and speaking of plagiarism . . .

I’m amazed at the positive reviews that Richard Posner’s book, the aptly-titled Little Book of Plagiarism (Pantheon, 2007), has garnered.  Here’s a good online review at the Virtual Philosopher, which at least considers the omissions and weaknesses of RP’s argument:

The biggest problem, from my point of view, is that RP seems to think, perhaps justly, that the existence of intertextuality will come as Big News to his readership, or that they will be shocked at the historicity of our constructions of authorship, originality, creativity, and “intellectual property.”  I am sure that most literary scholars in our field, including readers of Michel Foucault, Mark Rose and many, many other historians of print culture, will not disagree with such observations, or their relevance to our debates about plagiarism.  But they will ask for more than what has been given in this 116-page book.

This is where I think just about any TA teaching literature and composition in higher education today will have more substantial and informed things to say about these issues than Judge Posner, who contents himself with fiddling around on the definitional questions surrounding plagiarism, without giving much insight into the genuinely hard problems it creates for contemporary teachers and scholars.

Posner seems to think that defending T.S. Eliot’s literary allusions in the Waste Land, somehow gives us guidance about how to deal with plagiarism in the classroom.  Part of the problem seems to be his (not accidental) decision to treat plagiarism chiefly as an economic problem, with primarily economic damages conceived (metaphorically) as forms of theft, fraud, and illicit gain. 

These “intellectual property” arguments, however, cannot address its most damaging aspect in the university setting, its corrosive effect upon the pedagogical environment created by teachers and students.  There is some Habermasian dimension to all this, where certain kinds of bad-faith participation will kill the public sphere for everyone else, if it is tolerated inside.  I also suspect that plagiarism is the place where the noxious administrative language of “students as consumers” reaches its limit, since here for once we must say why a piece of writing handed in for evaluation must have originated with that student, and represent that student’s own, good-faith efforts, or else our own good-faith efforts go for naught.

And Posner has the baffling, and totally unwarranted, attitude that the existence of software like will simply eliminate it within the contemporary classroom.  Indeed, even the quite positive reviews like the Virtual Professor’s acknowledge that Posner simply fails to address the historical role of the Internet in giving plagiarism its contemporary salience.

So I’m on the lookout for more skeptical and informed treatments of this issue than what Posner provides.  The sociologist Brian Martin provides some interesting analysis of contemporary academic practices (which, naturally, vary widely by discipline), for example, and some good, commonsensical recommendations for those trying to get a handle on plagiarism.



3 responses to “and speaking of plagiarism . . .

  1. Check out Rebecca Moore Howard‘s work, e.g. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators [Amazon] and Authorship in Composition Studies (with Tracy Hamler Carrick) [Amazon].

    Oh, and she has a blog.

  2. You might be interested in Lawrence Hinman’s webcast about plagiarism and academic integrity which I’ve linked from my weblog Virtual Philosopher:

  3. David Mazella

    Thanks, George and Nigel,

    Hadn’t noticed these earlier responses, which were quite helpful. I’ve always been uneasy with, and the Howard stuff gives me some handle on my reaction: the knee-jerk reaction, at my institution and elsewhere, to take discretion away from instructors and hand it over to a piece of computer software. And I might write at some point about the Dreyfus piece on distance ed in the virtual philosopher, which I find interesting in the light of research competencies, etc.

    Thanks for the references, both of you.