Politics & Policy

Plagiarism Is Rape?

According to some academics it is.

Great news! The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the March issue of College English is heading for the supermarket checkout line right now. Okay, maybe not the supermarket, but you should be able to find it right next to the latest copy of Bee Pollen Gazette at your macrobiotic organic-food commune (“Where the milk is lumpy, the cereal smells like hay, and apples cost more than a new kidney!”).

College English provides new and exciting evidence that College English professors are the tweedy, French-bathed barbarians in pursuit of destroying Western Civilization I always thought they were. Or, it proves that they’re idiots. It’s a coin toss. Either way, someone’s going to hell.

Alas, because all avant-garde intellectuals are behind the times, I can’t give you the actual link — but I can’t give you a link to the leading Goat Love website, and you need that just as much.

Anyway, according to the summary provided by the Chronicle, “English professors are of two minds about plagiarism. They create regulations that punish students for borrowing language from another text, yet agree that no writing is fully original.” We’ll come back to that in a second. The Chronicle reports that Rebecca Moore Howard, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, addresses this “conceptual blurring” in two forthcoming scholarly books. That’s right, two. Not one book, but two. R. R. Palmer’s History of the Modern World: one volume. Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man: one volume. McClelland’s History of Western Political Thought: one volume. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators: two volumes.

But that’s a sideshow; she’s got an important case to make. She believes that prosecuting plagiarism runs against the political aims of teaching English. “To adjudicate plagiarism in these circumstances is to work against the liberatory, democratic, civic, and critical pedagogies that prevail in English studies,” writes Ms. Howard. Apparently Ms. Howard believes that the concept of plagiarism relies upon “gendered metaphors of authorship” that suggest originality is masculine and demeans collaboration — which is an essentially female form of writing.

Ms. Howard backs up her important thesis by analyzing writing guides published over the years. Such guides, she says, describe plagiarism as a sort of “sexual disease” that threatens the male writers. Worse still, some guides actually refer to plagiarism as a rape of some sort in which the original author is violated. The exact form of “rape” she is talking about is unclear in the Chronicle’s all too brief summary. One does get images of the Ivy League quad as a maximum-security prison yard, and the faculty lounge as the shower facility (“Your exegesis on Proust used language which confiscated the spirit of my authenticity!” “I understand your perspective, but it does not pierce the veil of my personally value-laden reality, since my language vis-à-vis your Proust exegesis was the natural consequence of the fact that I have made you my bitch.”)

But that’s enough of that. Still, Howard must mean a serious kind of rape, because she says that “plagiarism represents authorship run amok … and thus incites gender hysteria in the community in which it occurs.” Ms. Howard still believes that we should discourage plagiarism qua plagiarism (I predict ten people will send me an e-mail threatening to give me a wedgie for using the word “qua“) but we just shouldn’t use the word plagiarism itself or frame the issue sexually. “Let’s get out of the business of valorizing an elusive originality, criminalizing imitation, and reinforcing prejudices of gender and sexual preference,” she concludes. “Let’s leave sexual work out of textual work.”

Upon reading this, three people with bad breath and holes in their clothes high-fived each other against the backdrop of Che Guevara and Rosie the Riveter posters. However they didn’t raise their voices, for fear of traumatizing the ferns.

Now the problem for a male writer like me — hock, snort, scratch, ogle — is how to mock such stuff without simply resorting to repeating the text verbatim. I don’t want to rape anybody and I certainly don’t want to foster gender hysteria, but the bottom line is that nothing I can say about this stuff is funnier — or more damning — than the text itself.

Indeed, the real threat of hysteria is that once you start taking apart this silliness, you won’t know where to stop. Still, one horror that needs exposing is the assertion that “English professors are of two minds about plagiarism. They create regulations that punish students for borrowing language from another text, yet agree that no writing is fully original.” Is no one troubled that the author could write this in America’s leading and most widely read higher-education publication without fear of anyone saying, “Wait a second”?

Is this really the case? Do all English professors see this question in these terms? Is this so uncontroversial an observation that it can glide past tens of thousands of academics without a peep? And, what about this notion that plagiarism uses male metaphors? How do we know this? When you turn over the words “steal” or “rip off” or “copy,” can you tell by the dangling participle, as it were, that they’re male? And who says women collaborate more? Putting aside my own staff — who contribute mightily to my efforts — what the hell is she talking about? Who cares if no writing is “fully original”? The particles in my stereo have existed for billions of years, and even in their current arrangement they’re not that original, as there are probably millions of identical ones (though not in the ontological sense). Does that mean if you bust into my house and take my stereo, you’re not really stealing?

And isn’t she the one’s who sexualizing the concept in the first place? If we asked 100,000 people to play a free-association game with the word “plagiarism,” my guess is no more than zero people would indicate they think of the word in a booty-call context.

And who is paying tens of thousands of dollars to have their kids educated by people like this? And…and…and… okay I’m hysterical now. I should have just provided a link to the story and called it a day.


Our online poll from Monday was spammed. How do we know? Well, the question was: By taking up campaign-finance reform as a centerpiece of his campaign, Al Gore is… a) demonstrating political leadership

b) making best of a political liability

c) once again, showing he is without shame

Seventy-two percent of respondents answered “A.” Something tells me that’s not quite representative. Anyway, we’ll be keeping the poll open until tomorrow morning, so return to the poll on our homepage if you’d like to even the score.


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