Owning Your Words

Seems like I’m coming late to this discussion, but author Michael Erard (FoaF of mine) is helping me catch up:

Plagiarism, the Meme Michael Erard – Home.

Part of that conversation was sparked by a piece Erard wrote in 2002 and published a few weeks ago:

Cheater Cheater by Michael Erard – The Morning News.

According to the author, that piece generated some strong reactions, including some apparently-visceral ones. (I try to avoid these, as much as possible.)

More recently, the New York Times published the following:

Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age – NYTimes.com.

[Sidenote: I have a problem with journalism (not with journalists, just with their work). As may surprise some people, the NYT appears to me to be part of that problem, not of its solution. And this piece by Trip Gabriel reminds me of diverse things I dislike about journalism. Not that Gabriel’s work is bad or that he’s a bad journalist. But I find in this piece a representation of something problematic with journalism that would take me too long to articulate here. Still, there’s some interesting insight in this piece.]

One thing I find useful in this NYT article is the admission that there might be different approaches to plagiarism and academic integrity. This is something which is discussed among teachers, but it’s the first time I see it in MSM. The very idea that we can expand the conversation about these issues is quite refreshing. Eventually, it might even help us hash out some of these issues in a less visceral and even dispassionate fashion. But I’m not holding my breath on this one.

Another thing I find useful in that “blurred lines” piece is a small set of quotes from fellow ethnographer Susan D. Blum. (Though I was apparently living in South Bend, IN when Dr. Blum became Kellogg fellow for international studies, I don’t recall meeting her.) What Blum says is not only anthropologically relevant but resonates strongly with things I’ve noticed, My summary from these short quotes: values surrounding plagiarism are best understood in a context in which individual ownership of ideas is emphasized; there might be a shift in these values through a much broader cultural change. If I hear Blum correctly, she isn’t taking the usual “techno-determinism” route (“it all happened because of this strange newfangled thing they call the Interwebs”), nor does she assign the causal relationship the other way around (“a shift to a more anonymous culture made it possible for the Internet to expand, in the last twenty years”). Instead, she’s describing a broad phenomenon, based on an understanding of some historical developments of so-called “Western” culture.

Seems to me that Jacques Attali would have fascinating things to say about this. Part of this impression is based on his work on the political economy of music which, in my mind, prefigured what has since been known as the “Napster Revolution.” But I also recall a (French) tv show about plagiarism in which he had some fascinating things to say about the developments of what RMS admonished us not to call “intellectual property.”

I have a lot more to say about all of this, including my own experience with a cheating student and diverse things about Erard’s work on this. But I got to leave. So it’s just a teaser, at this point.

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