Author: Christine O'Neill

A Peculiarly Western Notion

I’m taking a course called “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages” (INTD 388, I highly recommend it) with Professor Belyakov. Our textbook, Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (4th ed) by Marianne Celce-Murcia and some of her buddies, has a short section on plagiarism that reminded me of the Lessig, Turrow, Helprin, and Jefferson readings on copyright. This excerpt comes from a chapter called “Considerations for Teaching Second Language Writing,” which covers some of the challenges of working with non-native English speakers, some of whom will have very basic issues (like learning how to form the graphemes of the Roman alphabet) and others who will struggle with more complex problems (like transferring organizational writing skills from their first language to English). Thus saith the textbook:

Things I Love: This textbook. Things I Am Sarcastic About: Things I Love.
Things I Love: This textbook. Things I Am Sarcastic About: Things I Love.

“Research suggests that many students have difficulty with sentence simplification and paraphrasing without changing the author’s original intent; furthermore, some students consider copying a legitimate strategy for composing (Shi, 2004). Similar cultural issues regarding the use of a source text language have been noted by Pennycook (1996), who was among the first to point out that the idea that individuals “own” ideas and words is a peculiarly Western notion that may not be prevalent in other cultures. […] Learning to identify and avoid inappropriate textual borrowing is clearly an important part of the writing classroom and the teacher should avoid framing it as a moral issue” (227-228).

As a tutor at the Writing Learning Center (come visit me! I work Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays!), I often encounter writing from international students who have pretty blatantly plagiarized. One part of their paper will have a predictable amount of errors, and all of a sudden, the next paragraph is written in perfect English. How do you address something like that? I don’t want to accuse them of plagiarism flat-out… that’s a very serious accusation, one that could even resort in expulsion. So instead, I usually say “This paragraph is excellent – you expressed your ideas very clearly here,” and I hope that this will prompt them to say, “Yeah, I used the Internet to help me a lot with that one…”

"We could have been killed -- or worse -- expelled."
“We could have been killed — or worse — expelled.”

(My mother taught me well in the art of guilt-tripping.) Once they say something like this, it opens a dialogue about how to properly cite sources and how to balance your voice with another author’s voice. Sometimes, though, all I get is “Thanks.” And even though I consider myself an honorary member of the moral police, at that point I just have to move on with the tutoring.

So Pennycook wants to make the claim that lifting or actually plagiarizing is a Western invention? To be frank, I don’t know how much of that I buy. I can’t imagine a student in China getting an A on a paper if the teacher knew they copied half of it verbatim from another source. An article entitled “Is there such a thing as Asian plagiarism?” looks at a few specific cases, and concludes that Asian students are indeed taught citation conventions and often plagiarize not out of naivete, but out of stress from the academic environment.

I do, however, think looking at an issue like this puts the four aforementioned readings in perspective. How ridiculous is it that Americans are willing to spend literally millions of dollars suing someone for five seconds of a Simpsons episode (when you can probably stream that whole episode, illegally, online, for free…) or on the Causby asininity when there are people who are actually taking full paragraphs of someone else’s exact words and handing it in, as their own, in order to get a college degree? So what if a TV show is a “bigger deal” than one student’s term paper? The offense should matter more than the scale on which it occurs. I hope this is what Pennycook is talking about when he says other cultures don’t understand our fixation with privatizing ideas. Verbal plagiarism, though, or when one person/corporation clearly steals a developing idea/invention from another? That is a different story, and that’s the story I think Lessig and Jefferson need to turn their attention to. The same way we shouldn’t characterize a religion by the actions of its extremist, let’s not condemn the whole concept of copyrights based on the travesty some Americans have made out of it.

Whoa what how did this get in here??
Whoa what how did this baby sloth get in here??

I really want to get on board with Celce-Murcia, because her passage sounds so sensitive and culturally-aware, and who doesn’t want to be those things? But I feel like she’s not taking this seriously enough. Would she be this understanding if someone plagiarized from her book? If she were talking about ‘copying’ in the context of one of the crazy examples Lessig gives, I would understand; but she’s talking about not punishing someone for stealing words verbatim without giving credit, on the grounds that they probably didn’t understand it was wrong. I am struggling to wrap my mind around this. Maybe it’s just because I’m ignorant. But the thing I agree least with among all Celce-Murcia’s claims, is that teachers should not consider it a moral issue. Serious, large-scale plagiarism is the paragon of a moral issue. And if for some reason the student sincerely doesn’t know it’s morally wrong… sorry to be such a racist, but then they have to learn that it’s morally wrong here! I wouldn’t expect to go to China and get free passes for doing things that are morally wrong there (especially if every class made me aware that it is wrong in the syllabus). Maybe the consequences shouldn’t be as serious as they’d be for an American student, but I’d say the situation would warrant at bare minimum a verbal warning.

Like I tell my clients at the Writing Learning Center – using other people’s ideas is completely fine. Just like Lessig points out numerous times, that’s the fabric on which almost all great inventions, innovations, and art has been based. But you do need to acknowledge that you’re getting the information from somewhere else, properly credit the original source, and make sure to put a substantial amount of your own voice into the work.

I couldn't imagine learning a whole different alphabet before even getting to the language itself. Respect.
I couldn’t imagine learning a whole different alphabet before even getting to the language itself. Respect.

In all fairness, though, I have to end by acknowledging that second language acquisition is a terribly difficult, and often disheartening, process. Since I am majoring in a foreign language, I know what it’s like to go from being a verbal Olympic gymnast in your mother tongue to a toddler trying to walk in your second language. Because I have been brought up in a culture where plagiarism is strictly forbidden, I am never tempted to lift passages from other works… but man, it sure would be nice to find a way to express my thoughts in French as eloquently as I could express them in English, so I am sympathetic to students who have the same feeling but not necessarily the same background.

And if you can’t find the right words in your own voice, sometimes jumping gets your point across just fine:

Parenti, Lessig, and cute animals

Reading Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture” reminds me of a book I had to read for a high school global history class: “The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome” by Michael Parenti.

Parenti, a Yale grad and “cultural critic” (Wikipedia’s words), argues in his book that history has really done a number on poor Caesar, who was not, in fact, assassinated because he

Since this post does not lend itself to images, treat yourself to some adorable animal pictures.
Since this post does not lend itself to images, treat yourself to some adorable animal pictures.

was abusing power and ignoring the needs of his constituents. A few chapters are eloquent laundry lists of all the great things Caesar did for Rome, like creating the Julian calendar (a variation of which we still use today) and working to relieve poverty among the very plebs he was accused of mistreating; other chapters debunk common misconceptions ‘traditional history’ has fed us. A 2004 book review from Parenti’s website synopsizes his thesis: “In The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the distinguished author Michael Parenti subjects these assertions of “gentlemen historians” to a bracing critique, and presents us with a compelling story of popular resistance against entrenched power and wealth. Parenti shows that Caesar was only the last in a line of reformers, dating back across the better part of a century, who were murdered by opulent conservatives.”

His name is Lionel and she rescued him from a slaughterhouse when he was a calf. True story.
His name is Lionel and she rescued him from a slaughterhouse when he was a calf. True story.

I disliked the book from the first few pages because of Parenti’s smug attitude. He seems to think that he is pulling the wool off our eyes and showing us a hidden truth, when in reality, he is simply proposing a theory contrary to the ones in our boiler plate high school textbooks. Responsible readers will identify this bias and take his argument with a grain of salt; but I can easily see a less careful reader thinking that he now understands Ancient Rome better than his friends because he knows ‘the truth.’ Textbooks’ version of why Caesar was assassinated and Parenti’s are both rooted in facts; it’s just that each one gussies up his argument in a different way, puts those facts in a different order, foregrounds different information and flat-out omits what doesn’t suit the thesis.

I promise, I’m circling back to Lessig, now. In reading the introduction and first few chapters of “Free Culture,” I was getting strong Parenti-vibes. Just like Parenti, Lessig’s argument is

Elephants are highly emotional creatures, and are one of the only mammals besides us who mourn their dead.
Elephants are highly emotional creatures, and are one of the only mammals besides us who mourn their dead.

opposed to the one that contemporary culture furnishes us with. Most people believe it’s important to protect intellectual property, whereas Lessig dramatically states, “Ours was a free culture. It is becoming less so” (30). There’s nothing wrong with taking the counter view, but I am skeptical of an argument that stands upon completely disproving another position, rather than generating genuine ideas that may or may not line up with prevailing theories. That sounded pretentious and confusing. I just mean that I sense a little rebellious flare in Lessig’s writing, like he’s excited to tear down the mistakes our culture has made.

This guy gets it
This guy gets it

Lessig is doing the Socrates thing, where you ask little questions that people agree with (“isn’t it silly to sue Girl Scouts for singing copyrighted songs around a campfire?” “don’t scientist build off each other’s work all the time?”) until you’ve led them to a conclusion miles away from where they started. Think about what he’s saying: protecting intellectual property is not only illogical, but is changing our culture for the worse. Yet, every one of us has created something that we are proud of, sometimes even defensively proud of. Can you imagine another person or corporation taking credit for it? As someone who has been plagiarized, I can tell you that it’s more gut-wrenching than you’d think. I do not think it is such an evil thing to get credit for your hard work. Just because some inventing happens in the mind rather than in a workshop, that doesn’t mean we should privilege the protection of one kind over another.

The photographer is named Brian Skerry. He was interviewed about this photo and said that the Bow whale was calm, curious, and had not one iota of aggression. After this photo, the whale swam on for a while, Skerry following and snapping pictures. When Skerry had to stop to catch his breath after 20 minutes, he was thrilled to have had such a successful day. But the whale actually stopped and waited for him. Oh my God I'm tearing up, isn't that beautiful?!
The photographer is named Brian Skerry. He was interviewed about this photo and said that the Bow whale was calm, curious, and had not one iota of aggression as it approached his partner. After this photo, the whale swam on for a while, Skerry and his partner following and snapping pictures. When Skerry had to stop to catch his breath after 20 minutes, he was thrilled to have had such a successful day and assumed that was all he would get. But the whale actually stopped and waited for him. Oh my God I’m tearing up, isn’t that beautiful?!

But I am getting ahead of myself a little bit, because to be honest, I’m not even sure that I understand Lessig’s argument completely.  I probably shouldn’t be criticizing him like this until I’ve read the whole book, I admit. From what I’ve gotten through, though, I can say that I find his argument convincing only in small chunks, but kind of incoherent in the big picture. Lessig adores historical anecdotes. Each chapter contains several very interesting stories about how Joe What’shisnose got ripped off by a big corporation or how Jane Blah was only able to create the world’s greatest whatever because she used someone else’s idea. I really liked all of these examples, especially the one about Steamboat Willie and the explanation of Japanese ‘copycat’ comics. The problem was that I had trouble connecting them. Lessig tells us that his book is “about an effect of the Internet beyond the Internet itself: an effect upon how culture is made. […] The Internet has induced an important and unrecognized change in that process” (7) and that his goal is “to understand a hopelessly destructive war inspired by the technologies of the Internet but reaching far beyond its code” (11).  Honestly, that’s the kind of thesis that I would circle at the Writing Center and say, “You have a really interesting idea here, but the thesis is supposed to be the roadmap to the rest of your paper. You need to be more specific.” Saying that you want to talk about how the Internet has changed culture and how there is conflict surrounding technology tells me very little about what I as a critical reader am supposed to be looking for.

Over 10,000 pitbulls have been euthanized due to breed discriminatory legislation in cities. Happy, loving family pets like this fella have been persecuted just because he's a pit bull. But look at him! Just, look!
Over 10,000 pitbulls have been euthanized due to breed discriminatory legislation in cities. Happy, loving family pets like this fella have been persecuted just because of unfair stereotypes. It’s dog racism. But look at him! Just, look!

Yikes, this is getting wordy. My point is that some of Lessig’s anecdotes seem to cast the people who lost their intellectual property in a sympathetic light (like the first story about poor Edwin who committed suicide over his idea being stolen), while others underscore the importance of brooking property rights if we ever want to advance as a society (the Kodak episode). I’m pretty confident that he is arguing against strict intellectual copyright laws on the Internet, but if I wasn’t reading his book in the context of this class, I might be less certain.

He also pulls a Parenti every now and then and throws out a statement in support of his argument that is just totally ridiculous. Lessig honestly thinks that “we, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics” (42)? Really? He backs this up by noting that we are discouraged from discussing politics because they are too controversial and can lead to rudeness, but as a card carrying American, I can say that the thought of offending someone has never stopped me from saying anything. He cannot really try to get us on board with the idea that our society stifles political dialogue (or even satire).

This is Tillie. I have been lucky to call her my best friend for 7, happy years!
This is Tillie. I have been blessed to call her my best friend for 7 happy years and counting!

All in all, I have not found this reading unpleasant. I like his writing style and, like I said, his anecdotes are very captivating. I just wish he had a little more direction, a little less sass, and a smidge of common sense.

You’re a champ if you stuck it through the whole thing. Hope the animal pictures helped.

Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of WWW) answers the Internet’s questions

Reddit (the self-proclaimed “front page of the Internet”) is a website where users can create virtual forums to discuss/ask/post/help/collaborate etc. regarding any topic under the sun. Do you like cute puppies? Visit the Aww subreddit. Curious as to why men have beards and women don’t? The geniuses over at Explainlikeimfive will give you a thorough and easy to understand answer.

One particularly fascinating subreddit is called “IAMA,” where noteworthy people begin a discussion thread entitled, “I am a [insert impressive thing here], ask me anything.” And by ‘noteworthy,’ I mean the threads range from “I am a 9/11 survivor” to “I am Colin Mockery” to “I am a black teen adopted by an all-white family.” Anyone with a (free) reddit account can post a question, and the original poster will respond to the interesting ones. 

Today, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, posted on the IAMA subreddit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his creation. The title reads, “I am Tim Berners-Lee. I invented the WWW 25 years ago and I am concerned and excited about its future. AMA.” 2,700 comments later, the discussion thread now holds not only interesting content from Berners-Lee himself, but insights on the WWW from all around the wide world.

If you have a few minutes, consider perusing this discussion thread. We’ve spoken about the WWW in class, and we’ve certainly spent a lot of time talking about the evolution and future of technology, so I thought this might be of interest.

I hope everyone found something entertaining to do with all this snow!

Free Rice is a site so cool, you have to see it to believe it. When you first enter the site, you will see something like this:


You would click on “trouble” as the synonym for “difficulty,” and proceed to the next level, which will have slightly more difficult words. Eventually you’ll be picking synonyms for words like agrestal and lanuginous. Or, if vocab isn’t for you, you can change the subject to geography, visual art, German, grammar, the periodic table, and several others. It’s a fabulous, fast way to keep sharp between Netflixing and Redditing and Facebooking and Tweeting and looking at pictures of cute animals.

But the incredibly fabulous thing about Freerice is that each correct answer earns ten grains of rice for countries suffering from chronic hunger. This is an operation of the United Nation’s World Hunger Programme, so don’t be fooled by the .com. Once you start answering the questions, a rice-bowl will appear next to the interface with a running total of the rice you’ve accrued.

And don’t worry if you get the answer wrong! All that happens is a “Please try again” message… they don’t take away any rice. Could you imagine? Talk about negative reinforcement.

If you think this site is too good to be true, you’re in good company. So how does this work, exactly? The site’s FAQ explains it well:

Freerice is not sitting on a pile of rice. You and other Freerice players earn it 10 grains at a time. Here is how it works: when you play the game, sponsor banners appear on the bottom of your screen for every correct answer that you choose. The money generated by these banners is then used to buy the rice. So by playing, you generate the money that pays for the rice donated to hungry people.

I have been singing the praises of Freerice since I discovered it several years ago. It’s a fun thing to do to pass the time and can actually be pretty helpful if you’re trying to brush up on your French or even do some SAT prep.

Freerice is an intersection of the Humanities and humanitarians. We’ve spoken in class about how social media sites like Twitter are all about brevity, about abridging information so that it can catch your attention as you’re sailing through the 27 windows you have open. While some (myself included) may worry about how that’s affecting our ability to focus on reading longer pieces of literature, others have embraced and made the most of this change. Freerice takes advantage of our shortening attention span, demanding only perhaps five seconds for each question. Best of all it, it takes us from social reading to social change, reminding us that engaging with the Humanities from a dorm in New York can have profound implications all over the world.

“But don’t you think libraries are dying?”

Occasionally, I get into the following conversation with a family member or friend.

ME: (something about how much I love libraries and think they are humanity’s best, most democratizing invention since the Neolithic Revolution)
FRIEND/FAMILY: Really? But don’t you think libraries are dying?
ME: Why do you say that? Because of the Internet?
FRIEND/FAMILY: Well yeah. Who goes to the library to get a book when you can read for research and for pleasure on the Internet?

At this point, I tell them what I’ve discovered throughout my 200+  hours of library volunteering: I actually think they’re growing. They’re the most effective alternative for those who don’t use the Internet. First of all, not everyone can afford a computer let alone Internet service. Many patrons come exclusively to use the computers. Second, you’d be surprised how many people aren’t Internet literate, and find it simpler to use books.  Third, it’s free, which is only true sometimes for the Internet. Fourth, many video stores have shut down as a result of  successful online movie/tv sites like Project Free TV and Netflix (the latter being in the top 100 most visited sites on the Internet). The local library is one of the only places I know that you can still rent (physical) movies without needing to go through an online component. Fifth, there are no pop-ups in a library. Sixth, the library offers way more than books — audio books, movies, CDs, study space, community activities like book  clubs or knitting circles, and a comfortable environment where a real live person (maybe me, if you go to Wadsworth on Center Street!) can help you find what you need. And finally… if this doesn’t convince you, you have my word…

I promise, there will always be books.

Some people hold the notion that we are on the fast track towards all literature being entirely digitized. I just don’t see that    happening. How many bibliophiles are there in this world? In many ways physical books are art, and if less of them are being published, those in existence will become more and more valuable and desired. I am beyond convinced that, even among future generations who are raised using the Internet, many people will prefer books to online reading. The Internet is not here to supplant books. It’s not a competition.  I can’t see any reason why, no matter how far into the future we look, one will exist without the other.

When technology evolves, we don’t always abandon the prototype. Horses, oxen, donkey etc. were once instrumental to farm-work pulling carts, wagons, ploughs, and other wheeled vehicles. Then along came steam-powered ploughs, tractors, pick-up trucks, and other technology that in many ways obviated beasts of burden. Does that mean farms no longer have those animals? No. Do they serve the exact same function? Well, no, that’s not true either. But it doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared, and books won’t either.

When we were talking in class today about those who want to “put the genie back in the bottle,” this is what came to mind. The genie hasn’t left! It’s tempting to act alarmist at the rise of the Internet, because it truly has changed the way we perceive the world, as Benjamin pointed out. But I think we’re doing digital literature a disservice if we treat the burgeoning relationship between print and virtual texts as a Death of a Salesman scenario.

Ah yes, and one more thing. Libraries have huge historical significance, and I’m not just talking about the Alexandria deal. They are beautiful, architectural feats that — if nothing else — will certainly be kept around for historical and aesthetic reasons.

Aura stories

In class today, we were talking about an “aura” that exists around original, physical art objects. I have experienced this on several occasions, but there are two that are particularly dear to me.

One was when I stepped inside the Globe Theatre for the first time, less than a year ago. I admit, I cried a little. I had read every one of Shakespeare’s 37 glorious plays by the time I was 18, and had reread the majority of them several times. I also read about a quarter of his corpus in French because I just could not get enough of this guy. To step inside that building was the hugest of deals for me, especially because I got to be a groundling and my tickets cost me less than ten dollars! I watched The Tempest as I leaned against the stage! Imagine! I’m about to faint just remembering it.

The other time, I’m a bit less ecstatic about and a bit more reverent. Personally, I consider so much of Christianity to be art, especially the Bible. I’m not just an adherent — I’m really a student, and sometimes I find my academic interest in my faith overshadowing my religious devotion. Anyway. A couple of years ago, the Dead Sea Scrolls came to NYC and I harassed my dad into taking me. I’ll spare you the sappy description of how much it touched me to see words written twenty-five hundred years ago (words I had read again and again throughout my life) just one pane of glass away from me, but trust me, it was awesome. The coolest thing in the world, though, was that they had a stone from the Second Temple at Jerusalem. I got to touch a stone that, who knows, Jesus or other biblical figures could have walked on. Talk about an aura!

On a lighter note, I was reminded of this clip from one of my favorite shows when we were discussing “technology anxiety” in class today. 🙂