Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Monday, July 24, 2006


My apologies to my visitors for the last few weeks of bupkis on this site. Incredibly busy in the lead up to my vacation. I'll be away until August 8th, but I'll have new material soon after that. I can feel ideas hatching already. Either that or I've sat on the carton of eggs I just bought...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Modest Proposal To Offset the Great Harm That Comes From Plagiarism

My night has come to a standstill. I’m trying to decide exactly how to handle a student who has obviously plagiarized his final essay. More precisely, he’s paid someone else to write it for him. The thing that baffles me is why anyone would do this. I know it has something to do with wanting the result (more money, more prestigious, or merely to finish off that last nagging credit for the degree) more than the experience and the knowledge.

My favorite plagiarist of all time had to be a guy I vaguely knew in my Moral Theology class at St. Francis Xavier University. What a pre-Dentistry student was doing in Moral Theology I’ll never know. My guess is he thought it would be a bird course (orni-theology?) and then found out that the priest teaching it expected us to know the Bible (not ‘know’ in the biblical sense) and to read theologians in our spare time. (A great lecturer, even though he had the toughest academic standards I’ve ever encountered. Our three-hour final consisted of ten essay questions – DO ALL, and write three pages on each. I like to say that I nearly flunked morality…) So this pre-dental guy decides to pay a philosophy student to write all six book reviews of theological works. Those essays received grades of 80 and above. Don’t know how he did on the exam. All I know is God didn’t strike him dead in the gym.

My big question is why would anyone want to steal someone else’s writing? My puzzlement over this has to do with my basic faith in my own writing and my inability to be overawed by the writing of others. Meanwhile, there are the supposed ‘accidental’ plagiarisms various writers have been accused of – lines, chapters, scenes, characters resembling those in other books. And, of course, there are the deliberate ‘borrowings’ and ‘homages’ to previous works that you find in a poem like “The Wasteland,” for example. Probably the neatest example of writers plagiarizing writers came from a fiction writer in Toronto (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name) who once entered a writing contest by using stories by Hemingway, Faulkner and Kafka to prove a point. No one caught the plagiarisms, but, more importantly for this writer, none of the stories won any prizes. He felt this proved the lack of legitimacy of the contests and the judges because they couldn’t recognize obvious quality. But all the episode really proved is that the three famous writers would have a rough time today because their writing isn’t spiced with the contemporary idiom.

But why should true plagiarists be concerned at all? They live in a culture in which out and out stealing (of songs, films, photographs) is common practice. The written and performing arts are not ‘real’ somehow. Stealing from them is just about the free exchange of data. I’ve proposed that this should spread to things like money – which is, after all, a piece of paper which informs the bearer and the receiver that the bearer has the financial clout to support the number on the bill – but no one has taken me up on this.

And while laws have been passed to protect copyright and you can face fines and even jail time for serious offences, the same isn’t true of student plagiarists. People have proven time and again that something is only wrong if you are caught and you are punished. Since plagiarism is increasingly widespread, it follows that it is perceived to be less and less wrong. The need to discover one’s own thoughts and attitudes and to look more closely at the ideas of others in the course of a research essay is a luxury for the elites – and even they seem to be foregoing the need for discovery, if the statistics on plagiarism are any indication. The drive to achieve something of value is far more powerful and relevant than the drive to embody something of value.

My main problem with plagiarists isn’t that they are cowards who are afraid of finding out more about who they are – it is that they are cowards for not truly, whole-heartedly going after what they want. You see, plagiarism is a painfully slow way to achieve success. One essay at a time, the student works towards the big job and big payday at the end of it all where the rewards of cheating can be greater and more far reaching. But why delay the gratification? I would propose that if you see someone who has money and status and power, kill them and take it all. Or, if you like to hire people to do your dirty essay work, then hire other people to kill the people who have what you want.

I’ll admit this might sound extreme to some, but I just want to assure you I have no personal gain in this proposal – except that I might have to spend less time trying to catch plagiarists and could offload that population to the police and the courts. And if you are horrified by my suggestion, you have to remember I nearly flunked morality once.