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Monday, January 30, 2006

Plagiary

Posted by Miriam Burstein on 01/30/06 at 10:43 AM

(X-posted from The Little Professor.)

1.  After reading Scott McLemee‘s article at Inside Higher Ed, I scooted off to Famous Plagiarists--and felt vaguely dissatisfied.  The vague dissatisfaction arose from the "Literature" section, which features such luminaries as S. T. Coleridge, T. S. Eliot, and William Shakespeare.  Oscar Wilde is nowhere to be seen, although the book version of The Picture of Dorian Gray includes a chapter distilled from J.-K. HuysmansA Rebours (and, as Jerusha McCormack has pointed out more generally, "It is hard to say anything original about The Picture of Dorian Gray, largely because there is so little that is original in it" [1]).  And Shakespeare’s "threat level" seems a bit low, given that King Lear appears to owe rather a lot to an earlier play

But such quibbles aren’t the source of the dissatisfaction in question.  In his "War on Plagiarism," Prof. Lesko neglects to get at the literary-historical problem: what, exactly, are we to do with a long-dead major author after we find him or her guilty on all counts? Should we respond to such authors in the same way that we respond to a novelist caught in the act now?  (Or, as Scott asks of Coleridge, "And the more you love his poetry, the harder it is to know what to
think of his kleptomania. Should you be indignant? Or just perplexed?") When I teach Dorian Gray, for example, I always point out that Ch. XI is plagiarized.  Now, strictly speaking, an au courant contemporary probably would have recognized the "poisoned book" and, by extension, Ch. XI’s debt to it; after all, Huysmans was a key Decadent.  Moreover, as other critics of the novel have noted, there’s something oddly appropriate about the chapter’s derivative nature, given how derivative Dorian is himself.  Still, we’re stuck with the original question.  Should I derail the classroom discussion for a lecture on the evils of plagiarism? Issue a blanket amnesty? Toss the novel into Reading Gaol? What?

Given that literary history consists of authors reading, rewriting, alluding to, parodying, and saluting each other, it’s impossible to  yank a brick out of the wall without reducing the whole edifice to a shambles.  One cannot ignore Shakespeare because he borrowed extensively from someone else’s King Leir, any more than we can eject Coleridge from the Romantic canon because he had a cribbing habit to accompany his opium habit.  It’s much easier to dimiss a pleasant third-rater like Rhoda Broughton, who in one novel absconds with a passage from The Mill on the Floss without so much as a "please, George."  After all, Broughton has had no real influence on subsequent novelists.  And there’s the problem, isn’t it? Once a work turns out to be powerful enough to generate imitation, response, parody, critique, and so forth, its own borrowings frequently become, in practice, a purely academic question.  If the writer isn’t caught and halted at the time (like Brad Vice), then his or her work may either go the way of all published literature or become so culturally significant that plagiarism becomes, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant.  Once the work has successfully gone forth and multiplied after escaping into the wild, as it were, it’s perhaps a little late (not to mention futile) to denounce the author at every turn;  what are we to supposed to do, dig up Coleridge’s bones and burn them? (Even Norman Fruman, famed chronicler of Coleridge’s plagiaristic misdeeds, enthusiastically dubs Coleridge a "great artist" [2].) Like it or not, the plagiarism issue is just not very helpful when it comes to assessing Coleridge’s, Shakespeare’s, or Wilde’s historical significance.  It’s similarly useless when talking about low-end novelists:  I can point out that both Anna Eliza Bray and Emily Sarah Holt steal from John Foxe, but once I’ve branded "plagiarist" on their respective foreheads, I’ll still be left with the problem of what they’ve chosen to steal and how it affects the texts in question.  That’s not Lesko’s evil goblin, French poststructuralism, speaking--that’s old-fashioned, standard-issue literary history and interpretation.  (The LP, after all, is neither Foucauldian nor Barthesian, let alone--despite her B.A.--Derridean.)   Lesko urges us to be "frank in our critical assessment," but this call to frankness seems to evade the historical and critical issues at issue here, not confront them. 

2.  On a slightly different note, I was discussing plagiarism with the head of our committee on academic integrity.  In our conversation, I pointed out that we often expect students to regurgitate information on exams (most frequently, in short identifications), whereas we just as often expect them to think original thoughts in their papers.  This, it seems to me, is an unspoken contradiction in our pedagogical practice: do we make it clear why we reward students who plagiarize our lectures in an exam (that is, after all, what they’re doing), but punish them for doing the same thing in a term paper?  We punish several types of cheating on exams--stealing a test, copying another student’s work, bringing cheat sheets--but repeating points made in lecture rarely makes it onto the radar.  (This page, for example, includes several hints on deterring students from cheating during an exam, but doesn’t include "appropriating the instructor’s ideas" on its list of potential sins.  After all, we often want the students to appropriate our ideas.)  I usually make a point of warning students that I know what I think, thank-you-very-much, but even so, regurgitation isn’t grounds for failure.   There are ways of getting around this problem--for example, I assign a few more poems than I will actually discuss in class, precisely because I want students to approach them "unspoiled" during an exam--but it’s still there, nevertheless.  Have other people discussed or dealt with this issue?  Or am I just inventing a problem? (After all, I’m an academic; we do that sort of thing.) 

[1]  Jerusha McCormack, "Wilde’s Fiction(s)," The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, ed. Peter Raby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 110. 
[2]  Norman Fruman, Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel (New York: George Braziller, 1971), 263.


                   
   


Comments

Thanks for posting this, Miriam. It’s interesting how canonization washes the sins away and makes it easier to see the communicative virtues that were (we presume) always there…

Under-acknowledged translations are another richly ambiguous area, as you’ve pointed out before when writing about the popular treatment of Wyatt’s most famous poem.

There may be some social-psychological overlap between that “you can parrot me but no one else” aspect of exams, the tendency of certain powerful academics to put their own names above their grad students’ (or, formerly, their wives’), and the common plagiarists’ defense of blaming sloppy assistants. The push-me-pull-you of mentoring seems hard to keep in line.

On a lower note, I love that “FamousPlagiarists.com ©” doesn’t credit sources for any of its author portraits.

By Ray Davis on 01/30/06 at 04:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is it just me, or is Literary Plagiarists a rip-off of Discover the Networks?

But seriously, I think Prof. Lesko’s zeal to uncover plagiarism under several dubious rocks, along with the goofy color-coding system and the “Mark of the Plagiarist,” undercuts an otherwise valid point. He seems to want to grind his anti-poststructuralist axe more than usefully record legitimate cases of “literary plagiarism.” If he toned the whole thing down I might take it more seriously.

Also, given the recent hoo-ha about James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, it might be interesting to have a site that looked at other kinds of authorial transgressions as well. The controversies around books like Memoirs of a Geisha and even (quite recently) Olaudah Equiano are evidence of the still-live Cult of the Author.

Maybe I’ll start my own rival site: “Fictions and Lies.”

By Amardeep on 01/30/06 at 04:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Without plagiarism, there would be no literature. I’m a complete rewrite man, like our Willy Shakespeare.”

thepage’s pullquote on Chistopher Logue last week.

By nnyhav on 01/30/06 at 04:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that authors (e.g. Oscar Wilde) are playing a different game from students submitting term papers for grading (or academics hoping for tenure on the basis of published work). There’s no contradiction in requiring higher standards of attribution from students and academics - the rules are just different for the different activities.

I’m used to a University system where a different person give the lectures, acts as the students supervisor, and examine the coursework. (Indeed, at the PhD level there’s a rule that a supervisor must not be their internal examiner).

As a supervisor, I have to advise students on their coursework before it is submitted to be graded by someone else. I often encounter borderline cases that test the edge of the rules. Sometimes, in real cases of doubt, and where the student doesn’t want to write it a different way, I end up asking the degree committee for advice: “Suppose, hypothetically, a student were to do <X>, would it be OK?”

At the undergraduate level, a paper might contain two pages that recapitulates material from the lectures, followed by about thirty pages that says something orginal about it. Even the “original” bit isn’t entirely the student’s own work, because it has arisen out of discussions with the supervisor.

My general view on this is that the traditional thanks to the supervisor in the “acknowledgements” section covers any amount of ideas generated during tutorials, and there’s no need for further explicit acknowlegement.

Material from the lectures can be usually be regarded as a common knowledge (shared between the student and the examiners) and doesn’t need an explicit acknowledgment either. Paraphrasing it is a good idea, though. If you must copy down what the lecturer said verbatim, formatting it as a quotation (with citation) might be in order. The grey area between these options gets tricker.

By on 01/30/06 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some years ago there was a scandal in the jazz world when someone—perhaps Lincoln Collier—decided that Duke Ellington wasn’t all that much of a genius because he’d cribbed so much from his side men. A certain amount of this was well-known, and had been for years, so it’s not clear to me that Collier had uncovered anything new. What was new was the conclusion he’d drawn from this evidence, that Ellington was not the consummate genius.

Though I’m not familiar with the best scholarship on this particular problem, I don’t have any problem with the notion that Ellington is a genius. It seems entirely possible that he did things with his side men’s ideas that they could not have done themselves. Rather, the real challenge presented by Ellington’s case is to the notion of individual, hermetically sealed, genius. Ellington did not compose something and then put it out in the open market where it could be picked up by anyone willing to pay for it. He composed specifically for his band, with specific musicians in mind. And so he would use riffs and melodies that they came up with. Genius though he was, Ellington was also the conduit for a group process.

And that’s what we have little conceptual machinery for. Ellington’s personnel was unusually stable. Some musicians were in his band for decades or even their entire career. Later in his life he subsidized his band out of his royalties so that he had an ensemble for which to compose music.

I’m guessing Shakespeare’s situation was very much like that. Forget the fact that, e.g., the plot for The Winter’s Tale is taken over, almost intact, from Greene’s Pandosto—through the language is Shakespeare’s own. Think about Shakespeare as writing for a specific company, one in which he had an ownership share. He knew who would act each part and wrote to their strengths. I have no trouble imagining that he “cribbed” lines from his actors. Nor do I have any trouble imagining that what actually happened on stage may have varied from performance to performance and that particularly inspiried bits of actorly improvisation may have remained in a performance and become part of the text that has come down to us for a particular play.

We’ll never know what actually happened in any of those Elizabethan companies. But, as I’ve indicated, we probably don’t have theories that adequately account for it. Perhaps we should look at what happens in film-making, which is a deeply collaborative process. Just who is it that is responsible for the final film? I have no idea where auteur theory is these days, but whatever the start of the film-critical art, I’d be surprised—albeit pleasantly surprised—if the conceptualization were adequate to the messy and collective lived process.

On a more personal note, for much of my career I worked closely with David Hays, my teacher and mentor. We co-signed a small handfull of papers, but that doesn’t begin to indicate the closeness of our collaboration. Though we seemed to have different roles in our intellectual interaction, the resulting body of ideas reflected both of our work. It would be impossible to go through those articles and divide the ideas and the prose into two neatly discrete piles. Given that experience, when I think of a dozen or two dozen individuals bonded together in creative activity—Shakespeare’s company, Ellington’s band—I think we don’t know diddly about how that works.

By Bill Benzon on 01/30/06 at 07:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If the writer isn’t caught and halted at the time (like Brad Vice)

I’m not sure this is a fair characterization of Brad’s work.  He has argued, and there is some merit to the claim, that his work was homage to his source, and he had been open about the relationship between his work and the source material even if he didn’t note it in the published text.

By on 01/31/06 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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