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Žižek, plagiarism and the lowering of expectations (essay)

As a graduate student, I devoured the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek’s essays, articles, and, books. I did so in part because I found his analyses of the ideological subjective mechanisms underpinning the functioning of contemporary capitalism generally compelling, and more specifically relevant to my own work. I admired his theoretical acumen, but also what seemed like the sheer breadth of his knowledge.

Žižek, in other words, seemed to me at the time to know almost everything, and he was able to use that knowledge for theoretical gains. Although I, too, wanted to do what Žižek did, I was also painfully aware of my shortcomings. I would never know as much as he seemed to know, meaning that my contribution to “scholarship” would likely remain forever slight. Žižek was a superhuman genius, one of those rare individuals who could do it all; me, I was -- and remain -- a mere mortal.

Last week Žižek was accused of plagiarism for an article he originally published in 2006 in the journal Critical Inquiry. The article, “A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua),” discusses Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements.

As numerous blogs and media outlets, including Newsweek, have discussed, the conservative blogger Steve Sailer first called attention to the article on July 9, noting that “it’s striking how much more opaque Žižek’s prose suddenly becomes when he switches to elucidating what are, presumably, his own ideas, such as they are." Later that day, a blogger gave more teeth to Sailer’s claim, posting a side-by-side comparison of Žižek’s article with Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book, which had appeared in 1999 in The American Renaissance, a far-right publication known for featuring and advocating for overtly racist views.

As someone who has followed and admired Žižek’s work I was initially disappointed, to say the least. Finding out that one of your favorite authors has plagiarized is the intellectual equivalent of learning of the infidelity of one’s partner. I also, however, wasn’t surprised. Four years out of my graduate program and now in a full-time faculty position, my views of scholarship and its production are less naïve than they once were. To be blunt: it’s simply impossible for someone who keeps Žižek’s schedule, which includes various appointments and a rigorous, international lecturing schedule, to singlehandedly read and research broadly and publish as much as he does. Whether in the form of research assistants or, as appears to be the case in this instance, plagiarism, the actual production of scholarship often depends on others, whose work often remains largely unacknowledged.

Žižek himself seems to indicate as much in his response to the allegations. In response to a request from the website Critical Theory (not really known for its love of Žižek, it is worth pointing out) for comment on the allegation, Žižek expressed “regret” over the incident, but explained it as follows: “When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin MacDonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book.”

Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.

If my Facebook feed is any indication, many have not found Žižek’s response satisfying -- and I’ve seen more than a few make the comparison to what students say when they’re accused of plagiarism. It’s unsatisfying because it strikes us as dishonest and unconvincing, something that someone says after being caught because there is nothing better to say.

My question is why we find that response unsatisfying. Putting aside Žižek’s intentions and “what really happened” (which we can’t, of course, know), I would suggest that underneath a lot of the dissatisfaction among fans and critics are unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a scholar and to produce scholarly work. What is unsatisfying in Žižek’s response, in other words, is not the lame passing of the buck to his “friend” but the fact that Zizek relied rather heavily in this instance -- and likely in numerous others -- on the work of someone else. 

“That’s what citations are for,” someone will say -- “that’s the whole problem with what happened here.” True, Žižek should have cited his source here, and given his reliance, probably should have just put quotation marks around the whole section in question. But it’s worth pointing out that even if Žižek had done so, he would have been criticized for relying too heavily on “secondary sources” for his argument. In other words, “real” scholarship places a value on uniqueness and novelty, which requires a careful balance when it comes to citation practices. Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.

Yet this balance often conceals the fact that we rely on “secondary sources” all the time without necessarily citing them (who hasn’t looked up something on Wikipedia -- without citing it -- to get some bearings?). Conversely, we often pad our arguments with citations to things we haven’t read well or at all. Not only because that’s what's expected but also because doing so allows us to cover our arguments with a supposed mastery of a literature that is virtually impossible for any one person to master. Whoever says that he or she hasn’t done as much either is lying or hasn’t published.

Despite all the talk in the humanities over the past few decades about the death of the author, the inexistence of the subject, the collective production of knowledge, intertextuality, networks of information, and so on, our publication practices and expectations haven’t caught up.

In practice, our notions of scholarship continue to assume an autonomous, substantial ego who is the author of his or her works; when that ego does acknowledge its debts to others, it does so only by citing other autonomous, substantial egos. “Theft” is a good critical concept that helps to destabilize power structures and explain the production of subjectivity -- until, that is, someone steals ideas from someone else.

All of this is not really to defend Žižek, nor is it to suggest replacing current scholarly conventions with an “anything goes” approach. In raising questions surrounding the accusations against Žižek and his response, I’m not necessarily advocating for plagiarism.

I am, rather, saying that the whole affair raises issues in how we understand the production of scholarship. We’re all mere mortals, so perhaps it would be best to lower our expectations with regard to what we do, really acknowledge our debt to others, and allow practice to catch up with theory.

That applies especially, I think, to the “star academics” who shape current discussions and fields, like Žižek. Despite the charges of plagiarism, I still admire and find value in his work, so I’ll continue to read what he has to say. That’s not to say that I’m not disappointed -- I, like other admirers, am, so I might take what he has to say with a few more grains of salt. But such disappointment is a good reminder that we’re all mere mortals, Žižek included.

 

Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen 2013).

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Slavoj Žižek

Essay on adjunct duties after a course is over

Cliffton Price considers the work adjuncts are asked to do after their courses (and compensation) are over.

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Adjuncts Urge Labor Dept. Inquiry Into Working Conditions

More than 500 adjunct professors and their advocates have signed a petition calling for the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate their working conditions. The petition's authors, all current or former adjuncts at various colleges and universities, allege that they are being paid for only part of the work they do, and that that amounts to wage theft. The petition is addressed to David Weil, director of the agency's Wage and Hour Division, and urges him to "open an investigation into the labor practices of our colleges and universities in the employment of contingent faculty, including adjunct instructors and full-time contract faculty outside the tenure track." The investigation should be conducted at the "sector" level, they say, rather than individually.

The petition says that average yearly income for adjunct professors "hovers in the same range as minimum-wage fast food and retail workers," since adjuncts typically are paid only for the time they spend teaching -- not the time they spend preparing or meeting individually with students. Ann Kottner, an adjunct professor of English at three New York City-area colleges, says in a photo posted with the petition that she works 66 hours per week but is compensated for only 26 hours, for example. Kottner and her co-authors say faculty unions have helped alleviate the problem in some cases, but that more needs to be done to protect the rights of adjuncts who can't or won't form unions. Many adjuncts lack basic job security and fear getting "blacklisted" for speaking out or organizing, they say.

The Labor Department did not return a call for comment on the petition.

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Academic Minute: Cryptographic Key Security

In today's Academic Minute, Artur Ekert, professor of quantum physics at the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford, discusses cryptography and efforts to improve security systems. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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U. Miami postdoc wants to bring science to the masses

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Little scientific research ever makes it to the public sphere. One postdoc wants to change that with a new website that helps scientists translate their research for lay audiences.

Philosophy association considers whether it needs a code of conduct

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Sexual harassment reports have prompted American Philosophical Association to consider creating a code of conduct for its members. Reactions are mixed.

Essay on the backlash against the digital humanities movement

“I’m flexing my muscles. Come see me flex my muscles!”

The digital humanities (DH) is a proud discipline. Its members will be the first to tell you when they have done something impressive. Lately, that pride has started to wear on our non-digital colleagues who have quietly begun pushing back, by setting aside applications that look a little too digital, and rejecting high-profile journal submissions from digital scholars. I can’t prove it, but as an early-career scholar, I can feel it. They don’t like us.

But maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s us.

For the past decade we’ve been living in the age of digital hubris, and we can therefore hardly blame people for getting sick of us. Did you hear about the size of Soandso’s newest grant? Or did you read the latest on Whatshisname’s research in The New York Times? Did you know more people read that popular DH student’s blog post yesterday than have ever read your book?

In April, one of the most successful DH projects of all time turned 11 years old. The Old Bailey Online (OBO) first appeared in 2003, and brought 127 million words of transcribed criminal trial records to the Internet. In the decade since its launch, 309 publications have cited the OBO, the project has helped thousands of genealogists piece together their family histories, and it has even inspired a television series. As far as academic projects go, few have as much to be proud of as the OBO.

So 11 years on, what do the project leaders regret? Their hubris.

Professor Tim Hitchcock, one of the principal investigators, wrote on his blog that his enthusiasm for the project’s potential had “simply raised the ire of a group of historians ... who felt their own expertise was somehow threatened.”

It’s not just their expertise that humanists see as being under threat. Traditional humanities monographs are becoming economically unfeasible. Nonetheless, the perceived slow death of the book hasn’t been enough for many scholars in the digital humanities. They want everyone to know their stance: good riddance! Why bother with a publisher and a two-year turnaround when the internet is free and immediate?

Research budgets everywhere are being slashed, yet there always seems to be a million here or a hundred thousand there to get the next big DH project off the ground. That means less money for traditional research. A few years ago a historian colleague of mine assured me that she “does her own research” and didn’t need to waste grant money hiring someone to do it for her. She was a real researcher -- or so implied the cold fury in her intonation.

Who cares what other people think, we might say. On their own these non-digital colleagues won’t be able to put a stop to the private funding, or national-level competitions targeted at DH projects, or the pressure from humanities departments to attract grant funding. However, while they continue to sit on hiring committees, adjudication panels, and act as peer reviewers, they do still hold a number of keys to the academic world. A dose of digital humility may be in our collective best interest, not least for the sake of those of us just starting our careers.

DH is inherently interdisciplinary. My “core” discipline is history. As a (recent) graduate student, that meant my scholarship and job applications typically went through panels of historians. When the application was for something digital or not explicitly disciplinary, I (with all humility) did quite well. But if I had to convince a group of anonymous historians that my work was worthy, I seemed destined for the “no” pile.

Times are tough. I can accept that there are other great candidates out there who may have been better for the job, or more worthy of the scholarship. But it’s not just me. Most of my colleagues in Britain were self-funded during their Ph.D.s, or supported their studies as part-time developers and project managers. I know of none with the golden-ticket scholarships that have long been a measure of the top students in the humanities. I’m grateful I can support myself in other ways. But it’s difficult to ignore the feeling that young scholars are being kept on the other side of the gates by an establishment that’s decided those DH people get enough already.

I’ve seen it in traditional publishing venues as well. One of the most influential digital history articles ever written has been repeatedly rejected by traditional historical journals and is still without a home. This is despite the fact that I’m quite confident that if you are a DH scholar you would recognize the visualization that formed the basis of the article.

Some scholars are getting cunning in an effort to sidestep this digital backlash. A colleague of mine working at the corner of DH and history obfuscated his digital connections in an effort to get hired by a history department. It worked. I followed suit and immediately found my prospects improved when applying for funding.

Is it a conspiracy? No. DHers have many allies in the halls of power. But we all have room for more friends, and the wave of early-career scholars in the field can ill-afford to have people on their selection committees and peer review panels viewing them as a threat, or as arrogant, just because of their field of study.

We can dig in for another decade of covert gatekeeping, or we can move into a new phase of digital humility and mend the divide that has grown between us. I’m sure everyone would agree that DH’s proper place is alongside traditional humanists, supplementing rather than eradicating their techniques with new ways of looking at old problems. Non-digital scholars add depth to our breadth, and focus to our vision.

So I’d like to encourage DH to join me in a decade of digital humility, in which we remind our colleagues that we’re all here because we love the humanities. We appreciate their work, even if we don’t always say so. And we’d like to be on the same team.

That doesn’t mean we need to stop flexing our muscles. We’ve worked hard on them. But, when we are flexing, maybe we can let people notice on their own.
 

Adam Crymble is a lecturer in digital history at the University of Hertfordshire, in the United Kingdom.

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For Intellectuals Suffering World Cup Withdrawal

Are you crushed by the end of World Cup 2014? Perhaps you would enjoy some sites to help with the transition back to academic interests while still holding on to the excitement from Brazil.

  • For the chemistry professor, analysis from the chemistry blog Compound Interest on the chemistry of the World Cup football.
  • For the literature professor, a literary World Cup sponsored by Three Percent, the University of Rochester blog on international literature, literary translation and related topics.
  • For the political scientist, context from The Duck of Minerva on the collapse of Brazil's team and how it relates to political and economic issues in the country.
  • For the philosopher, a cartoon from Existential Comics on the German-French showdown.

If you need a (faux) intellectual laugh this morning because your team lost or because the competition is over, this old Monty Python video may be your best bet.

 

 

 

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AFT and Freelancers Union announce new effort to help adjuncts with insurance

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AFT and Freelancers Union announce plan to give those off the tenure track the ability to buy insurance through groups, rather than individually.

Essay calls for the preservation of presidential email

For decades now, email has been the preferred form of communication for individuals in large and small organizations, including colleges and universities. The impact of the use of email on the need for vital primary sources for institutional histories, however, has been little noticed, let alone addressed. And the clock is ticking.

David Skorton, president of Cornell University (where I have taught and served as an administrator for 30 years), receives between 150 and 200 emails each day. He replies to virtually all of them. The volume of email traffic (perhaps 100,000 notes a year per person) is about the same for the provost and many of the vice presidents and deans at Cornell. Like telephone conversations, which are often informal and irreverent, with a mix of the personal and the professional, their emails can be more important – and more candid – than snail mail letters.

It is not entirely clear who owns emails. Lawyers at private colleges and universities claim that all business records and communications, including correspondence conducted on computers, iPads or iPhones purchased and maintained by the employer, are the property of the institution. In many states, email records at public colleges and universities are covered by open records laws, and can become public as a result. Many experts acknowledge, however, that few colleges and universities have policies that explicitly engage this issue with reference to email.

Past practice, moreover, has permitted presidents, provosts and deans (and, for that matter, faculty and staff) to review their own correspondence, be it in the form of hard copy or emails, before deciding what material is personal and what “documents,” if any, should be housed in library archives. It should not be surprising, then, that many college and university officials routinely delete their incoming and outgoing emails, rendering them difficult to recover and doomed to extinction when the computer that houses them is discarded.

Given the volume – and the sometimes sensitive content – of email exchanges, it seems likely that few, if any, academic leaders will have sufficient time or be inclined to conduct a comprehensive review of their “files.” Nor, I suspect, will they choose to allow a third party to make decisions about what items to include or exclude. Absent a formal policy governing this correspondence, which may or may not resemble the preserve everything that has “documentary or evidential value” approach taken by the litigation and freedom of information-conscious federal government and applied to many state employees, it may well be that in the 21st century, the official “papers” of college and university officials will lack vitally important information about decisions made during their tenure.

In my view, boards of trustees should act – with a sense of urgency. They might begin by appointing a task force, composed of professional historians, lawyers, board members, and administrators, to recommend procedures for an independent review of the correspondence of presidents and provosts. Although a mandate that all communications should reside in library archives might have a chilling effect on email exchanges (and boost the telephone bills of academic leaders), it should be considered as well. Equally important, boards of trustees should set aside funds for the review – and for cataloging presidential and provostial papers (having just completed a history of Cornell from 1940 to the present, co-authored with my colleague Isaac Kramnick, I can attest to the massive challenges posed by uncataloged collections, which contain millions of documents).

In addition to making possible more accurate institutional histories, complete and accessible presidential "papers" might well help sitting presidents facing tough decisions, by allowing them to understand what their predecessors considered, said and did in similar situations.

Such an approach will cost a considerable amount of money, but even at a time in which resources are tight, the alternative – a less complete, more sanitized, and impoverished account of the history of colleges and universities – is far too steep a price to pay. Emails are, in a sense, an endangered species: it’s in our interest to design a practical plan to preserve and protect them.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

 

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