(Devido ao interesse gerado pela temática deste texto, partilho-o com os nossos leitores, e agradeço ao meu colega Professor John Sainsbury ter aceite a sua edição no Comunidades)
Rethinking the Plagiarism Panic: Are we expecting too much of students?
At a recent faculty meeting, I was shaken out of my torpor when an associate dean announced that 43 per cent of students at Cambridge University, my alma mater, admitted to plagiarizing papers.
“Papers?” I thought. “What papers? We were supposed to write papers?” I dimly recalled that as undergraduates we occasionally read hastily prepared scripts to some bored and sleepy Fellow of the College.
But we were innocent of plagiarism. Even had we been criminally inclined, why would we have bothered? Those oral presentations meant nothing in the assessment of our degree standing. That was based on final examinations where any form of cheating was out of the question.
So news that plagiarism — wilfully appropriating text without acknowledging the source — was now blighting even the academic groves of Cambridge confirmed for me just how pervasive the offence has become.
Rampant student plagiarism is routinely identified as a “crisis” or “epidemic” that threatens the moral basis of the modern university. There are academic journals — one is called Plagiary — dedicated to the problem.
Explanations abound. They range from the judgmental (the cynical pursuit of self-advantage has replaced love of learning for today’s students) to the technological (the Internet is undermining the status of the single-authored text while offering irresistible opportunities for plagiarism) to the charitable (students on a full-course load are so overburdened that they barely have time to think, let alone think an original thought.)
Each explanation invites a corresponding response, from the draconian (expel the evildoers from our midst) to the practical (let’s turn the tables by using computer technology to uncover plagiarism) to the benevolent (we must reassess the student experience so that the temptation to plagiarize is minimized).
I don’t intend to engage with these explanations and responses. What I want to do is explore the irony that alarm bells are sounding about student plagiarists at the very time that their professors are increasingly depressed about the possibility of meaningful originality in their own work.
Why this anxiety developed is a complex matter.
Yale English professor Harold Bloom initiated discussion about it in his book The Anxiety of Influence, first published in 1973. Bloom’s concern was with the plight of early nineteenth-century Romantic poets, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who were passionately committed to authenticity and originality, yet haunted by the fear that they were merely offering a pallid reproduction of the work of earlier geniuses like John Milton.
Bloom’s original insight has since been extended, by Bloom and others, to the full range of creative and critical endeavours.
Against the current grain, Bloom himself believes that under exceptional circumstances original genius can prevail. It’s what has produced the Western Canon (always capitalized by Bloom) with William Shakespeare at its centre.
Bloom’s curmudgeonly defence of the Western Canon offends post-modern pieties, but his views on influence still resonate. They connect with a key term in the post-modern lexicon: intertextuality (which, intriguingly, my spellchecker wants to change to “intersexuality”).
The term encapsulates the theory that all writing is derivative, that any text is merely a rearrangement of pre-existing texts and can never be an original unmediated response to something called “reality.”
Those troubled Romantic poets wouldn’t have used such a prosaic term (nor would Bloom), but the straitjacket that constrained them was intertextuality.
What does any of this have with to do with student plagiarism?
Well, my contention is that the problem of plagiarism arises in part from putting the same burden on students as the Romantic poets put on themselves.
By insisting on the chimera of originality, we seek to enscribe in pedagogy what we despair of in our own scholarship and creativity. We do so with the best intentions, hoping perhaps to keep our students in a garden of innocence designed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, where true genius can still flourish.
But we’re doing our students (even any budding Shakespeares among them) no favours. Instead, we risk locking them into some invidious choices.
Imagine the plight of the student grappling with that term paper on Moby Dick. The deadline looming, she feels she has to choose between saying something clever (but plagiarized) or something original (but stupid).
Something has gone wrong with a pedagogy where stupid is the noble option.
John Sainsbury is a Professor of History at Brock University -St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.
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(permission to reprint the article has been granted from the editor of The Edmonton Journal -email 23, January 2011).