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

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In the fight against cheating, character counts (essay)

My first political philosophy teacher was the great Joseph Cropsey who, when we came to a difficult problem in Plato, would sometimes exhort us.

“Courage,” he would say, knowing that we were tempted to quit, not only  because Plato was a hard read but also because there was much in us, from vanity to laziness to fear, that resisted education.

Like Cropsey, Mark Edmundson thinks that education makes demands on a student’s character. In his 1997 Harper’s essay, “On The Uses of A Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,” he retells the story of a professor who supposedly issued “a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?” Edmundson admits that the question is heavy-handed but approves of the idea that teachers summon students to an encounter they may want to dodge. Students so challenged may skip the reading, or close themselves to what they read, or engage in other kinds of cheating.

I use “cheating” in the extended sense we use when we say our students are “cheating themselves.” James Lang, for the most part, means it more narrowly in in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. But I thought of Cropsey and Edmundson as I read Cheating Lessons because Lang shies away from the question of character. Instead, his book is about helping “faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they [have] constructed.”

Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, advances a “theory about how specific features of a learning environment can play an important role in determining whether or not students cheat.”  Students who think learning is a means to an end take shortcuts. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it fosters “intrinsic motivation in our students,” rather than “relying on extrinsic motivators such as grades.”

Students encouraged to outperform each other on high-stakes assessments feel pressure to cheat. So a learning environment discourages cheating  when it invites students to attain  “learning objectives” and permits them to show that attainment in a variety of ways, with low-stakes assessments preparing the way for high-stakes assessments. Students who think assignments are impossible will find it easy to justify cheating. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it instills a “strong but realistic sense of self-efficacy.”

But Lang does not want teachers to think of themselves as academic honesty cops. The most “exciting discovery [he] made while writing” Cheating Lessons is this: “environments which reduce the incentive and opportunity to cheat are the very ones that, according to the most current information we have about how human beings learn, will lead to greater and deeper learning.” 

Lang made this discovery, he writes, by looking at the “problem of cheating through the lens of cognitive theory.” For example, a teacher may think that giving frequent low-stakes assessments is a distraction from learning. Lang himself thought so until he found out “how little [he] knew about the basic workings of the brain.” The well-documented “testing effect” suggests that such assessments are not merely measures of learning but an effective means of helping students retain what they have learned.

Yet I balk at the very term “learning environment,” with its faint odor of antiseptic. Educators may use the term out of humility, placing themselves in the background and seeking not so much to teach as to place students in a situation in which they can learn. But the idea of a teacher as a constructor and modifier of learning environments merely shifts the teacher’s role from the front of the room to inside the control room, flipping switches and twisting dials, modifying conditions in the same way one might modify “the conditions of a laboratory,” in accordance with the latest learning theory. It is not obvious that this approach is humbler than that of Cropsey, who, while he stood in front of the room, nonetheless was visibly engaged in the same set of difficult and fascinating problems in which he sought to engage us. If we think of our students as subjects in our laboratory, to be manipulated and nudged toward desirable behaviors, how can we develop in them the qualities of character they will need to govern themselves in environments we do not control?

To be fair, Lang, who offers several exemplars of great teaching, is well aware that teachers are models, or even coaches, not just environmental technicians. But even when he profiles a teacher, Jim Hoyle, who plainly exemplifies for students both the joys and demands of work in his field, Lang is interested in how “the ways in which we communicate with students can also help them develop an appropriately gauged sense of self-efficacy.”

Hoyle, who has written his own book on teaching, indicates that there is something more going on when he describes his own role model, Vince Lombardi. Lombardi exemplified not only a way of communicating with athletes but a message, about “courage,” “determination,” “dedication,” and “sacrifice,” that Hoyle thinks “excellent ... for both teachers and students.”

Lang’s target readers “might feel uncertain about their ability to cultivate virtues in their students.” Lang himself reminds the reader that “you are not an ethics professor” and warns against haranguing. I assume Hoyle, like most sensible people, takes for granted neither his own virtues nor his capacity to foster them in others, and he does not, on Lang’s account, do much haranguing.

But Hoyle also seems to think that he need not be an American Philosophical Association certified moral expert to try to impart to students, as well as the readers of his book on teaching, the virtues that attend the best learning and teaching. The cultivation of such virtues may be a more effective spur to learning and antidote to cheating in its narrow and broad senses than the strategies, all of them useful, on which Lang focuses. As Peter Lawler has recently argued, teachers may do well to recall the “Aristotelian point” that “intellectual virtue depends on moral virtue.”

Admittedly, I cannot appeal to the social science literature on cheating that Lang has acquainted himself with to support that last set of claims. And I agree with him that teachers and administrators must not ignore what experiments can tell us about learning. It would be foolish to spend a dime on an academic integrity orientation before you have processed Dan Ariely’s finding that Princeton’s academic integrity orientation showed absolutely no effect on the likelihood that Princeton students would cheat on a math test two weeks after it ended. It would be foolish to ignore the results of the MIT experiment with a “studio model” for teaching physics, which dramatically reduced both cheating and the rate of failure in the course.

But Lang oversells what social science can tell us at present. For example, to support his argument that “performance oriented classrooms,” which emphasize “grades and competition among students,” encourage cheating, Lang cites a paper by Eric Anderman and Tamara Murdock. But Anderman and Murdock are more cautious than Lang because while “students report cheating more if they perceive the presence of a performance goal structure,” two studies find that “goal structure appears to be unrelated to cheating when a more objective method of assessing context is utilized.” The “extent to which teachers can reduce cheating by implementing” practices of the sort Lang recommends “is still unclear.”

Consider also Lang’s doubt that “hard punishments deter potential cheaters.” While Lang supports this claim in part by citing the work of Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Trevino, they themselves have concluded, drawing on their own and others’ research, that  “academic dishonesty is negatively associated with  the perceived certainty of being reported and the perceived severity of penalties.” Similarly, Anderman and Murdock, in the same paper we have been considering, assume that “[f]ears of being caught and the perceived severity of the consequences for being caught are two of the most important deterrents to potential cheaters.”

Lang is still right to emphasize that “we have no incontrovertible evidence that harsh penalties deter cheating.” Moreover, I agree with him that an anti-cheating regime that focuses primarily on threats is unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, there is hardly a groundswell of support for harsh punishments. McCabe and his co-authors argue that the opposite is true: many faculty members have concluded that confronting cheating isn’t worth the trouble. How, they ask, “can we expect students to believe that cheating is a serious problem when faculty and others are reluctant to deal with cheaters ... when cheating receives minor consequences and, worst of all, when faculty look the other way?”

However that may be, Lang, as his discussion of the performance classroom shows, does not typically insist that evidence be incontrovertible before one acts on it. It is fine to set a high bar for accepting and acting on the results of social science research. But you can’t set a higher bar for approaches you are already inclined to disagree with than you set for approaches you are otherwise inclined to favor.

That’s cheating.

Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at


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Essay on how to deal with (and not obsess over) student plagiarism

Tryo Tracts

Instructors should take plagiarism seriously, writes Nate Kreuter. But they shouldn't rush to assume students are doing it -- nor should they obsess about it.

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Study finds plagiarism among students all across Europe

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Why the great (Lance Armstrong and Harvard students) cheat (essay)

The news that 125 Harvard students were under investigation for cheating on an exam came just days after we were informed that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was stripping Lance Armstrong of his Tour de France titles. In both of these cases, we have alleged wrongdoing by those at the top of their fields, and there is no reason to think that it was cheating that got them there.  The Harvard students were admitted to our top university because of their hard work and scholarly achievement. Armstrong would have been a racing legend regardless. It is easy to understand why those who are not in the upper echelon might seek illicit advantage in order to get their shot at greatness, but why would the already great cheat?

To act in an ethical way requires two steps: first, you need to figure out what would be the right thing to do in your particular situation, and second, you need to actually do it.  Usually, when we commit immoral acts, it is a failure of the second step.  We know we shouldn’t do it, but we do it anyway.

Maybe it was expedient, maybe it got us something we really wanted or allowed us to hide some misdeed or embarrassing error, or perhaps it was peer pressure or rebellion. Usually, we are fully aware when we are doing something we shouldn’t and we try to hide it or rationalize it.  Fewer are the times when we act wrongly by moral miscalculation, when we thought about how to behave and came up with the wrong answer.  But that may be exactly what happened in these cases.  

If what we value is out of whack, then so will be our decisions about what constitutes proper action.  If we are driven solely by ends, if success and achievement are the only things to which we assign worth, then the means will seem unimportant by contrast.

In athletics, we celebrate winners.  Sporting goods stores are full of t-shirts with sayings such as “Second place is the first loser” or “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Wheaties boxes are reserved for champions. The message is clear – it is not the training, practicing or competing, but the victory that is valued.  The playing of the game is fleeting, quickly forgotten but for the highlight reel; it is only the win or the loss that becomes a thing in itself and lives on forever.

If sports were about the playing, then cheating would be not only wrong, but irrational -- it destroys the entire reason for engaging in the sport. If a mountain climber’s goal is to say he stood at the peak of Kilimanjaro, then he could get there by helicopter and the climbing would become irrelevant. And if what we value changes from the doing to what has been done, then cheating becomes desirable.        

What we see in sports is now being deeply embedded in the classroom. It is not the acquiring of knowledge, understanding, or insight, but rather the grade that is important.  We are less interested in learning than in learning outcomes.

The switch is subtle, but critically important. If students love thinking and learning, then cheating cheats them of what they seek.  There would be a disincentive to take short cuts.

But if  process is trumped by outcomes in education, then cheating become rational.  Add a competitive element in which there will be positive or negative consequences for having higher or lower marks and you develop a culture in which seeking any means to better scores becomes natural and normal, not only accepted but lauded. In this environment, the cheater is seen as “beating the system”, as having played the game better, not worse.

This may be what happened at Harvard.  With standardized tests and concern about learning outcomes assessment, we have altered how we look at learning purportedly to help it improve.  But what we have done is to sow the seeds of that which undermines it and leads to the destruction of what made it valuable in the first place.

Steve Gimbel is chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College.

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