The Anxieties of Academia: Ephemerality and Plagiarism in the New Media Essay

Following Dr. Stuckey-French’s presentation, our discussion followed two major threads concerning common anxieties within the academy: the ephemerality of the web and how new media technologies facilitate the ever-looming plague of plagiarism. Concerning ephemerality I think there are many valid points to be made: even during our meeting, links were broken, web modules were shut down, and anyone can edit Wikipedia to win an argument at a moment’s notice. However, in direct tension with this ephemerality, the web can also be a site of long-term archiving and permanence, whether we like it or not. Take, for example, one of the most recent additions to the Web Archive: an extensive library of MS-DOS games, including the Real Time Strategy game based on Frank Herbert’s Dune; feel free to try it out below:

In addition, the Web Archive also offers the Wayback Machine, where anyone can create a copy of an existing website for posterity. Here is a screenshot from the Digital Scholars blog in 2012:

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.44.15 PM

It doesn’t even look the Same!

I bring up the archiving capabilities of the web not to disprove the anxieties about ephemerality, but only to illustrate some of its affordances. Of course, with our capabilities to create and archive texts, removing content from the web may be easier said than done. With the example of an “accidental” tweet that is removed, we may in fact delete it before any of our followers see it. But there is always a chance that someone screengrabs it, circulates it among your department, and you’re out of a job. Point being, once we release content on the web, we can only exert so much agency over our content, for once it is copied one time, it has begun to circulate, and it is out of our control. In fact, if we try to remove circulating content, it has a tendency to propagate even further (See: The Streisand Effect and Unflattering Beyonce from the Super Bowl). The tension between permanence and ephemerality remains for the time being, but it seems that permanence is winning the fight. And even if it is a cursory lesson, it is important we introduce these tensions to students in a digital age. Which brings us to another academic tension: plagiarism.

Dr. Stuckey-French’s course and others like it pave the way for us to expand our pedagogies beyond the academic essay–however, despite the affordances of new media, we sometimes find ourselves at a loss for how to assess it: do we privilege rigorous thinking in the content of a video essay? If we aren’t trained filmmakers, how can we reasonably assess a student’s cinematography? If the visuals are an afterthought, is it really a video essay? Or just a “bad” one? Should we allow students the space to articulate their rhetorical choices in a video, or should it stand alone? All of the above? Similarly, when using traditional academic thinking, questions of plagiarism become significantly more complicated. What if the student writes the essay, but a friend not in the course shoots the video? What if a student shoots a video in Spring for an essay she wrote in Fall? Is that plagiarism? How do we check for plagiarism of visuals? We spent some time discussing self-plagiarism and how to discourage our students from doing so, but I would put forth that if we are to re-think the essay and our pedagogies with new media in mind, we have to assess our own beliefs about plagiarism and authorship. I don’t think we would be having this discussion, I don’t think our group would exist, if we didn’t recognize that new literacy technologies are not only democratizing digital authorship, but also changing what it means to author to some degree. I don’t see digital scholarship as simply streamlining or remediating print academic work, but I don’t see the digital as making it obsolete either. With the rigor and devotion we put into our work and the diversity of platforms available, we can begin to innovate what scholarship “looks like.” But at this point, I’m preaching to the choir about the potential of the digital. But more than likely, the hard sell is the necessity of rethinking our relationship with plagiarism.

Since Roland Barthes eulogized the Author and introduced us to the sphere of Text, there has remained an undercurrent within literary and rhetorical theory building upon the notion of intertextuality. Dr. Stuckey-French made brief mention of this with his entry into the Montaigne generator: “everything is intertextual.” However, this undercurrent of intertextuality has remained just that–an unspoken assumption, often elided for the modernist view of writing: The importance of the sole author and seeing the use of sources and citation as secondary to the “real” generative work of learning disciplinary knowledge. It is this modernist view of writing that is the source of much of our anxiety concerning plagiarism; but as new media technologies make something like the mashup a viable form of composing, we are seeing a shift in emphasis to intertextual citation as a creative act, encouraging students to relish in the copying of other works–and yes, attributing their copying in the form of citation.

Composition scholars Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber have called upon teachers to make explicit the relationship between all texts so as to reduce student anxieties about plagiarism, citing the educational imperative to be “original” as a cause of students’ plagiarism and subsequent attempts to “cover their tracks.” Instead, if students are encouraged to look at writing as copying–or plagiarizing, depending on where you stand–and arranging pre-existing chunks of meaning into assemblages, the need to deceive instructors may very well subside.  Anecdotally, I have had some success with this approach in my own classroom, and see how the framework could be adapted for other disciplines; by making disciplinary citation practices explicit and encouraging students to become members of the discourse community through citation, we can better train our students in disciplinary knowledge. But what of plagiarism in the new media essay? Well, some of the samples and examples provided to the group could certainly be considered plagiarism, or even worse, copyright infringement (!). But, if the form is in some way engaged in the civic, attempting to explore a problem, can’t acts of “plagiarism”–re-framed as assemblage, creating an intertext, a web of citation, a Barthesian “weave of signifiers”–be subversive to copyright and the myth of sole authorship?

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