For the three years, I’ve taught Rhetoric and General Education Literature to University of Iowa undergrads. And every semester, I do a “plagiarism discussion” day or two, sometime before their first major assignment is due. I assign three or four (rapidly aging) articles on the Doris Kearns Goodwin scandal--usually beginning with Timothy Noah's Slate overview "Doris Kearns Goodwin, Liar"; a defensive New York Times letter "In Defense of Doris Kearns Goodwin," signed by several of her colleagues; Noah's rebuttal, "Historians Rewrite History"; and then Goodwin's own explanation, from Time, “How I Caused That Story”.
And then, for the next day, we do the Peter Stallybrass article “Against Thinking,” which we discuss in conjunction with Girl Talk (artist Greg Gillis, who remixes dozens of songs into a single track--and releases his albums online for free, because he doesn't get permission from any original artists to use their works in his mashups. This clip shows, real-time, the audio sources that Girl Talk uses). The goal is to have a discussion about the importance of intellectual honesty and credibility, and why the academy values these things, while also allowing a discussion about moral grey areas, the difficulty or definition of originality, and how these are valued outside of the academy. (Music is a good place to start discussion, as my students can all give examples of “borrowing” in recent releases, and they usually have a reasonably good understanding of copyright laws.)
For the first two years, I found this discussion worked fairly well. We would usually end up in a place that acknowledged the perhaps-unreasonable pressures of originality, but that also acknowledged the reasons for concerns over plagiarism are valid. We generally acknowledged that one can (and must) play by the rules, although there is certainly room for discussion over why they may or may not be useful.
But for the past two semesters, I have been struck by how dismissive my students are over the whole issue. Noah's second Slate article compares three passages from Goodwin with the three passages from a source that she plagiarized. My students—or those that speak up—didn’t see this as plagiarism at all. Even three years ago, they would profess shock at the similarity and agree that Goodwin’s rephrasing was unacceptable, even if her explanation was a sympathetic one. But this semester and last, they were absolutely dismissive and didn’t recognize any “plagiarism.” Granted, two classes does not a trend make, but it still makes me wonder.
It seems to me that perhaps instructors and students are coming at this from different directions: for the instructors, a reading like Stallybrass’ that acknowledges that perhaps we put too much weight on originality is a new sort of approach. Opening up a discussion about originality and plagiarism still feels almost subversive, in fact.
But trying to have that discussion with students has been absolutely failing me—and it occurs to me that it may be because they are increasingly coming at this from the opposite direction. For them, collaboration, re-appropriation, and borrowing is the norm. For them, it’s not a moral issue at all: Wikipedia has no sources, except for pseudonyms (if you even know how to look for them). The longstanding academic concept of plagiarism, rather than something that we could re-imagine or discuss, is utterly unfamiliar in the first place.
I hope that doesn’t come across as so terribly naïve as it is starting to sound to me. But the shift even in the past couple of years—if that is indeed what it is—has caught me by surprise. A lesson plan that worked really well is suddenly not working so well. Granted, they know that if they borrow a paper from EasyPaper123.com, that is unacceptable. But if they quote from Wikipedia or some other website with no attribution, as long as they’re using it for their own ideas, how is this a problem? Especially if it was unintentional? The problem, then, is not to begin by turning plagiarism into a conversation, but to impress upon them the seriousness of using someone else’s words in the first place. Which feels, to me, like it now requires a strictly prescriptive, non-conversational lecture about the very basics of plagiarism.
I feel that I should still be able to turn this into a conversation, no matter which angle of the issue they’re coming from. But the Goodwin and Stallybrass readings don’t seem to be working for this. (I almost feel like a hypocrite—I’ve been turning plagiarism into a conversation, and acknowledging that it can be seen as an issue with a lot of grey areas---but now that my students seem to be waaaay ahead of me on that (or way behind?), I don’t know what to do!)
So I turn to you: do you have recommendations for turning plagiarism into a conversation—from the angle that ultimately needs to impress its importance? Readings, clips, conversation starters that have worked for you?