7.11.2008

"The Scarlet P"

Just got the new College Composition and Communication June 2008 issue, so naturally I picked one article to tear through and deconstruct. Sean Zwagerman's article "The Scarlet P: Plagiarism, Panopticism, and the Rhetoric of Academic Integrity" seemed the most likely suspect, especially considering I wrote my dissertation on the history of surveillance in an array of Internet technologies. I fully expected to hate, or at least feel vastly superior to, any argument I found in his article. Foucault's study on Bentham's never-built Panopticon usually anchors poorly-written English department scholarship. In an almost quotidian way, Dr. Zwagerman's article exceeded my expectations. He does a very nice job situating the paradox of the switch to what Lanham calls an economy of attention in the plagiarism wars. What used to be a valuable commodity (or is at least claimed in our nostalgic and rhetorical constructions of the past), "voice" and "originality" has given way to something much, much different. Zwagerman situates the reader between the ethical horns of the dilemma perfectly. He uses Michel Foucault and Friere (which almost lost me, to be frank) to discuss how power is given over to proprietary places like turnitin.com, etc. The paradox lies in how the drive for integrity gets lost the second one tries to ensure trust through algorithmic checkpoints.

The only disappointment is really an opening for me to take Zwagerman's argument farther. He never says what replaces originality (or its evil twin "intellectual property"). Using his ethical framework, I think it would be interesting to imagine a set of values and competencies beyond trust and solidarity. After all, the music industry is beginning to learn that music data isn't as valuable as embodied experiences. Forget the album. Sell the concert, the backstage party. Heck, make it into a 3-D movie and convince people they need to be there to see it first. For many dyed-in-the-wool compositionists, it may be hard to imagine what students and parents might sign up for if the essay dies, but I think there are plenty of three-dimensional, 360 degree, surround-sound writing activities that can help teachers, students, and writers destroy the concept of plagiarism. Will students continue to betray our trust? Of course. So, too, will teachers betray student trust. Does that call for a system that memorializes these rather small slights with things like academic death penalties and even firings? I hope not.

5 comments:

billie said...

I have not read the article yet, but right this second I'm more interested in your dissertation. :-) I'm thinking quite a lot lately about the surveillance that student-athletes endure (from coaches, faculty, other students, alumni, the community).... I'd like to read your work sometime.

sport said...

I find it a bizarre notion that writing can be fed through a computer to "catch plagiarists" and all will be well.

Doc Mara said...

Billie,

I'm flattered by your interest, but unless the student-athletes hung out with some of the internet "pioneers," my dissertation will be of limited use. Not to mention, it's pretty poorly written. You can probably get it through ILL, but I don't recommend it. It's one of those backburner things that will come to a front burner shortly after tenure. I'm actually hoping to turn it into a posthuman desire and rhetoric study. THAT will likely be more relevant, as I think the historical perspective in my diss misses a lot of important points (mostly to get my committee on board, but also to cover some crappy thinking on my part). I've been jotting notes down about why we accept and even welcome such stupid things like plagiarism and student-athlete hyper surveillance when we know it isn't any good for anybody.

Of course, I would much prefer to read what YOU will have completed any day now.

LK said...

Wait. The Panopticon was never built? I wrote that whole stupid essay on it when I was an English major and now I find out it's purely theoretical? I feel so stupid...

Doc Mara said...

Oh, it's not PURELY theoretical if it's deep in your heart. Wishing makes it happen, or so said Mr. Bentham