Thursday, July 06, 2006

Shame on You Ann!

Have you heard the latest? Ann Coulter has lifted whole paragraphs from other sources without bothering to give a single footnote. If she were a student in my class I guarantee you that she would receive an F for the class. And, given her repeat offenses, she would be kicked out altogether. Plagiarism is a serious offense in the realm of academia; I hope that others realize how egregiously wrong this is. When I lecture my students on why one should never plagiarize, I have abandoned the "it's cheating" approach. The reason "it's cheating" doesn't work is because students don't care if they think that all they are doing is "cheating themselves." They have heard the old saw: "you're shortchanging your education when you cheat," and they toss it aside since many of them are far more freaked out about their future employment, scholarships, law school applications. Their focus on success overshadows any thought to actually learning something, or better yet, establishing their credentials as trustworthy writers, who have a fresh voice, and make reliable and therefore persuasive arguments.

Hence, I point out to my students that when they cheat they are personally insulting me as their professor. Some of them might not give a shit. But, those who do ask, interest piqued, why they are insulting me. "Because when you cheat, you are implicitly saying that you don't think I am smart enough to know that you are quoting someone else's work, work, btw, that I am more likely to know than you do. Furthermore, when you cheat, you assume that I don't read carefully your work and know what you are capable of writing." This gives them some pause, but, I can't say how much this affects their attitude toward plagiarism.

My little lecture on why you shouldn't plagiarize holds for Coulter too. By lifting whole paragraphs from Planned Parenthood or the L.A. Times you are signalling to your reader that you think they are so dumb, so gullible that they will blindly believe your authority on these matters. One of the reasons you cite the work of others is to make your arguments as transparent as possible. If you are taking evidence from another source, you want to send your readers to that source so that they can evaluate its merits rather than just trust you. If you are quoting your opponent's position in order to refute it, why not let the reader know that you are, in fact, quoting their work, rather than leave them to assume you are well equipped to summarize their position? Be charitable for chrissakes!

By properly citing others' you actually strenghten your own arguments. You show respect to your readers by giving them the tools to substantiate your claims all on their own. Those who routinely plagiarize are either arrogant--they believe that no one will question their credibility--or stupid--they think it is perfectly ok to cut and paste other folks words into your own columns. I think it is safe to say that in Ann's case, she is both.

Boy, I bet she regrets this moralistic piece (cached Google page) she did on Jayson Blair.

UPDATE: Shakespeare's Sister has something on Coulter's response. Here's the New York Post story on Coulter's plagiarism.