This past week I attended a series of seminars about teaching at the University level. One of the earliest seminars I attended was on academic integrity and how to reduce plagiarism and cheating in the class room. It was a short, but very informative session that gave me some good insight into what I can do in the classroom, when I finally get to that point again in my life.
It did however spark some other reflections on my part, the most prominent being integrity in writing in general. As I sat there listening to the seminar speaker, I kept thinking about how this translates as a whole to writers. I started to wonder if there was some disconnect between what is being taught to individuals who write and what they were producing. Is intellectual honesty and thorough scholarship valued outside of the academic setting? It’s easy to highlight examples where this doesn’t happen, like in BIll O’Reily’s recently released book, Killing Lincoln. However, I think that when these books sell tons of copies, this says a lot more about the populace buying the books and the society in general.
While I do think writers of historical/academic texts should be held to rigorous standards, I do also think that any writer should be held to the same standards. Here’s the thing; it’s easy to parrot back what someone else said. It’s even easier to simply make things up and throw them out there, let happen what happens. The real value in writing comes from the integrity the writer puts into the writing. If I want to write about my life experiences, I need to make sure I capture that as accurately as possible, because otherwise my voice is not authoritative and there is little value in what I have to say. Is it devoid of value? Possibly not, but it would be much stronger with a level of integrity that is found in most academic writing.
All this said, there is one element that I didn’t initially consider. One of the later seminars I went to was about the difficulties of non-native English speakers in the classroom, and of course plagiarism was highlighted. What was told to the crowd, though, is that the concept of plagiarism is a very Western construct. We are obsessed with intellectual copyright and for the voice in writing to be my voice and my ideas. In some cultures, the idea is not about expressing your own idea, but expressing the idea best. This leads to a culture where it is acceptable to simply copy someone else’s ideas and parrot them back, because, well, they said it best. To push back on this though, I still think this leads to a less authoritative voice, simply because instead of engaging with someone else’s material and ideas, you are simply regurgitating them. Call me painfully Western, but I’d rather forge my own ideas in light of others, than simply parrot them back and call them my own. I think this creates far more authority than simple regurgitation.