Living Memory, Harvard, and Cryptomnesia

Image: “harvard” CC-licensed by Flickr user mararie

One of the questions I explore in my dissertation is this: How did cryptomnesia, a term historically used as a possible explanation for the experiences of Spiritualist mediums, come to be more commonly associated with plagiarism — accidental or otherwise – committed by college students?

In my third chapter, I look closely at the case of Kaavya Viswanathan. Viswanathan published a novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, that was already in press during her time as an undergrad at Harvard University. In April of 2006, The Harvard Crimson published an article titled “Sophomore’s New Book Contains Passages Strikingly Similar to 2001 Novel,” indicating that Viswanathan’s book appeared to borrow near-exact sentences from a novel by Megan McCafferty. By April 26th, the Harvard administration announced that they would explore the allegations, although they were careful to note that they were not launching a formal investigation. The next day, Little, Brown announced that they were pulling the book from stores.

Last Thursday, The Crimson reported on another case of alleged plagiarism among a group of students that had completed a take-home exam for a government class. In addition to possibly plagiarizing, the article explained that students may have violated the rules of the exam that prohibited collaboration with other students.

Dean of Undergraduate Education, Jay Harris addressed the possible scandal in a campus-wide e-mail (the text of which I retrieved from a Detroit Free Press article, here):

As detailed in this Harvard Gazette story, the College Administrative Board is currently reviewing allegations that students in one spring class may have committed acts of academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism, on a take-home final exam. This summer, a careful and comprehensive review by the Administrative Board of every exam from the class found that nearly half of the more than 250 enrolled students may have worked together in groups of varying size to develop and/or share answers.

In thinking about what the article had to do with my dissertation, I was more interested in a quote from Harris cited in The Crimson article. Specifically, his comment that the allegations, if true, represented a case of academic dishonesty “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.”

Here is exactly how that quote appears in the Crimson article:

Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said the magnitude of the case was “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.”

It’s an awesome quote. Cryptomnesia is all about memory. How it constructs, warps, rewrites, forgets, shifts. Harris’s quote almost seems to suggest that plagiarism trespasses memory, sets new standards for academic history. It is a moral transgression so solid as to be complete unique in the annals of our own comparatively brief lives.

I wanted to cite the quote in full to be sure that I wasn’t overstating it more than was appropriate for a little academic hyperbole. Problem was, I couldn’t find it.

Now, I didn’t suspect at all that Harris didn’t say it. The Crimson article actually said the quote was “said.” I figured maybe it came from a public address attended by a reporter or even an in-person interview. Maybe the statement was made in yet another campus e-mail that has not yet been released by any media outlet. Maybe it was on the Harvard website and had since disappeared.

Maybe my Google skills needed work.

I tried putting the exact quote, along with Dean Harris’s name, into several search engines, with and without quotation marks. Plenty of other news organizations have cited the same words:

Salon

Washington Post

Yale Daily News

American Thinker

New York Magazine

Mid-day

Ivy Gate Blog

Some of these articles cite The Crimson as the source of this quote, others simply cite Dean Harris. I e-mailed the author of The Crimson article, Rebecca D. Robbins, e-mailed someone at HPAC, one of Harvard’s decentralized public affairs departments, and called the HPAC office. The phone call resulted in a promise to e-mail me the statement. The e-mail from Abigail Nasshan, included a link to this article on the Harvard website:

http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/08/college-announces-investigation/

It appears to be the same Harvard Gazette article cited in Harris’s e-mail. It indicates that Dean Harris has been tasked with clarifying the university’s expectations for academic honesty. However, it does not include the “living memory” quote. I wrote back clarifying what I was looking for and have not yet received a response.

All of this was starting to recall for me another recent plagiarism case involving Time magazine and CNN contributor Fareed Zakaria who “lifted” quotes he had not directly obtained through interviews and cited them in his news articles so that it seemed as if they were his own. Zakaria has been reinstated by both news outlets after he apologized and they decided that his plagiarism was “an unintentional error and an isolated incident for which he has apologized.”

I agree with the decision to reinstate Zakaria. I’m not sure I agree that it should be excused as “unintentional.” That’s clear cryptomnesia territory, but the designation of “unintentional” can also be employed to sweep the reality behind our information gathering and remembering practices under the rug. Was Zakaria’s “crime” really unintentional or was it instead more accurately a boundary violation of the fuzzy limits of “journalistic integrity?” Do reporters borrow all the time? Do we care? Do we maybe expect things to be this way? Especially now, when the daily news cycle might be expected to include cell phone video of a car crash, Tweets, and naked photos of Prince Harry?

This is all made more interesting when considering the character of the plagiarism allegations made against the Harvard students in Government 1310. Rather than looking over one another’s shoulders during a proctored exam, they are accused of borrowing from each other while collaborating verbally to figure out what the heck the exam was asking them to do in the first place. Apparently, these negotiations and possible trespasses took place during zero hour, in sight and hearing of a teaching fellow during office hours. That same Crimson article cites a student describing the scene:

‘Almost all of [the students at office hours] had been awake the entire night, and none of us could figure out what an entire question (worth 20% of the grade) was asking,’ the student wrote. ‘On top of this, one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the TF had to give us a definition to use for the question.’

I wonder how many other Harvard students, how many of my graduate colleagues and professors for that matter can relate to a scene like that, as fellow or as student? Is it possible that calling these allegations dishonesty outside the very confines of our living memory is to miss yet another opportunity to consider what memory actually is and how we construct memory and integrity within the academy?

As I was pondering where to go next on my search, I received a short but pleasant e-mail from Rebecca Robbins, the original author of the Crimson article indicating that the quote was obtained during her own sit-down interview with Dean Harris. The other authors likely encountered it the same way, through their own interview or through Rebecca. To clarify once more, I do not believe that I have uncovered anything unusual or anything that could be called plagiarism concerning this quote. I’ve simply experienced something confusing — the process of tracing a phrase, defining who said what and who gets credit. Did the Harvard students experience a similar confusion? Does it change the import or the consequences?

Is Dean Harris’s memory really that short?

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