Monday, July 14, 2008

Haven't We Had This Conversation Already?

Recently, the Third International Plagiarism Conference was held at Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-tyne, UK. The conference theme was "Transforming Practice for an Authentic Future". To get a flavor for the conference and its proceedings check out the link above as well as Gerry McKiernan's blog for a sampling of his presentation. The blog Information Literacy Meets Library 2.0 also works for a cursory glance at topical considerations.

The point of my post is to remark on this notion of authenticity. Haven' we already had this conversation? At least philosophically, have we had it? Not to get all Baudrillard and what not, but I can't see such a conference happening in France for example, or in the French intellectual tradition rather. The French love their language, but also celebrate its fluidity and its versatility. English, on the other hand, has always suffered from policing and surveillance in efforts to control it and to make it rational in its "grammar" and representation. Cartesian predilections it seems. An analog to libraries can be made here too. This sort of control is an impossible project, now more than ever. It is just as impossible as the achievement of authenticity.

Sure, I get what the conference organizers are going for; after all, I teach in an English Department. Plagiarism is to be understood and avoided. However, as enlightened intellectuals we want a sort of criticality that gets composers to weave a rich tapestry that celebrates the many voices that have gone into said composer being able to write (or compose) a piece. It's a celebration of access and context, both of which have been profoundly emboldened by Web 2.0 technologies. What we don't want is what appears to me to have dominated curriculum pre-Web 2.0...that is, a curriculum strictured by the threat of plagiarism and grammar policing while asking students to remark (originally) on great works/texts (rather than create great works/texts themselves). I'd be remiss to say that it was the curricular assumption here, too, that the student was a subject forever positioned subordinate to these great works and she had better learn to approach these texts with the appropriate reverence. In sum, this was the modernist project and we are still wasting our time fighting its vestiges.

In a sense, Web 2.0 is about empowerment to compose and access information as text. Of course all compositions aren't great and all access isn't fruitful or informed, but the context is there and up for engagement. Pre-Web 2.0, at least in education and libraries, the context was fixed and control was centralized; consequently narratives weren't up for contestation (much less, manipulation). There were penalties for efforts toward manipulation and contestation. Policing for plagiarism is an example.

Going on the record here, in a technical sense plagiarism is bad. Yes, bad bad bad. But the irreverence (not the laziness or stupidity) associated with plagiarism is something I like because it harnesses creativity and fuels it at the same time. This irreverent creativity should be celebrated for its liberatory potential. But, do keep in mind that creativity is not the same as authenticity. I'd like to a see a conference, and not just individual papers, dedicated to irreverent creativity versus sanctioned utility. Maybe next time.

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