Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Susan Blum on Authenticity and Performance

I want to get back to the issue of patchwriting. Rebecca Moore Howard coined the word back in the 1990s to capture the practice of "copying from a source text and deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another", something that many people, including myself, see as a straightforward and rather common form of plagiarism. While Howard does approach it as a clear sign of immaturity in a writer, she also, perhaps by the same token, thinks we should be tolerant about it. Much as we tolerate transitional stages in childhood and youth, I guess. But, if you ask me, childishness and rebellion in young people is something that adults should be challenging (in appropriate ways, at appropriate times) as part of helping them grow up. Understanding why young people do bad things (or do things badly, if you prefer) does not mean we have to condone their behavior (or praise its results).

This is exactly what Susan D. Blum seems to me to do. In My Word! (Cornell, 2009), she has provided an anthropology of the culture in which patchwriting is a common and accepted practice. She interprets Howard's stance, rightly, as "permissive" (MW, p. 27), but then goes on, surprisingly, to outright "encourage" it (p. 26). I suspect I know why. Like her modern, enlightened colleagues in anthropology, she does not pass judgment on the culture she studies; she remains, instead, intensely aware of her own foreignness. "After teaching for twenty years," she tells us, "I had come to suspect that my own training as an academic had made me a member of what is almost an entirely foreign culture in contrast to that in which our students live" (MW, p. 7). But the people she had studied are the youth of her own culture, not merely "Western", not merely "American", but, precisely, "academic", i.e., college culture. That is, instead of engaging with her students as people she is supposed to help into maturity, she is marveling at how strange and exotic they are. She is forgetting that she is supposed to pass her "training as an academic" on to her students.

This has profound philosophical implications. According to Blum, academic culture values "authenticity" but young people do not. They have what Bloom calls a "performance" self, which is more interested in "doing the done thing" than being true to itself (MW, p. 63f.). For Blum, this is a shocking discovery and poses profound new problems for college teachers. But hasn't this really always been the problem of education? Isn't getting an education very much a matter of learning how to be yourself in public, in part by deciding who you are? While Blum does think plagiarism is best combated through instruction (not punishment), and I agree with this (who doesn't?), she doesn't hold out any hope for helping them to establish a "tight connection between their words and their inner being". She seems to think this is an outdated cultural norm.

Blum believes that technology has brought us into a new era of "performance". There's a sense in which I think she is right, but it's one that we've long been familiar with. After all, while it may be true that plagiarism is a relatively new offence—not something that, say, Dante and Shakespeare were very worried about—the injunction to "know thyself" and "to thine own self be true" predate the problem of copying other people's words by a wide margin. That is, stealing other people's writing merely became a new and distinctive way of faking it with the invention of the printing press. (In a time when all copies of books were hand-made, plagiarizing one probably wasn't as tempting.) But the act of pretending to be something you're not is no doubt as old as language. (It's as easy as lying.) The Internet probably intensifies the problem, but it should not change the academic mission, which is not hundreds of years old but thousands. Academics have always known (and have only recently seemed to forget) that their job is to teach young, inauthentic, performance-oriented people to be themselves, i.e., to make up their minds, to speak them, and to write down what they've got on them. We're supposed to teach them how to be authentic adults, not prolong their adolescence.

I am genuinely worried that the culture of patchwriting is a sign that we're giving up on the ability of young people to be themselves. I think it's rooted in a common affectation about youth among soi-disant adults—one that treats our own progeny as members of an exotic, foreign culture. I think it's time for this theme to hear, again, its counterpoint: "The great learning," said Confucius, "takes root in clarifying the way wherein the intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results; it is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow; ..." Yes, that means we have to watch them engage in all kinds of embarrassing fakery. Our job is to hold a mirror up to their nature, to show them the features of their own virtues and vices. And then affectionately watch them grow.


Anonymous said...

I find myself still standing with those who believe patchwriting is plagiarism, despite the adjurations of Blum and Howard. In prior commentary, I expressed the idea that persons like them have a new role on campus: keeping tuition-paying international students enrolled, rather than in improving students’ communication. And the argument about cultural differences between antediluvians and the current generation of university students smacks of a convenient, self-serving excuse to abdicate responsibility for educating the next generation of scholar-writers.

For my part, I am required each semester to include university-approved language in my syllabus about the definitions of academic dishonesty and plagiarism and the consequences of failing to adhere to university policies about those academic faults. I am also eligible for assistance in preparing and delivering “writing-intensive” courses, which have explicit goals in getting students past the barriers that Blum and Howard find insurmountable. Every undergraduate student is required to take at least two such courses – in their chosen field – beyond introductory rhetoric and composition. I interpret these social facts at my university to mean that patchwriting is neither a means nor an end.

Keep fighting the good fight, Thomas!

Thomas said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Randy. It's good to know that, on at least some campuses, I'm critiquing a still inchoate, emergent culture, not necessarily a dominant one.

Jonathan said...

Back in my day the youth wanted to be authentic and the old people, not so much.

Thomas said...

That's a good point. Blum actually does suggest that its a generational thing, that the "academic" culture was shaped by Salinger's contempt for phoniness and Kerouac's quest for spontaneity.

But this is also way too recent to my mind. The "authority" of scholarship isn't really about authenticity in that deep, personal sense. It's about a sense of tradition and one's own originality within it. (I'll have a post about that next week.)