Death of the Author?

I’ve thought this over a bit today and basically agree with Matt Yglesias, that the claim Trip Gabriel reports in this NYT article that the ethos of the internet is prompting kids to plagiarize more than they used to is pretty dubious. Here’s the core of Gabriel’s article:

Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.

But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.

It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

Gabriel’s article seems like misplaced anxiety; the stakes are pretty low with plagiarism: students are basically only “hurting themselves” by cheating on their homework, as the proverb goes, and it’s not like the papers are up for publication. These cheaters are not David Shields or Jonathan Lethem. The idea that students suddenly don’t understand the concept of authorship reminds me of the worst nightmares of the fuddy-duddy professors who would fulminate about Barthes and Foucault and “this so-called textuality” when I was a graduate student. Where was the proper respect for Genius?

Gabriel interviews anthropologist Susan Blum, who seems like this species of worrywart.

In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.

“Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning,” Ms. Blum said.

She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.

Obviously she hasn’t hurt Mark Zuckerberg lecture about integrity and a single online identity. I’d be surprised too to find that students are uninterested in authenticity and unique identity and are seeking to merge with the multitude in a gesture of postmodern antisubjectivity. Self-broadcasting mediums and Web 2.0 seem to emphasize the value of a unique identity, not dissolve it.

Students, I suspect, don’t take attribution seriously because the work they are being asked to do is not serious to them. They don’t have much of a sense of scholarship as a collective enterprise, or of what they do in college as scholarship. With gen-ed classes, they know they are just marking time and doing busy work for the most part. They are right to think that plagiarism is not “a serious misdeed” that is somehow different from any other form of academic dishonesty. To pretend otherwise is to serve the ideological bidding of the lords of intellectual property.

The implication of plagiarism hysteria is that scholarship is a process of claiming ownership of proprietary information, an exceedingly unnatural attitude that students have always needed to be indoctrinated into, particularly if they want an academic career. This usually involves a series of ritualized genuflections in the form of citations of the recognized masters of a particular discipline as part of a student’s professionalization into the academy.

Yglesias notes that the Web prioritizes the association of data with its metadata — song files with the artists, etc. — and thus generally organizes information so that it is easier to deduce where it originated if you are so inclined. It’s never been easier to catch cheaters, he points out, something that was true even when I last taught college courses, in 2001.

I am inclined to think that the ubiquity of material available for appropriation and the ease of cutting and pasting itself explains most of the alleged rise in plagiarism. In my experience, most students who were inclined to cheat were way too lazy to retype passages out of a book.