A Few More Thoughts On Harvard and Plagiarism

The Broadway musical Avenue Q has many awesome songs — “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” and “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today” come to mind. However, my favorite has always been “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” during which several of the grown characters (all played by R-to-NC17 rated muppet knock-offs with human handlers) sing wistfully about the days before they left the freedom and safety of college for the “real world.” Here is the song in its entirety on YouTube:

One of my favorite lines is:

Sitting in the computer lab/4 a.m. before the final paper is due/cursing the world cause you didn’t start sooner/and seeing the rest of the class there, too.

Most people probably wouldn’t choose that experience as a favorite college moment, especially not while they were in the moment. Enjoying the panic of the last-minute march towards a deadline is something that could only happen through the lens of nostalgia. However, I wonder if some of that emotion isn’t experienced in the moment and more likely to be latent. That is, I wonder if there is a largely unconscious aspect to this common “negative” experience that is experienced as positive…be it the shared work towards a common goal, the camaraderie, or the sense that college is, like, hard providing a sense of security and purpose.

So, returning to the Harvard cheating scandal involving over 120 students in an introductory Government course that I wrote about yesterday, here again is the quote from an anonymous student who was present (and presumably involved in) the alleged cheating:

‘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.’

The definition in question appears to be one of the red flags that is being investigated among papers that included phrasing that was suspiciously similar. Again, the issue is not simply plagiarism. The instructions for the exam also forbid the students from collaborating, and the plagiarism — as well as the student’s zero-hour story — seem to be evidence of collaboration.

Much of the response to this alleged academic dishonesty takes a stance along the lines of what is moral and ethical. An e-mail from University Dean Jay Harris refers to what happened as “dishonesty” and encourages students to review the rules and ensure that they are embracing an “ethos of integrity.” By contrast, an article by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo called “There Is No Harvard Cheating Scandal” argues that the students should be applauded for collaborating rather than investigated for plagiarizing.

Harris and Manjoo — and the authors of many similar articles on the scandal — make good points. Integrity and collaboration are both important in academic work, for one. The thing is they also both engage in a process of sweeping certain aspects of what happened out of view. If it’s plagiarism, it’s a crime — dishonesty, stealing — and that eclipses everything else, including the angst of a sleepless night working on the exam. If it’s collaboration, that seems to sweep away all the concerns and confusion related to what occurred — collaboration may be innocuous and expected, but then why is it being mistaken for plagiarism at all? Is collaboration under attack? Or originality? Or, fair or not, Harvard students? The helicopter parents that drove them to plagiarize and/or collaborate? The instructor of the class that encouraged a working culture outside of Harvard’s rules?

Maybe what happened is something we don’t have a word for. Not exactly collaboration, not exactly stealing or cheating. To suggest that it has to be one or the other, taking that moral and ethical stance, also suggests that what universities ask students to do always has the capacity to be completely moral or ethical. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe the pursuit of learning and completing tasks within the academy always has sharp edges and dark corners. Maybe that’s a conversation we can’t have if the central question is cast as a good/bad, stolen/original, cheating/collaborating dichotomy.

So of course, I’d like to consider whether the word “cryptomnesia” might offer a different perspective. Remember, even though this term is often used to mean “unconscious plagiarism” this is just one way that cryptomnesia happens. More broadly, the term refers to hidden memory, and the process through which seemingly solid, authored ideas can be taken out of context in unexpected, troubling, and/or creative ways. Maybe cryptomnesia could at least be used to describe the slipperiness of the context in which the alleged academic dishonesty occurred. Thinking about the scandal through the lens of cryptomnesia might also help to explain why so many of the accused students are offering up narratives that explain what happened in terms of culture — both in the class itself and at Harvard as a whole. Perhaps the common but personally and keenly felt experience of college angst recalled by that difficult final exam was on some level original and honest to each student. And if that experience has led to a trespass of Harvard’s expectations for their students, perhaps the assumptions behind those expectations of integrity should be as critically examined as the contested student papers.

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