In some ways, I may have it easier than instructors at other institutions when it comes to the question of plagiarism: here, our plagiarism policy is graven in stone.
Here, plagiarism as a violation of the honor code becomes a matter of who one is, a performance of identity, as the intersection of an economic interaction (the appropriation of someone else’s written labor) with the affectual response to experience (that dreadful desperate sensation of feeling overwhelmed by work combined with the moral nausea at thinking of betraying ideals).
Which is why I’m so interested that my hometown newspaper has picked up the recent and ongoing discussion of how appropriate technological and profit-based responses are to such matters. One wishes those who have picked up the Post story or responded to its branches in other venues (I won’t link to the ugly, bigoted, redneck parochial crap that the Wichita Eagle allows to remain on its site) might have first read Rebecca Moore Howard’s insightful and compelling rhetorical analyses of our ongoing discussion of plagiarism. One wishes those who have picked up the Post story might have consulted folks with some expertise on the topic of writing, writing instruction, and plagiarism — but of course, as Howard points out, the issue of plagiarism is all too easily argumentatively reduced to judgments of instructors good versus students bad, students steal versus scholars borrow, neutral technology versus ethical decisions.
Take, for example, Platypus Matt’s repeated assertions in the Kairosnews threads (I know Matt, and I like Matt, and I figure he knows that here I’m not dissing but disagreeing) that “the victim” in cases of plagiarism is “the teacher.” Student bad, teacher good, innocence violated by rapacity. But how is the teacher “the victim” of plagiarism? How has the teacher lost or been injured? Matt quite explicitly dismisses the notion of the value of student work, and instead clearly constructs plagiarism as a concern of authority and pride: the student pulled one over on the teacher. The only way in which I could agree with such a perspective would be by asserting that I expect to always be in a position of knowledge and experience superior to that of my students — and that’s an assertion I’ll never make. Matt’s arguments seem to me to evacuate student writing of its implicit value as work.
Yet, at the same time, I’m very much inclined to agree with Matt’s strong critique of the discursive equation of writing to property. Writing isn’t scarce and solely owned intellectual capital, as Matt rightly points out: it’s in fact, a complicated amalgam of productive and distributive processes. Writing is produced by a complex interaction of social relations, labor, and technology; so, too, do those same factors of technology, labor, and social relations interact in profoundly complex ways to distribute writing. In both the production and the distribution of writing, we see information as necessarily constructed by human labor, and therein lies our concern with its appropriation.
The problem that I see is that TurnItIn.com performs precisely that same appropriation while simultaneously uglifying our relationships with our students. TurnItIn.com is an inherently suspicious technology of surveillance, sending to our students the message that none of them are sufficiently trustworthy in our eyes. I suppose I could be accused of having the luxury of that big stone monument and everything that goes along with it to rest my indulgence upon — but I’ve felt the same at other institutions, as well. More importantly, though, TurnItIn.com appropriates the value of student writing for the sake of its own profits, while at the same time criminalizing students for the very same practice. In other words, TurnItIn.com stands as a monument of staggering hypocrisy — and that’s not a monument I’m going to erect in my classroom.