A bizarre piece on plagiarism by Kenneth Goldsmith, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has appeared over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Turning the usual line of thinking about plagiarism and academic dishonesty on its head, Goldsmith argues these practices should be embraced as positive things. Modern writing is "in a rut," he says, "tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums…unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time." Creative writing has become bland and stale, he argues, so the only option is to avoid creativity and "reconstruct" existing writings into "something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant."
Goldsmith takes aim at the entire notion of authorship. Context has replaced content. He proclaims that a page-a-day retyping of Kerouac's On the Road and an 800-page collection of mailed credit-card applications are works full of "unanticipated beauty." The greatest writers of the future, he states, will be those who can best reshape, reframe, and rehash the language of others, even if not a single original sentence is contributed by themselves.
Later, Goldsmith describes a course he teaches entitled "Uncreative Writing." In this course, "students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity," and rewarded for "plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing." The course also involves such misadventures as modifying Wikipedia pages by inserting additional spaces between words and holding classes within the online game Second Life. The final exam consists of purchasing a paper from a paper mill and presenting it to the class as one's own, on the basis of answering the question, "Is it possible to defend something you didn't write?"
While Goldsmith purports to be optimistic, in reality his piece holds a deeply pessimistic subtext in its implication that every story has already been written and every idea already conjured up. There is, then, little point to going through the effort of generating one's own thoughts or even acknowledging the thoughts of others. This attitude is unfortunate when anybody holds it; when held by a professor who instructs future writers, it is an abomination. When students are taught that dishonesty is fine, or that the thoughts of others can acceptably replace one's own, what are we to think for ourselves? The answer, of course, is nothing.