The Intellectual Long Tail
Last autumn I got a dose of my own medicine. I assigned a chapter out of Don De Lillo’s White Noise in a first-year course with 100 students. The folly of this became apparent when I set a short essay-question on the famous chapter on the most photographed barn in America. When I got the essays I was surprised (and irritated) to find that a significant number of students had plagiarised. Some took just a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph, others lifted entire essays in the silly belief that their sudden increase in vocabulary and ability to string together clauses and subclauses properly partitioned by commas and semicolons would go unnoticed. The other giveway was a sudden familiarity with the work of Jean Baudrillard.I should have known there were pages and pages out there on White Noise, all of them easily googled.
This would not be so embarassing if I hadn’t, only a few months earlier, published an article in M/C Journal titled “Copy/Paste: The Joys of Plagiarism”, arguing that the current anxiety about plagiarism in higher education is misplaced. It’s not about finding more ways to police our students; it’s about educators being more creative in the assignments we set.
One way to do this is to disrupt our received canon, and focus assignments on material that has not been obsessively covered already. In marketing-speak, we should be mining the long tail of the intellectual heritage of our disciplines for insights, examples and questions that cannot be answered with a few clicks of the mouse around Google, Yahoo, etc. This doesn’t mean I’ll stop having my students read Marx, Gramsci, Barthes, Foucault, Hall, and so on; instead, the pressure is on to give them examples and objects of study that they will need to write creatively about. Instead of prisons or institutions, why not ask them to apply Foucault’s “means of correct training” to shopping malls, IKEA stores, or McDonald’s restaurants? Whatever it takes to stop them from copying the Wikipedia entry on the Panopticon and trying to pass it off as their own.
And Barthes? Oh, I have a few choice Flickr photostreams in store for that…