On plagiarism

There’s a lot more to be said about this. I’ve written about this before. An article today in The New York Times discusses more implications:

[Susan D. Blum] in the book My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture . . . argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs. . . . She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.

There’s much to say about what cut-and-paste plagiarism reveals, for instance, about memory and learning: if the web becomes the repository of information–which we preserve in browser bookmarks, or applications such as Evernote or Instapaper–we don’t just find it convenient, but need to use the web to write, since we’ve outsourced our memory to the apps we use to recollect our tracks through it.

The web may also very well be ruining our attention spans; Henry James takes time and patience. Perhaps we have lost much–look back at High Fidelity, for instance, for a glimpse of the creative mixed tape before the advent of iPods and Pandora. This argument (and I think it’s a valid one), though, has the disadvantage of only looking back; we will not return to a pre-web world.

And I’m not sure that what is happening here is entirely a new thing. I’ve often noticed how pastiche can define poor student writing, but that’s not new. Is not the self-made mixed tape also pastiche–made out of listening, as Rob Gordon says, to thousands of songs about heartbreak that we inevitably use to define how we react to heartbreak? Have we not always sampled from models to script how we are supposed to act as teachers, or students, as parents, when we drink [“Anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert B. Edgerton observed, ‘Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings'”], on our wedding day, or at a funeral?

I’m not entirely convinced that the struggle to create an original, uninterpellated self is much different than it ever was. I would not disagree, however, that omnipresent, easily accessible media and text has certainly made it much, much harder. Yet again: isn’t this search much of what literature is about? Perhaps that’s the challenge we face now as teachers of literature–to continue to show how stories define this search?

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