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On Plagiarism


By Scott Johnson

CHARGES OF plagiary, whether voices from a person's past or verdicts of honor committees challenged in court, always seem to rock the academic ark. For nearly all college themes drift near plagiarism's sandless coast, based as they often are on deep misunderstandings of reading and writing, and their purposes in helping students learn.

Research term papers, for example, often become stylized distortions of the reading and writing process. They are frequently assumed to be, and assigned as, demonstrations of a student's mastery of the library system and footnote form, topics teachers commonly spend weeks discussing, even in high school. The longer the bibliography, the more arcane the loc.cits., the more "work" the student has done. Yet the real questions of reading are not "how much did you do?" or even "what did you cover?" but rather "what new ideas has your reading helped you form? What changes in your perspective has it suggested? What deeper issues might it help you to unveil?" Such questions, though, are seldom posed.

Teachers in fact often express hostility to the view that the end of research is the student's understanding. A friend recently told me a fairly typical remark made by a professor criticizing a student who in her term paper had tried to discuss the meanings of the sources she had read. "I don't want what you think," the admonishment went. "I want what the critics think." To which a reasonable reply might be "Then read them yourself."

But even concerned teachers commonly use research papers more as a way to simply increase the volume of students' reading, desirable though that is, rather than as an experience designed essentially to deepen students' thought, thus further divorcing reading from the forming of ideas.

It is rare, for instance, for even good teachers to point out that the real concerns of library research are not bibliography or references, which are simply courtesies of audience and scholarship, but the problems of choosing and evaluating the sources at hand. Few students ever receive serious guidance in this, however. "Go to the library..."is often as far as it gets--with the result that even the best pupils commonly copy banalities and foolishness. "'Araby' is an often overlooked story by James Joyce3"--all properly footnoted, but with the issue of their accuracy or relevance never even conceived.

Writing under such conditions becomes no longer the act of clarifying thought, but mere stenography. It is debased even further by the pseudo-objective postures teachers frequently require their students to adopt--"This essay would like to analyze..." --as well as the sometimes well-meant but usually misshapen advice to "place the writer's thinking in the background," a suggestion students often disastrously take to heart.

Such distortions have terrible consequences. One of the more common is that people conditioned never to think hard or to seriously question what they read tend to believe one source is as good as any other, an attitude underlying much of the demonstrable nonsense in the world, from astrology and weapons deals to laetrile and creationism.

Another is the tendency of even conscientious students to believe that any writing which suggests a point of view is by definition "biased," and that good writing has no viewpoints, no purposes or meanings or even speculations, that in fact the best writing is, as a sincere and diligent student once wrote in one of my classes "FACTS. No opinions!" --the writing of phone books and calendars.

Perhaps the most horrible damage is done, though, to our conception of knowledge itself. For in such circumstances knowledge ultimately becomes not knowing, but data,entirely severed from human insight and even human use. It is no longer the real and understandable, "Reading Moby Dick makes me wonder about the difference in life between good and evil," but the aimless and synthetic "According to Eselmann (op. cit.) the theme of Moby Dick is good and evil," the sort of reference one can make without even knowing whom to call Ishmael.

It is this very warping of the nature of knowledge that encourages plagiary, for it is precisely this pseudo-knowing that anyone can pass off as his or her own, with quotation marks or without.

Genuine knowledge, on the other hand, is not anonymous. It changes the learner with the learning in a way mere data can't, the way knowing someone deeply always nurtures differences in the one who comes to know. It is not, perhaps, impossible, but it is very difficult, and there is little to be gained.

None of this is meant to suggest plagiary is somehow acceptable, or that students and others committing it are engaged in much more than deceit. But it is to raise the question of the difference between plagiary and those other college papers which, regardless of footnotes or references, often still belong to others, blood and sinew, mind and soul.

The author is an assistant professor of English at Suffolk Country Community College in Brentwood. N.Y.

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