Author: Natalie Swann

plagiarism and sin redux

A guest post by Natalie Swann.

I freaked out a bit after my more-provocative-than-I-had-intended post on plagiarism and sin. More people than I expected read the post and some people I respect have had some contrary things to say.

So, while I freaked out, I Googled “plagiarism is not sin”. Mostly, I got articles about plagiarism being sin. Oops. But on page 2 of the results I came across this NYT article by Stanley Fish, ‘Plagiarism is not a big moral deal’.

It’s a really good article and you should go and read it. I did. 3 years ago.

It shaped my consciousness for tutoring students about the rules of the citation and referencing game. And then life happened and I forgot the article, but remembered its lesson.

And I didn’t acknowledge it in my previous post.

So I’m on the fine edge of what my own university would call plagiarism — although I’m not sure Prof Fish would mind.

In light of the conversations I’ve had on- and off-line (I’m looking at you Hugh, Simon, Jo, Heather, Marty, Toby, and Rob), I need to make a concession: theft is always socially constructed.

In some places it is OK to help yourself to veggies on a public plot, or a deer from crown land. In other times or places it is not.

And so, because of contemporary understandings of Intellectual Property, plagiarism constitutes theft and it is probably rightly called a sin.

Prof Fish puts it like this:

“Of course every sin is learned. Very young children do not distinguish between themselves and the world; they assume that everything belongs to them; only in time and through the conditioning of experience do they learn the distinction between mine and thine and so come to acquire the concept of stealing. The concept of plagiarism, however,  is learned in more specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a  few; it’s hard to get from the notion that you shouldn’t appropriate your neighbor’s car to the notion that you should not repeat his words without citing him.”

But I want to stick to my guns for two reasons.

First, what does (and does not) count as plagiarism isn’t self-evident.

All this talk of plagiarism as a sin makes it seem like the ‘rules’ are obvious when really they are actually quite complicated:

“If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no. But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you … that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.”

My own University, the University of Melbourne, provides guidelines for students here. According to these guidelines, plagiarism included “copying ideas, concepts” (like I perhaps have done by not citing Prof Fish earlier) and “presenting as independent, work done in collaboration with other people (eg, another student, a tutor)” which seem to me about as clear as mud.

For example, I have never cited — and I have never seen anyone else cite — a tutorial conversation in an essay. And yet the purpose of a tutorial (at least, in the social sciences) is to collaborate and help students learn to think in disciplinarily acceptable ways. So shouldn’t our students be citing their tutorials?

Ultimately, if the church writ large is going to cry ‘Plagiarism!’, I think we need to be more explicit about what is and isn’t considered OK.

Is it OK to use someone else’s ideas uncredited in your sermons? It would certainly break the flow. Are preachers more like politicians or academics in Prof Fish’s example above?

Is it OK for a pastor’s partner — let alone research assistants and ghost writers (who at least get paid!) — to make significant uncredited input to sermons or written work?

Second, Intellectual Property (as we know it) is a relatively new invention and not necessarily the way things must be.

Calling plagiarism a sin threatens to blind us to this — and stop us imagining other ways of doing it.

Maybe IP is a really great idea. But maybe there are alternatives that the church should be championing.

There is certainly movement in some academic circles to make research open access. Surely it’s even more important that good theology gets out there?

Beyond that, maybe we should ask ourselves: Do Christians really think knowledge belongs to individuals?

I can’t help but feel it’s a perfect example of the interdependence of the church as a body.

And I would be excited if, in light of Pastor Driscoll’s transgression, we could have a conversation about the theological imperative for something like Creative Commons licencing and Open Access.

Admittedly, both Creative Commons and Open Access still value appropriate attribution. But both movements point us towards more collaborative and interdependent models for sharing knowledge. And I find that attractive.

plagiarism is not a sin

Guest post by Natalie Swann.


In case you missed it, there’s a wee bit of controversy going on at the moment about the evangelical celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll, engaging in plagiarism (see this or this, for example).

As someone training in academia, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Acknowledging your sources is important. I train my students (when I have them) to reference their work.

But I also educate them that plagiarism is not a sin. Rather, referencing is a discipline; it is a unique product of modern Western academic practice.

While many students knowingly engage in plagiarism, there are also many students who live in terror of becoming culpable of it. The terror they feel is a moral one; the fear of a “scarlet P” on a student record has curiously religious overtones.

But nowhere in Scripture is there condemnation for what we understand as plagiarism. The writers of Genesis did not footnote Babylonian creation myths.

Plagiarism is a professional misdemeanour, not a sin.

Perhaps Pastor Driscoll is at fault in not submitting to the rulers and authorities of our age. Perhaps there are real sins at work, like pride or hypocrisy.

But, please, can we stop acting like plagiarism is a sin?

5 things I’ve learnt about writing essays from marking them

I would like to add an extra learning style to the well known list of learning by seeing, by hearing, by doing etc. I want to add learning by judging. Here’s what I learnt about essay writing from my recent experience marking them:

  1. Formatting matters. Your essay does not need to look beautiful. But when I pick up a double-spaced essay in a serif font there is a feeling of peace that descends upon me that I am sure puts me in a more generous frame of mind.
  2. Your reference list does matter. I want to see that you’ve been in the class, that you’ve done some of the prescribed reading and are responding to the arguments made by them in your essay. It is in your best interest to use as many of the readings you’ve had to do as possible! But then I also need to see that you’ve done some of your own research. There needs to be some stuff there that’s not on the reading list too.
  3. Don’t just summarise. Argue. You won’t get a bad mark if your essay summarises content from the course on the topic you’ve chosen. But you will get an average one. Show me you have a brain that thinks independently. I don’t mean ‘be argumentative’. Find the links between the five different points you want to make to tell a story and persuade me of point ; e.g. “instead of thinking about memory as history, I will argue that it’s more appropriately thought of as fiction”. I don’t mind a little bit of argumentative, too. I quite like it when, at some point in your essay, you take issue with what you’ve been taught — when you find a critic or a case study that problematises the subject. The best essays I marked made good arguments, but I suspect a bad argument could be worse than a good summary…any thoughts from more experienced markers?
  4. Your first paragraph is really really really important. I’d always known it was good to have a good introduction, but I never really felt the weight of it. It sets the tone in terms of of writing ability, but I care less about style than I do about content. Your introduction should help me read the rest of your essay: it makes it so much easier for me to mark your essay if you tell me what you’re going to argue and how you’re going to argue it. Don’t just restate the question. If the question is “Discuss Anderson’s theory of the nation as imagined community”, it is not enough to say in your introduction that “In this essay I will discuss Anderson’s theory of the nation as imagined community”. Of course you will! If you don’t, I will struggle not to fail you. Rather, tell me something like: “In this essay I will show how Anderson’s theory helpfully contributes to previous formulations of nationalism, but is insufficient to explain nationalism in its entirety. First, I will…”.
  5. Signposts will make your essay stand out from the crowd. Signposts are those sentences that tell me where we’ve been and where we’re going: “The four aspects of ethnic nationalism discussed above are criticised by John Doe. It is to this criticism we will now turn.” Signposts should reflect the argument and structure you described to me in your introduction. They mean I don’t have to keep flipping back to your introduction to remind my self of the structure of your paper. Flipping is frustrating.

why Facebook isn’t radical enough

We watched The Social Network the other day. Anything involving Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher and Justin Timberlake was bound to be awesome. But I left the cinema feeling sad and bitter.

It had a little to do with feeling yucky about the people represented. But mostly I was just really really disappointed with the way the film represents the motivation for the genesis of Facebook: a desire to leverage the status of being at Harvard in order to pull chicks.

I have a very fond affection for computer geeks. I miss daily working with programmers and being able to hang out with the IT department. Like Alison, I got a kick out seeing the technology of my life on screen.

Furthermore, I love the radical hacker ethic that went hand in hand with the development of the internet; an ethic that seeks open access, freedom of information, decentralisation grounded in a radical democratic ideal and mistrust of authority, love of beauty, and judgement based on merit rather than status.

I’ve been thinking lately about how that same ethic could intersect with academic anthropological research.

Facebook is not part of this radical hacker ethic.

Over at St Eutychus, Nathan has posted a review of the film and makes this comment:

I hear a lot of Christians bagging out Facebook because it “doesn’t promote real relationships” or it has replaced time with real people or because it promotes superficial relationships over deep ones.

My problem with Facebook is exactly that it reproduces all the status of real relationships. It was created out of a desire to reproduce exclusivity and what Lupe Fiasco might call ‘the cool’. It has none of the imagination or ethical commitment of a hacker ethic.

And the problem is, we all think it’s cool too.

why I think Cezanne would have been a blogger

Rodin's Eve

Chris and I went to see the European Masters exhibition at the NGV on Sunday. It’s a fabulous, and diverse, collection of work from European painters of the late 19th and early 20th Century well worth going to see if you get the chance.

The exhibition charts the transition from works you might describe as Neo-Classical, through the Romantic movement, Impressionism and towards Modernism.

I was fascinated by the way the curators described the ethic of Impressionism.

Rodin’s Eve was described as being a pivotal moment for the sculptor — his model became pregnant before he’d finished, so he just stopped and exhibited it in (what would have been considered) its incomplete state. Similarly, early Impressionist painters were exhibiting work that resembled plein air studies — the types of thing artists might previously have taken back to the studio to assist with a more detailed and time-intesive work. They were quick, emotional responses to landscape. And it was a revolution dependent on technology; it was only in the late 19th century that they put paint into tubes freeing artists to work outside the studio.

So, compared to more classical art forms, Impressionism is quick, it’s emotional, it’s ‘unfinished’ by the standards of the time, and it’s driven by new innovations in technology. Sounds a lot like blogging to me!

time is a cultural construct

Well, time itself may not be. But the way it impacts on our actions, the way we think about it, interpret it, and respond emotionally to it are.

Check out this fabulous little gem delivered by Professor Philip Zimbardo at the RSA and animated by Cognitive Media:

I’m tempted to reflect on which one of these perspectives is the ‘most Christian’ — Zimbardo certainly suggests that a future-orientation goes with a religious disposition. But the thing is, I read Ecclesiastes and it sounds pretty ‘present hedonistic’ according to Zimbardo’s categorisation. I reckon the bigger challenge is figuring out how to be a Christian within the time perspective in which you’ve been enculturated.

how to use the word ‘intentionality’ properly

In the last couple of years, in the Christian circles we move in there’s been an increasing use of the words ‘intentional’ and ‘intentionality’. You might have heard them used in sentences like this:

“We should encourage people to be intentional about building relationships”

Or, how’s this from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis:

“Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality”
Total Church (2007), Intervasity Press, Nottingham, p61, emphasis in original.

In context, I think what they mean is ‘deliberate’. Or ‘thoughtful’. Or, perhaps, it tries to capture the idea of ‘alertness’.

But the problem is, the idea of intentionality has a very long philosophical history and it has nothing to do with deliberate-ness. It has to do with consciousness. It is more closely aligned with theological anthropology – that is, it might help us understand what makes us human. Here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it:

“Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.”
see Intentionality entry

“…’intentionality’ …  is that aspect of mental states or events that consists in their being of or about things (as pertains to the questions, ‘What are you thinking of?’ and ‘What are you thinking about?’). Intentionality is the aboutness or directedness of mind (or states of mind) to things, objects, states of affairs, events. So if you are thinking about San Francisco, or about the increased cost of living there, or about your meeting someone there at Union Square — your mind, your thinking, is directed toward San Francisco, or the increased cost of living, or the meeting in Union Square. To think at all is to think of or about something in this sense.”
see Consciousness and Intentionality entry

So, to be intentional is not about intending to do stuff; rather, it is to be oriented towards the world, the Other, outwardly focussed. I’m committed to this being a fundamentally good thing for Christians. We run the risk of losing the beauty of this nuance if we use the word ‘intentional’ when we could use the word ‘deliberate’.

do you know Australian secrets?

Greens Pool, Denmark, WA

I found it interesting that Chris’ post yesterday about an Australian heart language elicited a couple of comments that reflected pretty iconic Australian images (e.g. the coast, the outback, Les Murray).

I’ve recently come across a theory in anthropology that suggests that you really only understand a group (nation, sub-culture etc) if you share with them in ‘Cultural Intimacy‘ (proposed by Michael Herzfeld). So, for example, the theory proposes that in many nations there is a idealised representation of the nation which covers over a bunch of secrets that we protect from outsiders and which really constitute nationalism. Herzfeld did his research in Crete, and he discusses the way that in Crete, sheep-stealing is a symbol of Greek manhood that exists in tension with the representation of Greece as a modern (and also ancient) law-abiding democracy and that animal theft is therefore hidden from outsiders. And it elicits a weird combination of shame and pride.

These ‘secrets’ – the things that we know about ourselves as a people or group, but which we keep hidden behind the facade of our group imaginary – are what actually define us as insiders.  The group imaginary is how we represent ourselves to outsiders, but the secret tensions reveal our self-knowledge. The secrets are how you can say “Oh, she just doesn’t understand, she’s not one of us….”

The Australian national imaginary includes things like this… we’re an egalitarian country, full of larakins who don’t play by the rules, shaped by the harsh and dangerous environment of the Australian outback, full of adventurers who enjoy our outdoors lifestyle. But I think this belies a bunch of Aussie secrets about deeply entrenched inequality, a love for obeying the rules (we hate ‘queue-jumpers, for instance), and that most of us live pretty safe, suburban lives, are overweight and spend more time in front of a screen than in the sun.

Tim Winton and Les Murray to some extent buy into (and even help create) the Australian national imaginary — I wonder what parts of pop culture reveal Australia’s secret self-knowledge?

will you pray with me?

The idea that I might be asked this question when in the field next year simultaneously fills me with delight and trepidation. I hope to do anthropological fieldwork in churches with Christians. But I feel just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with research participants in prayer.

As an anthropologist, prayer is fascinating. It can reveal the inner desires of the heart. It puts emotions and longings into words. It connects the pray-er’s understanding of God and God’s will with their own actions and desires. As a source of data – and as a relational expression of having connected with your research consultants, to be invited to pray together seems like a (forgive the pun) holy grail of anthropological research with Christians.

So, why do I feel uncomfortable with praying with Christian consultants when it is something that is both natural to me and an anthropologically rich source of data?

It’s taken me weeks of incidental conversations and reading, and I’m still not sure I’ve framed this properly, but here’s my attempt at framing my discomfort…

When I pray I am oriented to God and when I do cultural analysis I am oriented to the speaker, to the world. As a Christian, I share both the ritual practice and the belief that what I am doing in prayer is directed to God. To turn away from God towards another person during that act, I think, makes a liar out of me when I say “yes, I will pray with you”. I do not know if it’s possible to both pray and analyse, and I suspect I will only find out in the field!

To read more, check out the full transcript on my project blog On The Way Home.

single takes are mighty impressive

I love dance movies. So I’m really looking forward to seeing Step Up 3D. I’m pretty sure it’ll be sensory overload — with lots of jaw-dropping feats of physical skill.

But have you noticed how rarely today’s dance (or martial arts) movies embrace the single take? While I’m conscious of the fact that some of the contemporary fascination with scene-cutting is a matter of aesthetics, it does have the added benefit of allowing film-makers to draw from multiple takes to create a ‘montage’ of impressive moves even if mistakes have been made in the process.

One of the things I find most impressive about old school song and dance movies is the skill required to pull off a perfect dance routine in a single take. Fred Astaire was a stickler for the single take, apparently declaring “either the camera will dance, or I will”.

This appreciation of the single take was one of the reasons I was so taken with this video clip we saw on the weekend.