We-think, I-think ... and Groupthink
Paralysed by plagiarism
Column I recently discovered something truly startling from a student. We were discussing the age-old problem of how to make sure an essay answers the question, and the value of concluding an argument by adopting a particular position. It was then that she confided in me something I'd never heard before.
She agreed that while it would be good to be able to offer one's own argument or view, she was paranoid she might mistake someone else's idea for her own. Sometimes, she said, she would have a great idea, but felt unable to guarantee that she wasn’t "stealing" it.
The cause of this paranoia, as she was fully aware, is the relentless moralistic campaign that colleges now feel compelled to wage, highlighting the evils of plagiarism. The cause of their paranoia is equally discernible: the internet.
It turned out, after sharing this story with other tutors, that this student was far from alone. Many others had expressed an identical fear.
Due to the ease with which essays (or chunks of prose) can now be circulated online, college authorities are drumming it into students that they must - repeat must - be sure all work they produce is their own.
If the threat of being tagged a "plagiarist" is now inhibiting students from even attempting to offer something original, clearly the campaigns of universities have backfired drastically. If things continue in this direction, students will end up restricting themselves to the regurgitation of whatever it is deemed acceptable to regurgitate, namely facts, figures, and quotations.
Perhaps if there were some equivalent of DRM for opinions and arguments, colleges would make life easier for students by slapping restrictions on ideas they weren’t allowed to use.
As easy as it is to blame the pre-web dinosaurs for inciting panic, however, it needs to be recognised that there is something profound at stake here, and their disorientation is understandable. One way of understanding this is to turn to a new book by one of Britain's most influential policy advisors, Charles Leadbeater.
The book is entitled We-think, and it is not shy of grand predictions:
"In the 20th century you were identified by what you owned: your car, your house. In the 21st century we will also be defined by how we share and what we give away," he writes.
The argument is exaggerated for polemical purposes. Meanwhile, it seems perverse to ever celebrate the demise of individual, autonomous thought, in favour of an epistemology mediated by the Hive Mind.
We-think sounds like the title of a chilling dystopian novel, in the vein of 1984. For Leadbeater, it's the interchange, the very processes of idea exchange that represents the epistemological breakthrough, and this is to be celebrated:
Teachers all quote textbooks, why can't students?
The whole business is hypocritical. How many teachers are teaching their own original thoughts? And then they have the gall to insist that student work must be original!
If we can only exist on our own, original ideas, then we can neither communicate nor develop as a society.
Many ideas are assimilated through communication. They become our own as we fit those in with the assembled ideas already in our tiny minds. When we express those "same", previously -assimilated ideas subsequently, we do so after we have been changed by the idea. The expression becomes inalienably, our own work.
The object of then anti-plagiarism policies is to counter the mindless copy-paste construction of essays and papers. Besides there being the potential Copyright violation.
Copy-paste is however entirely different to the question originally posed; perhaps by somebody who didn't want to do their homework. Such is the challenge when students are more clever than the average tutor. :-)
Charles Leadbetter one of Britains most influential policy advisers? Well that figures. Who better to have an idea how to write a book with some vague ideas using trendy terminology (web 2.0) and base it on a simple and stupid catchword (we-think).
Get a publisher with a good promotions budget and go on the talk show circuit and all the drooling sheep will bleet with fascination at the remarkable intellect of this astounding man. After all the sheep don't really understand what he is saying but it sounds very profound and they are assured by the talking heads that it IS all very profound.
Not to disparage the work that CL has done. It certainly takes effort to write a book and get it promoted and talked about. If that much effort had been expended by an intellectual it would surely have produced something worthwhile. Nice to have something for the Oprah crowd, they must have their entertainment.
Looking for some evidence of deep thinking there will surely lead to wailing and gnashing of teeeth. Much like the poor student stymied by our fixation on "intellectual property". She can't get passed the idea that someone else must own her thoughts so she'd better keep quiet or get sued. But if she keeps quiet then how to produce any work? A more appropriate time for sackcloth and ashes, I can't think of.
Paris because she is an influential policy adviser too.