Check out the latest posting over at Teaching Thursday. We're continuing the conversation about cheating in American universities with a thoughtful post on how changes in American society, particularly online culture have influenced how students value originality. Cindy Prescott notes that the tendency for bloggers, in particular, simply to parrot ideas (often without attribution) from other bloggers or more traditional news sources, is but symptomatic of a growing disrespect for original thinking in American society. While I'd quibble with Cindy's characterization of bloggers -- after many of the most successful and popular bloggers do offer unique perspectives on the world and often produce original reporting on events far ahead of traditional news venues -- I do wonder how the echo chamber of the internet clouds confuses the uncritical readers.
In many cases the lines of attribution and authority become blurred in open challenge to the exclusive practices promoted by a professional creative class. The idea of legally and economically defined rights to ideas (meant to defend the ability of a creative class to earn a living from those ideas) has earned the ire of more radical voices on the web who view the open copying, repackaging, and redistribution of ideas, intellectual products, and creative projects as a means of resisting capitalism's hold over creativity and complementary to radical critiques in the academy which argue for "the death of the author" and see creativity as no more than the fortuitous interplay of texts and meanings. And while it is too soon to say that these more radical voices are winning, it is striking that they have won some crucial battles. The slow death of DRM (digital rights management) protected music and the rise in open source, open content, and the various legal protections offered by the creative commons have all sought to establish new lines in the battle to protect creativity.
Of course, when pressed, many academics would say that the fight against cheating -- particularly using someone else's work without attribution -- is rooted in fundamental moral and ethical concerns. But it's also worth contemplating how much of our fight to preserve the sanctity of creativity derives from (more base?) economic motivations. These motivations, on the one hand, ensure that creative work in society is recognized (in order to be rewarded and sustained). At the same time, a naive pressure on originality and fetishizing practices of attribution and intellectual property runs the risk of paralyzing academic discourse. Proper attribution of ideas is a cherished practice that personalizes the intellectual and academic ecosystem, but it is rarely exhaustive and universal in tracing the roots of ideas and arguments. Scholars regularly make decisions as to how and sometimes whether to attribute fragmentary ideas, idiosyncratic readings of canonical texts, and seemingly well-known "statements of fact".
This is a long way from working to prevent the crude, basely pragmatic, and frankly un-ideological, cheating that takes place on most university campuses. But it does speak, to some extent, to the blurry moral and ethic grounds at the core of the discourse of originality in American culture today. I wonder how much these conversations have undermined our efforts to enforce academic honesty by laying bare some of the coarseness present foundations for our arguments.