our students. We owe them something beyond the Sloppy skills they may already have. 

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