In another instance of the media’s inability to differentiate between young people and the internet, The New York Times published a front-page article about technology’s effects on student attitudes toward plagiarism. Based on a few anecdotes, the writer Trip Gabriel concludes that kids these days, what with the internet and all, just don’t understand what we do or do not have to cite in our papers. No doubt the story of the University of Maryland student who was caught copying from Wikipedia and thought the articles “did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge,” helps the value of my diploma. Most of the article, with a few singular contrasting opinions inserted toward the end for balance, is framed in terms of the internet and its novel threat to students, but technology has been accused of enabling plagiarism for ages.
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine is a semi-canonical children’s book from 1958 by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin about the titular Danny and his friends Irene and Joe’s efforts to cheat on their homework. Danny is a wiz-kid who lives with his mother who keeps house for an absent-minded science professor and has a habit of dragging his friend Joe into half-baked schemes. The book opens with Danny, who has set up two pens linked by a board and attached to pulleys and a weight so that he can write his and Joe’s math homework at the same time. He laments, “If only we could save even more time. You’d think six hours of school would be enough for them, without making us take school home. If only I could build some kind of a robot to all our homework for us . . .” Danny and Joe are cheating for the reason most students cheat: the desire to do less school work. Why do students plagiarise? Because homework sucks and no one wants to do it except for those who have been so subordinated by the pedagogical relation that they can no longer distinguish their own desires from what teachers desire of them.
Danny and his friends use the professor’s cutting-edge computer to do their homework quickly, leaving more time for baseball and their other fun hobbies – like measuring wind speeds with weather balloons. These kids aren’t slackers, they just have better things to do with their time than homework. When a jealous kid (appropriately nick-named “Snitcher”) rats out the crew, Danny has to explain to their teacher Miss Arnold what they’ve been doing. He argues that all professionals use tools to do their work better and faster and that students should not be deprived the right of their use. Miss Arnold takes the position of the traditional pedagogue: “Danny, I must admit you’ve got a serious point. I won’t force you to stop using the computer. But I’m asking you for your own good not to use it. Children learn through practice. You’ll have to take my word for it that it would be better for you to do your homework the old-fashioned way.” But Danny is too smart for that, he counters that if modern things are not to be trusted, he probably shouldn’t study atomic theory.
Danny’s argument works here if the goal of schooling is for the student to master the material or solve problems, but it’s not. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron wrote in their Reproduction in Education, Culture and Society that pedagogy is not merely communicative of information, “Proof that the relation of pedagogic communication is irreducible to a formally defined relation of communication and that the informational content of the message does not exhaust the content of the communication, may be seen in the fact that the relation of pedagogic communication can be maintained as such even when the information transmitted tends towards zero, as in the limiting case of initiatory teaching or, closer to home, in some literary education.” (22.214.171.124 Gloss 2) Every piece of information from a teacher also comes with an affirmation of the “pedagogical act;” we are always learning to be taught. Rather than reducing the need for authorities through some sort of knowledge-is-power liberation, the classroom teaches students through experience to be reliant on a teacher.
It takes time to learn to be taught, time that could be better spent playing baseball. This is the time Danny, Joe and Irene attempt to steal back with the homework machine. Miss Arnold isn’t worried that Danny won’t learn the material, she’s worried (probably not consciously, consciously she can’t articulate a problem at all) that he won’t learn to be taught. Too much playing and not enough doing what he’s told could make Danny a rebellious boy. This is a problem that must be rectified.
Miss Arnold and Danny’s mother cook up a scheme to restore the balance by appropriating the homework machine. The plot narrative makes their plan sound complex, but any Marxist could have figured it out a while back. Marx describes the function of machines within capitalism in Chapter 13 of Capital as threefold: as worker enhancement (e.g. machines that enable workers to move lots of boxes at once), as a means to extend the work day (e.g. electric lights allowing work at night) and to intensify labor (i.e. better machines make work that was previously too dangerous to be profitable profitably dangerous instead). If technology means a worker can make a widget in half the time, the worker as a result doesn’t get released early. Instead, the worker is assigned to build twice as many widgets. Or to build them in Bangalore. We see this relation at play in the classroom as well: the internet has made researching papers much easier, yet it has led neither to a decline in student work-time nor higher standards. His teacher and mother conspire to give Danny, as well as his comrades, a lot more homework. The six hours are stolen back as the children are made to spend as much time programming the computer with new information as they would have spent on their regular homework. When Snitcher informs on Danny, Miss Arnold is able to bring the homework machine into the pedagogical relation; what was a machine of student liberation – i.e. freedom from being a student – has become one of student enhancement.
Rules regulating “academic honesty” are what prevent the school from having to confront the problem of the liberating homework machine. At the University of Maryland, it isn’t only copying the writing of others that constitutes plagiarism, students are prohibited from lifting passages from their own work. Plagiarism in this context has little to do with making a student think and express him or herself originally – that is, with the production of truths – and much more to do with keeping a student at work learning to be taught, the preservation of the pedagogical order. This explains why most hard-science classes require homework even though a test should provide all the necessary incentives to ensure students learn the material without verifying their daily progress. Homework and mandatory class make certain that even a student who has completely mastered all of the content is still kept at work within the teacher-student relationship, even if the teacher has nothing left to teach. We can imagine, following the French sociologists, teaching a class on counting to 100 to senior computer science students at M.I.T., as long as the teacher has what Bourdieu and Passeron call the “pedagogical authority” to do so.
Cheating is a challenge to pedagogical authority, a rejection of Miss Arnold’s demand that Danny “take her word for it.” Far from stealing, plagiarism in the context of schoolwork is about the reclamation by students of their own work-time. And more power to them.
This post is only part of the beginning of a much larger project and, as such, it provokes more questions than it answers. If students are producers as I’ve argued, then it follows that they produce something. As to what that is I’ll return later, but Morgan Adamson’s excellent piece in Ephemera (which I’ve added to the “readings” page) has more than a hint. Until then, remember what happens to Snitcher: