One mistake’s all it takes And your life has come undone Walk away cause you’re breaking up the girl It’s a drag I know it’s hard But you’re tearing her apart Walk away cause you’re breaking up the girl
Tonight was my last class. All that remains of the school year is the final grading. I am teaching in the summertime, so I only have a brief respite, but even summer teaching cannot kill the special joy that accompanies the formal end of the official school year. I am, like most of the professoriate now or in the immediate future, knackered. Especially given that over a cold and non-stop rainy weekend in Cold City, my annual end of term cold/flu/breakdown came early, and I spent Sunday wrapped in Proustian neurasthenics, feverish and uncomfortable. If only it was that picturesque, for I was lacking both the linden tea and the madeleines, but I did have 1 litre Evian bottles, cans of cold Fresca, and NPR purring in the background to my innumerable and delirious cat naps throughout the day and into the evening. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to actually hold class today, but my fever broke this morning and suddenly reenergised (in a puddle of sweat), I managed to actually get it together not only to make it to class but also purchase the requisite “goodies” for the final day: pecan buns, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter-chocolate chunk cookies. A veritable carbo overload!
Because I neglected to order my regalia by the ordering deadline, I am blissfully spared the civic graduation ceremony (I absolutely refuse to go if I can’t tramp it up in the academic version of Capote's Black and White Ball, only much less exclusive and all in black). And while I wish I had a whole three months of glamourous candy-eating and slovenly habits ahead of me, my summer class offers not only extra income, desperately needed to have six weeks of glamourous candy-eating and slovenly habits, but is also in a subject area that I love to teach, and promises to be a small but competent class. I am still waiting on my Persephone moment, "emerging from the depths" in Didion's memorable phrase, but am not sure whether that will happen in the next two weeks or when I join Mr. Gordo later in the summer.
This has been a challenging year for me, in so many ways. One of the things that I have learned is that no matter how one wants to game the system, the system will always (or most always) have the upper hand. All of which is to say that, even recognising the dangers of being over-engaged in service commitments, I was this year over-engaged in service commitments. In fact, I think I have ticked off so many necessary and obligatory boxes under “service” that next year I just have to show up for my classes and I’m covered (if only!).
Boundaries, setting them and enforcing them, remain a weak spot for me. But this is in some ways just a function of junior faculty life. Good citizenship entails working rather hard on that citizenship, not just to save one’s skin at tenure time but also because that is what, on some exalting and dismal level, we do. Professor Panty Hose, an absolute dinosaur I loathed back at Sadistic College, did have her moments, one of which was responding to faculty complaints regarding service, remarking, “Reading reports, writing letters of recommendation and memos, this is what we do.” And to a certain extent, she was right. I have learned, to my peril, that faculty governance is exactly that: the faculty govern themselves (i.e. work) or they are governed. I much prefer the former, although the toll on one’s personal and extrainstitutional life can be costly.
In this regard sometimes I think I am the world’s biggest schmuck. Maybe I’m just not good at gaming the system, maybe the stars and mini-stars and starlettes and casting-couch divas of the profession rely on me and my schmucky ilk to make sure that someone is minding the shop while they traipse around making arcane pronouncements on the colour of the sky at this and that conference. Thankfully, Cold City U is not that kind of place, generally, although I have taught at others where one has to wonder.
This speaks, also on some other level, to my own ambivalence about the university, or rather, the triad of research/service/teaching perfection that junior faculty are meant to demonstrate to be considered worthy. My advisor always intoned placidly that one had to do only two of the three to be successful, but I wonder if even one is possible sometimes. Years ago, The Fierceness and I would have conversation after conversation, where she would detail her desire to use the institution as a parasite to fund her own intellectual projects, and I would nod in agreement, make the appropriate noises, then generally fail to follow through, for as The Fierceness would observe after my being reamed by some sort of university claptrap, “You actually believe in the institution.”
I’m not sure I’m in exactly the same place, but the ambivalence over having a critical take (in this case regarding the university and academic life) yet wanting it to all work out, somehow, seems both honourable and foolish. This ambivalence is only growing, not only for myself but for many in the professoriate as our working conditions change, and the very touchstones of what we were taught to believe was good scholarly practice in the humanities also start to shift for students, professors, and administrators.
To wit, one thing that has caught me off-guard at this end of term is a veritable plague of plagiarism in my lecture classes. On two different assignments in two different classes, I have had five cases of plagiarism, which out of sixty or so students is almost ten percent. And this is not the sophisticated, “unconscious” plagiarism making headlines at dear Old Harvard, captured brilliantly in a series of posts over at University Diaries. No, this is sloppy, unsophisticated, easily Google-able plagiarism, amateurish in its simplicity.
Half of my plagiarists are non-English dominant speakers (a phrase borrowed from La Chicana al borde), and so therefore their sudden expert use of “hegemony,” “paradox,” and “axiomatic” was clearly a red flag, especially when their spoken English in class and previous writing had suggested more rudimentary language skills. “Axiomatic” is a word that should have all professors scrambling for their Google even when used by the best student. The others did it the old-fashioned way, taking text whole cloth from our assigned readings, not even bothering to rearrange the words or misspell things. After my initial annoyance at their not “knowing the rules,” I realised that the rules themselves had become slippery, unclear, fuzzy. These were students who had never had any training in the rules of citation. These were students who were focused on answering the assignment question in the most practical manner possible, which was to actually draw from the assigned texts themselves. On one level, it makes perfect sense to those who are completely unfamiliar with the rules of humanistic scholarship.
One plagiarist in particular had been a thorn in my side all semester. Sitting at the back of the classroom, all macho bravado, he spent class time flirting with whatever hapless woman that would sit next to him, writing them notes and chatting them up (barely sotto voce), all the while obviously not paying any attention to me or my lectures, reflected in his increasingly declining scores on exams and quizzes. At times it got so bad I would have to call the woman sitting next to him to come up front and sit someplace else (Their voices, heavy with embarrassment, “Where?” “Oh, anywhere [but there],” I would answer). While I was annoyed with him, I also wished to spare myself and my class an alpha-male confrontation, so let him be, for the most part, as long as he didn't interfere with other students' learning process. I was skeptical about his essay, but needn’t have been, since his plagiarism was clear. I dutifully marked his paper with the appropriate parenthetical annotations as to where in our assigned chapter he had pulled this or that sentence, made a photocopy, and wrote an extensive cover letter (not my first, I was to discover) indicating that his assignment was awarded the grade of “F” for plagiarism, quoting the relevant policy, and urging him to seek the counsel of the writing centre.
In what was to be my moment of schadenfraudic glory, I gave him his paper back at the final exam, where he had plotted a simplistic scheme to actually use the material from the plagiarised essay in his final through a bait and switch (he came up to turn in his exam, asked for his paper, then claimed he forgot to put something in his exam and returned to his seat, exam and paper in hand). He returned a couple of minutes later (clearly having read the typed cover letter), left his exam and departed without a word. Upon examining his exam, my glee at “catching” this slacker was suddenly deflated by realizing that he was, in fact and to put it colloquially, dumb as a brick. He had spent approximately two hours of an open book examination writing two (as in, 2) hand-written pages in his blue book, not only riddled with spelling errors but also patently not even interested in (or capable of) attempting a cogent answer to a pretty straightforward assignment question. On seeing this, I was suddenly and overwhelmingly depressed. On one hand, I could say this man was clearly not “college material.” What was he even doing here? Wouldn’t he be better at a technical school learning how to solder properly, or repairing engines in a garage, or apprenticing for a trade? Not all people are cut out for a humanities education after all, although our society increasingly tells us that we are. But what really shocked and affected me was the depth of the distance between our visions of what had been occurring in our classroom for fifteen weeks. This was someone who didn’t know the rules, period. Plagiarism was just the icing on the horrendous cake of misplacement, confusion, and necessity.
I have always thought that students plagiarise because they fundamentally confuse the work of the academy and scholarship, focusing on the purported desire to create “new” and “unique” work, a task before which they feel impotent. One of the things I tell them (and will be doing so increasingly, since it is clear I shall have to support a plagiarism unit in my classes from now on) is that scholarship is a conversation between what has been produced and oneself (be that a student, professor, public intellectual, or whomever). Knowledge is not sui generis, but is rather like a cake, layer upon delicious layer, building towards the final creation. However, in the case of my own plagiarists this semester, such a speech would have been wasted on them. They are not interested in knowledge and the humanities and scholarship, they just want to pass and get their degree (any degree) and get on with real life, whatever horrific and plastic vision that may be only guessed at. Classes and books and professors like me and you are just standing in their way, obstacles to be overcome.
While on the surface my plebian plagiarists may have little in common with the sophisticated girls on the banks of the Charles, they speak towards a common sense of entitlement, as UD has so expertly captured in her posts regarding the Kaavya Viswanathan controversy (Posted 4/27/2006):
“UD’s been following plagiarists for a long time, and many of them have been raised by amoral, ambitious parents who believe in nothing, who believe that everything is corrupt, and who want all social and financial goodies for themselves and their families.
Life, they believe, is brutal winner-take-all warfare. They pride themselves on their ability always to figure out an angle whereby each corrupt game of life can be won
What’s striking about many of the plagiarists UD has followed is that they don’t have to break rules to do well in life, but they appear to derive gratification, along with a confirmation of their Hobbesian view of life, from continually breaking them and winning. These are the ‘thesdanians in UD’s world who insist on building their mcmansions bigger than the already-generous rules allow - not because they care about the extra space, but because it’s important to them to show their neighbors their rule-breaking, contemptuous superiority.
Plagiarists, in short, tend to be self-destructive game-players who harbor real venom against civil society. Blair Hornstine and Ms. V. are their unfortunate children.”
The primary difference here being the wide and deep gulf between Harvard Yard and Cold City U, but still, UD is onto something in her contempt for Viswanathan’s pallid attempts at justification. If the upper classes can game the system with glee, as they do, and still remain respectable, what then is to stop all classes from attempting to participate in such a charade?
Well, for one, the fact that rules for the upper class differ significantly from the rules for the rest of us, something anyone with half a brain could tell you. But the real question is what do we, as a society, believe in anymore? The breakdown of rules as represented by Viswanathan finds its modest echo in the sloppy seconds of my own working class students. I would wholeheartedly agree with UD on her observation that aspects of our leadership class have real venom against civil society, but the more important critical observation, at least in terms of my students this semester, is the reference to Hobbes. For unlike Viswanathan and her ilk, given everything for nothing and still wanting more, my students generally have nothing, work horrible jobs, and are attempting to raise themselves up the economic ladder. Yet, they have inculcated Hobbes as much as the Ivyrati, just with fewer options to game the system. To wit, none of my plagiarists had a drama scene when receiving their anal-retentive note, they just read it, nodded, and left without a scene. Try that one with a pampered student at an Ivy or private liberal arts college. The good children of the leadership class know not of shame, and it increasingly shows.
One of our readings in my class this semester was Howard G. Schneiderman’s "The Protestant Establishment: Its History, Its Legacy—Its Future?” on the importance of a leadership class for the stability of democracy. The chapter spoke at length not only of the limitations of the WASP leadership class (its ethnocentrism and racism, its corruption and insularity), but its guiding role in the development of American democracy in a manner that was hard to dismiss out of hand. Schneiderman writes,
“A deceptive myth in liberal democracies like America is that civil liberties and freedom of expression are valued by most members of society, and most certainly by those at the bottom and middle of the social structure. But as Samuel Stouffer amply demonstrated in his classic study Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (1955), and as others have found since, this is not the case. Such freedoms are always most highly valued and protected by the elite few who are better educated and who believe in the liberal democratic tradition, and the last bulwark may well be, as Baltzell (1964b, p. 293) has suggested,
‘[…] a unified Establishment from within which the leaders of at least two parties are chosen, who, in turn, compete for the people’s votes of confidence, from differing points of view and differing standards of judgement, yet both assuming the absolute necessity of using fair means in accusing their legitimate opponents of fallibility rather than treason’” (149).
I’ve thought a lot about this piece, both as I teach it and as I reflect on the Viswanathan controversy. In particular, Baltzell’s quote cited by Schneiderman should be ringing lots of bells regarding our current political moment, a point I was sure to bring up in class. Schneiderman goes on in his article to trace out the collapse of the WASP establishment in the sixties, in the general revolt against authority, but indicates that the reformation of new, perhaps different, centres of leadership will be crucial in maintaining our democratic tradition, however imperfect it may be. And as an underpaid employee of a state institution charged with teaching the students of the working class, we have felt the change in relation to the question of public education, the public good, most significantly. Here is UD’s cited venom contra civil society writ large, in the defunding and privatisation of civic institutions, not only education but also public health (bird flu, anyone?), governing institutions (Our Gilded Age Congress), and media infrastructure (the woes of PBS and the Rise of Fox being two of the most immediate examples).
The professoriate, I would argue, composes one of Schneiderman’s alternate nodes of civic leadership, yet internal doubts as well as external pressures and forces threaten us. It’s one thing to flunk Master or Miss Prissy Pants at Yale for buying a paper online, it’s another to flunk my class thorn, who clearly has a relatively dim future, at least as a student. For the former, a temporary if annoying setback, for the latter, perhaps something greater (and then again perhaps not, for rapaciousness seems to be a general social tendancy nowadays, the tone set of course "by the better classes"). Many leftist academics hold enough of a critique of social and economic power that we can shy away from openly enforcing paradigms of behaviour and/or get all wobbly around some of these questions, because we feel uncomfortable with dimensions of socio-economic power present in "rules" (I could say, briefly, so does the Right as regards themselves, they just believe in rules for everyone else) but also because we are largely intellectual products of the same historical period of doubt that brought about the end of the WASP leadership class. I might hasten to add this is also because most of us are highly conscious, through a combination of personal experience and intellectual training, of the differential nature of "rules" in our society, and seek, rightly in my mind, to at least begin a critique of some of those paradigms of thought, such as meritocracy, which work to obscure the immense differentials at work in things like education.
But in terms of something like plagiarism's delight, what choice do we have? We can only continue to serve as obstacles, not to our students’ success, but to the easy and cheap way of garnering that success, and the avaricious, grasping, and predatory social model it represents. We can attempt to fill the vacuum of leadership our society is suffering through, a vacuum perhaps with no end, not in the name of punition, but in the name of leadership, and in fighting for the humanistic tradition. So, on some level, yes, I do continue to believe in the institution, and its value to our societies. At moments like returning my plagiarist’s paper, however, I also feel a little like an anachronism, a school marm old maid insisting on the rules while the big, bad, corrupt world continues to turn. This is reinforced by the privileged student’s smirk, the implication that we professors mean nothing, are not players, are unimportant, because largely morals and ethics have become unimportant in our society.
As much as I would like to say this isn’t true, that is not what I feel at moments like this. I can only imagine what the faculty at Harvard must feel, confronted with the shining yet empty and terrifying faces of ambition, voracious and with just the edge of the fangs showing, that make Viswanathan look angelic. "Oh. My. God. Becky!" Yuck! While I may lament missing out on the salary and perquisites of teaching at an elite (or in the case of Sadistic College, semi-pseudo elite) institution, at least now I don't have to put up with all the shit involved in working with that student demographic, the constant diaper-changing and pelt-stroking and genius reassurance. That, in its own way, is a small but blessed relief. My challenge now is to invest my modest and self-effacing working class students in intellectualism, which is mostly convincing them to begin to think of themselves as intellectuals in general, as opposed to "not being very smart," which has been said to me this semester more than once by my students, many of whom, aside from technical skills, are as talented as any other student I have taught before.
In any event, I shall not have to confront this challenge or any other for that matter again for at least four weeks, and for that, and the promise of summer, I am eternally grateful. Let the world collapse under the weight of its sin and sloth, I’m on holiday!