9.570 plagarism? in the post-modern world

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Thu, 22 Feb 1996 20:56:26 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 570.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: John Slatin <jslatin@mail.utexas.edu> (59)
Subject: Re: 9.567 plagarism

At 06:44 PM 2/21/96 -0500, David Hoover wrote:

>A colleague of mine who regularly teaches a very large and popular class
>regularly includes a question on his final exam that asks the student to
>explain his or her term paper in a paragraph. Students who cannot do it
>fail the exam. He reports sometimes as many as 15-20 students who have
>apparently bought papers and have not even bothered to read them before
>turning them in. These are not, I think, usually cases of desperation,
>but they are cases that might have been prevented by the means mentioned
>by Professor Slatin and others.

Professor Hoover's remarks here (as well as the ones I've cut, about
plagiarism in his daughter's school and the priority given to dealing with
racial epithets) suggest that we may mean somewhat different things by
"desperation" in this context. Perhaps I should have said "despair." I was
*not* talking about people who didn't plan their work carefully enough and
so found themselves, at the last minute, without a paper to turn in. I was
talking about what I see as a much deeper problem-- that many of our
students genuinely do not understand what we're talking about, because we
inhabit very different worlds-- morally, ethically, culturally-- than they
do, and we speak an alien language. They are desperate because we ask them
to do things they find incomprehensible, and then we find it
incomprehensible that they find us incomprehensible.

Listen to the music your students (or your children) listen to, and ask them
to tell you which parts are "sampled" and which are "original"; think about
the number of "covers" in which popular contemporary musicians remake "old"
songs (i.e., the ones I grew up on). THink about the number of Hollywood
movies that amount to little more than covers of old Hollywood movies or
newer French movies. Think about the common practice, on the Web, whereby
people spend hours and hours and hours of their time creating beautiful
little buttons, icons, background graphics-- and then post them to the
public domain so that everyone can use them; think about the concept of
shareware and freeware; and now ask yourself whether what we understand so
clearly as "plagiarism" is likely to be so clearcut to students who haven't
grown up, as we did, in a world completely dominated by print and the norms
of print culture. Most of us are still committed to notions of more or less
stable and unitary selfhood, whatever we may write about when we wax
theoretical; but for many of our students those boundaries aren't nearly so
cleanly visible.

And these are students for whom school is actually attractive, something
they like to do. Are you really prepared to say that "plagiarism" matters
more than racial epithets in environments where students-- teenagers-- carry
weapons and may use them to avenge a slur (or to avoid being beaten by
members of another gang)? My son goes to a "magnet school" for the
sciences, housed as a school-within-a-school, the latter being almost 100
per cent African American. The school administration has now closed off the
second-floor during lunch hour (which is where the science academy
facilities are), closed the campus to prevent students leaving for lunch and
not returning, and shortened the lunch period. The science academy kids are
transferring out in droves (my son isn't bothering, because he's graduating
in May), and the others are behaving increasingly like the prison inmates
the administration evidently assumes them to be. Plagiarism wouldn't be
very high on my list of things to worry about if I had to try to manage that
school, or indeed any other high school.
Professor John M. Slatin
Director, Computer Writing & Research Lab
Div. of Rhetoric and Composition and Dept. of English
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712
jslatin@mail.utexas.edu http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu