Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fish furthers plagiarism excuses?

Stanley Fish evidently got some feedback on his recent post on plagiarism. In a followup, Fish talks about a context-based approach:

The genre requirements of other kinds of writing are less strict. David Chowes asks, “What is the difference between the president of our country using many speech writers and a college student ‘plagerizing’?” The difference is the genre or context of practice. Presidents are responsible for waging wars, building economies, conducting foreign policy and much more. It is understood and accepted that laboring over speeches they are obliged to give would not be the best use of their time and so we have no problem with letting them put their names to words written by others; we even anthologize them. Students, on the other hand, are not running the country; it is their job to learn things and that job is not furthered by putting their names to words written by others.

It might be tempting to say that with respect to presidents we relax the morality we enforce on students; but morality has nothing to do with it. The expectations we have of the performance of students, including the expectation that they will write their own papers, come along with the task (of learning) they are engaged in. The expectations we have of the performance of presidents also come along with the task they are engaged in and do not include the expectation that they will utter or sign only words they have originated. That’s all there is to it.

Past practices of Joe Biden give examples of each. While a student at Syracuse Law School, Biden put his name on five pages of text from a law review. According to Fish, this is a bad thing. While a candidate for president, Biden put his name on, and adopted the facts of speeches by Neil Kinnock. According to Fish, this is not a bad thing because maybe Biden had other, more significant things to do with his time, than to credit Kinnock or acknowledge that the facts didn't actually fit. Biden did become Vice President. Poshard copied portions of his Ph.D. thesis a SIU. To Fish, this is a bad thing. Years later, when this was discussed, a defense was all the good things Poshard did while President of SIU. There were more important issues than a previous student plagiarism. Fish's excuse transcends time.

Fish continues:

Basically, my argument is deflationary; it says, if you want to think about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a particular line of work, look at its goals and values and then reason from them to what the shape of activities on the ground should be. Don’t look to large moral platitudes or big philosophical concepts, for they will only get in the way of figuring out what you should or should not be doing. That is why I say that strictures against plagiarism needn’t have philosophical foundations; they follow (or don’t) from the nature of the enterprise. Once that has been specified, the rules and decorums will be perspicuous; and within the precincts of those rules it is always possible to say about a piece of behavior that it is wrong, and by wrong mean no more than that it goes against the rules.

Is this a variant of what Harvard's Dershowitz was saying when he mentioned law had a culture of copying? Perhaps Laurence Tribe had more important things to do with his time than checking the work of the students who researched his book.


Post a Comment

<< Home