Thursday, March 20, 2014


Have you ever had someone tell you a joke or a funny story you've already heard? Of course, we tell a lot of jokes and stories over and over again. But, what about that one guy who pretends that the joke or story was his own creation or it really did happen this way to him? Yeah, fuck that guy.

Plagiarism is exactly that. It is an attempt to tell a joke as though it's the first time anyone ever heard it. It's telling a story someone else, maybe even a lineage of people, worked to put together and make humorous as though it really did happen to me. It's erasing an entire chain of responses and conversations, imagining none of that happened, and then pretending to be an isolated genius.

A Works Cited page, a bibliography, is a statement about where you're coming from, who you know, what you like, and where this paper or this project or this work fits into the context of larger stories, conversations, jokes, and shared life other people are out there sharing. A paper, project, work participates in an on-going flow of information by sharing in its many threads, tributaries, directions, channels.

Too often, students are made to think a paper is an individual work, something done in isolation, something done to be a reflection of who the student is, rather than with whom the student studies and learns. This idea of the paper as a reflection of the student gives too much temptation to the student to cheat, since what we as teachers are tasked with doing is evaluating the student as a person, specifically the sort of person who composes an "original work."

But when students push back, stating something supposedly damning as "But everyone is always copying somebody else," or "No idea is ever completely original," the emphasis on the production of originality loses out. The student who is determined to justify their own mediocrity will not be convinced of the importance of citation if it is linked to the values of the isolate genius.

Yet, if you stand in front of these same students and tell a Mitch Hedberg joke like you made it up or relate a story you saw on HBO as one you slaved over or pass off a video of a cat jumping into a box as your cat and your box, these same students will not only lose respect for you, but know you're a fraud. The values of story-telling permit retelling so long as you link your version into the flow of other versions. "Stop me if you heard this one." "Have you seen this video? It's great!" "It's like what Louis CK said about white people." And so on.

The values of a story-telling culture reflect descent, participation, community, and cross-pollination. There is nothing funny about an isolated joke people know comes from several other sources, and originality is harder to come by when what's valued are stories nodding to the traditions, the threads, the connections. Rather than marvel at the individual's capacity to turn an idea into a series of connected statements, we marvel at how aware we are of our place in a community of people reflecting and wondering and thinking about similar things, similar issues, similar solutions, similar absurdities.

What makes plagiarism awful, then, is how it denies community for the sake of time or expediency. On the scale of something like a joke, it's clear how there is no glory or praise for someone willing to ignore the line of humor and shared experience in favor of their own vanity. When it comes to a paper cobbled together at the end of a deadline lacking any citation, it shows that community is worth even less than the apathy of the student.

Students who struggle with writing due to the anxiety of not knowing what to say, how to say something "original," are not my targets here. I understand anxiety about writing. But what I have observed with my students is that anxiety about writing translates to not writing at all, whereas anxiety about something else leads to the expediency of plagiarized works more often than not if anxiety is involved at all. Otherwise, students plagiarize because it's quicker to do that than figure out the value of saying something in the midst and alongside others.

So, "saying something original" has to be de-emphasized, even fazed out altogether, in favor of a new paradigm for what students do with the flow of conversations. I suggest talking about papers and projects, even structuring how they are produced and exchanged within the classroom, to reflect each one as a participation in larger dynamics of sharing and reflection.

One step I have taken towards this end in class is to require the students solicit and respond to criticisms from other students. Students who fail to get someone to critique their essay receive deductions. Students who refuse to critique or fail to critique also receive deductions.

I anticipate emphasizing that these papers are not about trying to convince me the student has some sense of what's going on. The student has to start thinking about anybody who will read the work, imagining after gaining experience what other voices and perspectives will say in response. I think a long life spent online generating negative feedback has helped me to think both in terms of what confuses and challenges and what encourages and seduces. I think of my audience constantly as I write; I do not "write for myself" the way that some people romanticize the activity. Instead, I want to usher in my students the notion that they are writing for other people who have their own views, most of whom need persuasion—not to convince, to vanquish with words any doubts or dissent, but to sustain plausibility, to create a space where the audience, smiling knowingly, can say aloud, "Okay, maybe, I can see it."

That's really all the great stories need to have the seed within that slowly, steadily changes the way we believe and act. We don't need any more victories, conquests, vanquishes, convincing. Force to convert is a wrong approach to philosophical investigation. People's ideas, like plants, seek out the empty spaces between the rocks. Soul is soil. Good cultivation of the soul, like good cultivation of soil, requires aeration, creation of space and voids, in the mindset of a person. The soul's own journey will take care of things on its own, and one has to leave the quest to the Spirit to decide, but this is how the flow works in all the things. Life seeks out the niches, the empty spaces within the processes of dying, breathing, seeding, spreading. Ideas that naturally root are stronger than those whose pruning, tending, weeding, fertilizing, separating, isolating, leaves behind fragile, vulnerable, naturally weak ideas that must always be protected through force and walls.

All these things are related.

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