Thursday, July 24, 2014

Summer Soldiers

Is it the summer of plagiarism?  Slavoj Žižek, Senator John Walsh, Matthew C. Whitaker -- all have made news for their failure to make new.  Yet if it's the summer of plagiarism, it is also the summer of "plagiarism doesn't matter." Professors Žižek and Whitaker continue with their university positions; Senator Walsh, the Cabinet is told, will go on to lose an election he would have lost anyway. The Cabinet's blog software reveals the search terms people use to arrive at its doors. A few days ago, some poor soul searched this phrase:  "Cabinet consequences of plagiarism."  We saw it, and wept our wooden tears.

Each recent incident brought  its own mixture of outrage at the act, outrage at the accusers, discussion of social or personal ills that might have contributed to the event and its revelation, and then -- always -- the quiet settling of people back into their accustomed places.

Professor Žižek: Writing in Inside Higher Ed about this disheartening event, in which a well-known academic plagiarized the summary of a work he was critiquing, Hollis Phelps explains that he had always found the theorist's "analyses of the ideological subjective mechanisms underpinning the functioning of contemporary capitalism generally compelling." When the plagiarism was revealed, Phelps was at first hurt, as if it mattered.  Then, taking a deep academic breath, he realized this: "it’s simply impossible for someone who keeps Žižek’s schedule, which includes various appointments and a rigorous, international lecturing schedule, to singlehandedly read and research broadly and publish as much as he does. Whether in the form of research assistants or, as appears to be the case in this instance, plagiarism, the actual production of scholarship often depends on others, whose work often remains largely unacknowledged." Reading this, the Cabinet expected a discussion of irony:  one who writes about the ideological underpinnings of capitalism participates avidly in a quest for wealth and status that requires expropriating the labor of others without recompense or even a faretheewell.  Unless the essay is too subtle for the Cabinet's stolid wit, no such analysis emerges.  Instead, we are asked to consider the need to "lower our expectations of what we do."  The Cabinet was thinking perhaps we should instead lower our appetite for making pronouncements about things we haven't read and for maintaining a "rigorous international lecturing schedule" when we have nothing new to say.  Even widget-makers, after all, have to actually make the widget before they sell it.  But holding meaning makers to such vulgar standards is clearly offensive, the Cabinet is scolded.  Widgets, indeed! Meaning, after all, isn't real.  Wait, that can't be what is meant....let's move on.

Senator Walsh:  The Senator from Montana was discovered this week to have included passages verbatim and almost verbatim from others' works in his War College Masters thesis. A variety of explanations and denials spilled forth.  The Senator seems to have told the Times that he didn't plagiarize, although an aide seemed to feel that he had.  If he had, it was later decided, he hadn't realized he'd done it, and if he'd done it and realized he'd done it, it was because he was suffering from PTSD.   At last, thinks the Cabinet, there is a plagiarism event this summer with truly sympathetic participants: the Senator's hapless aides.  Unless they too have advanced degrees in the humanities, they faced the bewildering task of figuring out in an afternoon what level of citation was required for a masters thesis, then figuring out why it didn't matter if that standard wasn't met.  The Cabinet feels perhaps they should all be given honorary masters degrees in the humanities, just for that.  Whatever the confusion, the path for Senator Walsh seems clear.   If he committed these acts while suffering from the effects of serving his country, (and never, after he was feeling better, realized what he had done) now is his chance to make things right.  He can simply give up his claim to the Masters degree. Perhaps, if the circumstances of his plagiarism are as extraordinary as he suggests, the War College could readmit him and allow him to try again. The only thing that does not seem possible is to argue that the Senator did not follow the rules of the academic  game, but that he would like to keep the prize, anyway.  But, wait, see Zizek, above, and Whitaker below...perhaps he can and even should do precisely that....let's move on.

Professor Whitaker:  the Cabinet has wearied of him.  No interesting defense of his actions has ever come forth.  Yet Professor Whitaker sails majestically on, preparing for another semester in which he will require his students to purchase his University of Nebraska Press book -- thereby inducting them into one aspect of academic scholarship, even if he is woefully unable to induct them into others.  Too big to fail at his university and press, Professor Whitaker is perhaps too small to matter to anyone else.  But....let's move on.   

The Cabinet apologizes for its garrulity and will close.  However, one final argument about why plagiarism shouldn't really matter requires a bit of attention.  Articulated by Professor Phelps in Inside Higher Ed, it was also hinted at earlier in comments about Professor Whitaker's work, and its suggestion that it's just too hard to be a humanities professor, it captures the unease with which plagiarism accusations are in many quarters greeted.   "Cite too much," Phelps  writes wearily, "and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism."  Is it only the Cabinet that cannot help but imagine this lament transposed into the key of other jobs?  "Drive too fast," complains the bus driver, "and I get in an accident or get ticketed.  Drive too slow, and passengers say they missed their connections or were late to work."  "Prescribe too much medication," declares the indignant physician, "and you're accused of poisoning your patients.  Prescribe too little, and you're told you didn't treat their illness."  Well.....yes.  Yes, exactly.  If a scholar openly or covertly derives all of his work from others, he probably is not a good scholar.  If we take a job, particularly a job as well paid and privileged as a professorship, we are expected to have some expertise, and if we don't display that expertise, we can expect to be told we're not good at the job.  If we insist we should face no consequences when we do our job poorly, we should expect to be told that we should expect no rewards when we do our job well.  Worse, we should expect to be told that our job -- and humanities scholarship as a whole -- can't really matter that much, at all.
The Cabinet, by the way, will delightedly exhibit on its shelves any credible essays debunking these despairing musings.   We don't want to be cynical; we're just built that way.

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