Carolyn Segal considers the impact of an essay -- and its unexpected afterlife in the world of plagiarism Web sites.

October 19, 2007

I know who I want to be when I grow up. I want to be Stephen Colbert. I even know the title of the book I’ll publish: I Am Academic (And So Can You!). Unfortunately, I’ve already had, I think, my 15 minutes of fame.

Part I: I Get a Thrill

The experience was distinctly postmodern: minimalist, ironic, and as deflating as it was exhilarating. I could say that I had spent my entire life up until that point preparing for my moment of celebrity; on the other hand, it wasn’t quite what I had dreamed of.

I can still recall how many how many conversations my friends and I, standing around on the playground outside St. Patrick’s Grammar School, had on the subject of being famous. Blame it on the post-World War II atmosphere of fear and longing, blame it on the space race or Tiger Beat Magazine, but my baby-boomer generation was obsessed with fame -- or at least being noticed. (Current celebrities, take note: You’re not even original in wanting to be celebrities.) My earliest plans had to do with receiving an Oscar for a dramatic tap-dancing role in a film that combined the most poignant moments of The Five Pennies and The Nun’s Story. This fantasy was followed by a phase in which I spent long hours in my pink bedroom writing variations on Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man”; perhaps a president- elect would invite me to share his inaugural stage.

By the time Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s invitation in 1993, I had earned several degrees, given birth to several children, taught writing at several colleges, and published a number of poems and essays, but fame had eluded me. There had been a number of indirect links: I knew a few poets with national reputations; I knew professors who were either reputable critics or who peppered their lectures with references to their reputable mentors. My first college roommate went on to become the editor-in-chief of two glossy women’s magazines. The lead articles in her publications, which I surreptitiously scanned while on line at the supermarket, were depressingly like the surveys she had conducted in our dorm room after “lights out.” I thought she was just making conversation, not planning how she would achieve fame.

Oh, there were moments when fame seemed close at hand. Once, another mother at my children’s bus stop asked me to autograph her copy of my article “The Two-Year-Old’s Guide to Dressing, Dining and Shopping,” which she had discovered in a free parenting magazine in the waiting room of her ob/gyn. And there were the three odd cases of mistaken identity. In an earnest discussion with her pre-school teacher, my oldest child incorrectly attributed the authorship of “Hickory, Dickory Dock” to me; a very tiny, very old woman followed me into the women’s room after the opening of Love Serenade in Manhattan, insisting that I was Shirley Basset, the film’s Australian director; and once, in the elevator of a conference hotel, an overeager graduate student mistook me for Joyce Carol Oates.

And then it happened. I inadvertently stumbled upon what is apparently the universal subject in academe. It does not involve politics, theory, or tenure; it does cut across gender, race, academic majors, and all levels of faculty and staff. My topic was the student excuse.

Written in a white heat, the morning after a student attempted to justify missing the first two sessions of a class that met only once a week, "The Dog Ate My Disk and Other Tales of Academic Woe" was a simple classification piece, the sort of exercise I used to assign in Basic Composition. My thesis appeared at the end of the introductory paragraph. Excuses from college students, I explained, fell into five broad categories: the family, the best friend, the evils of dorm life, the evils of technology, and the totally bizarre.

I was pleased that the editors liked my essay, although I thought it was slighter than my first Chronicle of Higher Education piece, published several months earlier. That one had garnered a few congratulatory notes and several comments in the halls of my building, along with a single request for reprinting, and then it subsided into a line on my résumé, which often seems more alive than I am. I knew the second piece was scheduled for August 2000, but by the time it appeared, I was immersed in syllabi for the fall. And, truthfully, the earliest indications on the home front weren’t promising. My two younger children looked at the illustration and said “cool,” but declined my offers to let them actually hold the paper and read the piece. My oldest child, now in college but possibly still cautious since the pre-school fiasco, said, “I think your piece on Don DeLillo and your horoscope is much funnier. You know, the one where you freak out just because some phony astrologer said ‘Good day for industrial secrets’ under your sign. Why didn’t you send that one?” My mother said she didn’t think “throwing up blood” was a nice thing to write about.

The first e-mail message was equally disheartening. Its author delivered a lengthy lecture on compassion, liberally laced with insulting epithets for me. The rest of the mail, fortunately for my fragile ego, was positive. I heard from administrators as well as from adjuncts, lecturers, and full-time tenured professors at public and private universities, small liberal arts schools like mine, and community colleges. I received requests for reprints and an invitation to be on talk radio “to discuss this national problem.”

Everyone, it seemed, had a story: this is a maxim I tell my students; it was heartening to find such evidence. Deans wrote fondly about professors from 20 and 30 years ago who had called their undergraduate bluffs; professors relayed stories involving plots that rivaled those of Oprah’s book club selections; and I received enough tales involving body parts and organs to lead me to conclude that there should be a separate category of excuses under the heading “Mutilations” or “Excuses Inspired by American Psycho.” No one ever questioned the veracity of my anecdotes involving dangerous machinery or the pope. In fact, the chair of a math department at a private university wrote to me “on behalf of several colleagues” to check the initials of the student involved in what I had referred to as “The Pennsylvania Chain Saw Episode.” They were certain she had matriculated at their school before moving on to mine. I was grateful to the chair of an education department who offered (unsolicited) verification of the phrase that had troubled my mother. I was less certain how to respond to the reader who said he “particularly enjoyed the bloody parts.”

Marvelously inventive stories poured in for months. While all those who contacted me had had dealings with students on one level or another, there was one writer who had a personal interest. From her office across our (small) campus, she e-mailed me to ask if her daughter, whom I’d had in several classes, was responsible for any of the stories (The daughter was innocent).

Part II The Afterlife

As I opened that last message, it occurred to me that my celebrity was largely electronic and ultimately solitary -- much like the process of writing itself. This was 21st-century virtual fame. In fact, the next phase was something of a virtual nightmare, involving my e-mailing institutions and individuals who had posted my essay on their Web sites without permission. The copyright offenders included a Southern church; a professor of communications who, according to her home page, had a doctorate in journalism ethics; and a sociology professor who explained that his “[W]ebsite [was] intended to . . . introduce you to the many ways which [sic] you can utilize the World Wide Web in your sociological endeavors” -- those endeavors beginning, apparently, with piracy.

Even the essay’s inclusion in composition texts was another mixed -- and humbling -- experience. The promotional material for one of the earliest texts featured the title of my piece, referring to me as “a lesser known writer.” (There is something worse than being a lesser-known writer -- it’s seeing that fact announced in print.) In the tables of contents of anthologies, my name hovers, Zelig-like, alongside those of Amy Tan and Shakespeare. And then there are the instructors’ manuals (which I secretly scan the way I used to read magazines in the supermarket), where David Sedaris rates the adjective “hilarious,” while I am described as merely “very funny.” As for the suggested essay question, “Do you think Segal is being unfair,” I want to write my own 500-word answer. It is one thing to be a misunderstood poet; I’m not certain that I can bear going though the rest of my life as a lesser known and misunderstood essayist.

I will admit to one glorious moment of pleasure early on, when I sat (alone) at my desk and thought, “They like me. They really like me.” The teaching load at a small liberal arts college, however, does not leave much time for basking in the limelight. Moreover, as the semesters progressed, the excuses began to mount. I realized that I had thought my essay was a sort of talisman: I mistakenly believed that having articulated my -- and my students’ -- griefs and grievances, I had put an end to all excuses. But they continued to come, as varied, creative, and astounding as ever. There was the Hemingway-esque “Something tragic happened,” stunning in its brevity and stoicism, and the Zen-like explanation of “I know you allow only two cuts and this was my third, but I was with you in spirit.”

As for “The Dog Ate My Disk,” it lives on, in its final incarnation -- you can purchase, for a very small fee, analytical essays about my (famous) piece at various plagiarism sites.


Carolyn F. Segal is associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College.


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