This is your brain on plagiarism

A recent post on Kairosnews picks up the ongoing discussion On Plagiarism and Gladwell’s “Something Borrowed” piece in the recent New Yorker. I passed this link on to some of my colleagues here, as we are talking about plagiarism a great deal these days (as many academics seem to be doing). I suggested the New Yorker article could initiate interesting and productive classroom conversation about the complexities of this issue. In response, a colleague articulated a concern that the piece might be read as a defense of plagiarism. There seems to be a consensus in my department, and elsewhere, that the task here is to explain the evils of plagiarism and convince students not to do it.

Just say no to plagiarism.

I see a strong analogy to the war on drugs. In health classes and on PSAs, “they” make it seem so easy. “Drugs” are bad; they hurt you; they hurt the ones you love. You could go to jail and ruin your life. And so on.

But as we know, the war on drugs isn’t that simple. The moral questions surrounding drugs are not so cut and dry. The boundary between legal and illegal drugs is blurry and the means we use to distinguish between them are more political than scientific.

Anyway, I’m not here to argue about drugs. My point is that the war on plagiarism uses the same kind of hygenic rhetoric. But “we” know that plagiarism is not so obvious, that it is less an objectively determinable condition than an ideological, culturally contextualized phenomenon. Inextricably linked with a specific (and outdated) understanding of authorship and composition, it is a lynchpin in intellectual property. If we cannot determine the student’s “original work” and “individual understanding,” how do we grade them? How do we establish our own position of authority in relation to them?

The war on drugs was and is more about managing economic productivity and implementing a system of surveillance and control than it is about improving the lived experience of citizens. Similarly the war on plagiarism is more about insisting on a particular relation between students and authority (whether in the form of texts, professors, or institutions) than it is about improving their learning experience.

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