There's a poison goin' on

Title stolen from a Public Enemy album, but is it really stolen since I just told you from where it came?

Perhaps more accurately it was plagiarized, which is a great term, I remember using it with great frequency to describe a number of activities that did not relate to the act of passing another's ideas off as one's own.

Such as when you introduce a friend to a band or song, and they accept it in a lukewarm but not rude manner, then later you find them advocating for said band/song with someone else using your tone of voice and your excitement - that's plagiarism.

Or someone uses that ingredient that you introduced them to into some dish in which it should never belong, then serves it and it gets raves.

Or, on the larger scale, when the cool-secret truth you discover deep in the pages of Harper's or The New York Times you divulge at work and nobody is suprised, they just blow it off like 3rd grade knowledge. This is also known as the attempt of daily life plagiarism that fails.

Let's examine the root: 1621, from L. plagiarius "kidnapper, seducer, plunderer," (from the Online Etymology Dictionary, note how I cite my sources with such expert skill).

This root word related to a criminal act might explain the glee I see in my fellow teachers and instructors once they "apprehend the perp" and "bust" someone for kidnapping ideas and seducing them with a plundered paper. Being a cop is a joyful experience for them.

I am not interested in and take no joy in being a cop, and when I find instances of plagiarism in student work it's usually a sad moment for me. But for most instructors, I think it's hard to resist the primal urge of personal slight - "The student is trying to trick me."

And it's no wonder with the shape of our vernacular in relation to our students. We speak of them as if they have a deeply rooted insurgency we must flush out or we will not be able to turn them into good democratic citizens. The hunt begins for the terrorists. Everyone's a suspect.

At the same time, the students lose confidence in us. They feel our overtures of caring and interest are not authentic. They lose interest in the class. They only want to do what will get them the grade they want, and the self-fulfilling prophecy is complete.

Perhaps there's another way we can identify the problem of not citing sources that doesn't criminalize the event. Since it's the end of the semester, I'll share a personal story. It is my blog, after all.

A student turned in a paper that would count as plagiarized at mid-term for a rough draft overview. I pointed it out to him, and told him to correct it. In the final version of the paper it was corrected, and there was a short email note about the paper:

"I fixed the plagiarism, like you said. If you see any others, just assume they came from that book I was using. If you are confused at all, just email me."

Yea I'm confused, but I think I partially figured it out. The student's don't see why plagiarism is bad. The criminalization of it has eliminated our ability to use it pedagogically. It becomes a traffic light, and you either obey it or you don't.

Is there a way to recover a richer sense of plagiarism? Would this richer sense prevent the poor uses of plagiarism and encourage the better uses? Can we turn kidnappers into seducers?

What about following Harold Bloom's suggestion that plagiarism might be a source of poetic invention, the seduction read of the root of the word? Why not suggest students look for the ideas that seduced, that made invention desirable? Why not enrich the sense of plagiarism?

Why can't we have this discussion with our students?