"Academy's stress on originality may be a big part of the problem"
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday April 4, 2004, C7

Valerie Ross
is director of the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.

The University of Pennsylvania considers plagiarism a serious offense. Consequences range from a lowered grade and letter of reprimand to a permanent notation on the student's transcript and expulsion, potentially barring entry into the best graduate schools or recruitment from top corporations.

Certainly no plagiarist at Penn can plead ignorance of our policy. We hold a special session during freshman orientation alerting students to the perils of plagiarism; we warn them again in the freshman writing seminars. Warnings are posted on key Web sites. We cover our proverbial bases, and thus can say to offenders: Such are the wages of sin.

Despite such efforts, plagiarism has been rising for decades, well before the Internet, which has only made it easier to cheat and to detect it. Confronted with this mess, we are apt to utter commonplaces. We blame poor values, poor preparation, too much pressure. Less frequently explored is how the message may be involved rather than the medium - that we ourselves may be helping to foster a culture of cheating.

Changes in academic writing have probably made certain kinds of work simply too challenging for students. When I was an undergraduate, I could, with a dictionary and great concentration, make sense of the literary critics English majors were encouraged to read. Today, the literature in my field is impenetrable to outsiders. Dictionaries are no aid. What wonder that students are tempted to cheat, faced with pressure to get top grades and texts that never for a moment imagined a student audience? The temptation only grows when students are faced with the well-intentioned but ill-advised "open topic" paper, which pressures them to find their way through the same abstruse writing and somehow locate their own topics within it - not to mention that such assignments make it terribly tempting to buy a paper off the shelf.

Perhaps it's time to absorb the lessons of the last few decades. How ironic that we continue to demand originality from our students even as our research has amply established how our culture habitually and even violently appropriated other cultures and work. Professors of postmodernity, in turn, have shown how our music, our movies, our fashion, our architecture, are all a patchwork of remakes, covers, allusions. Contemporary biographers have added to the confusion: Maybe Einstein cribbed from his physicist wife; maybe Thomas Jefferson and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were plagiarists. Maybe everyone was always already cribbing from everyone else. In the beginning was the word and after that we all started cheating.

The lesson of plagiarism may be that the quest to be original can be a destructive fantasy. Let us learn and teach how to treasure what we have, for the sake of our physical, intellectual, and spiritual environments. As with the bicycles left everywhere on the streets of Madison, Wis., you can't steal something if it belongs to everyone. We might even borrow another page from another culture: Japanese students, often baffled by our notions of plagiarism, are taught that the task of youth is to learn and absorb the collective wisdom of their culture; language belongs to everyone. To demand that a young person be original is unreasonable, and even a bit foolish.

If we really want our children to learn how to think for themselves, how truly to research, to look again and around, then let us teach them - and ourselves - how to honor the past and pay attention to the present. Darwin sat with pen and notebook in hand staring at barnacles; Freud listened to people talk about their childhoods and anxieties; Descartes sat in his bathrobe thinking about whether or not he was thinking. If we want students to lead an examined life, then let us give them and ourselves the time and means and incentive to do this, rewarding thoughtfulness rather than novelty. Students aren't the only ones these days feeling pressured to cheat.

Contact Valerie Ross at vross@writing.upenn.edu.