Thursday, January 28, 2010

My Word!: Chapter 3, "Observing the Performance Self"

Susan Blum begins the third chapter with clear, if limited, definitions of two types of people. Authentic selves “insist that their words are theirs and theirs alone. . . . Nothing could make them pronounce what is not intended as an expression of their own thoughts and feelings. . . . [They] would never plagiarize because they believe to their core that all they say should be theirs and theirs alone” (60-61).

On the contrary, the behavior of “[performance selves] is mutable, depending on circumstances. All that matters is the effect of their actions. . . . They will say what is expected, whatever suits the occasion, whether it is their personal truth or not. . . . They don’t feel a tight connection between their words and their inner being, so they don’t sweat it if others use their words or if they use the words of others” (61).

Blum goes on to associate the authentic self with the ethos of the 1960s while claiming that the more recent emergence of a performance self stems from the 1980s. As broad trends, Blum’s observation may serve as a thumb thrust into the wind to determine its general direction, but as a guide to the behavior of individuals or, as Blum uses it, large groups of individuals, her characterizations are entirely too binary and limited.

The authentic self as she describes it is such a romantic ideal of a type that it would be almost impossible to find a representative example. (Moreover, it sounds like they are so committed to their own ideas, it seems unlikely they would even agree to do research.) Her descriptions of this type seem to derive from the romantic vision of Thoreau or sixties-style communal living. And therein is a flaw.

While she extols the virtues of this singular authentic self, she ignores a very important trait of the human species. Just as statistical trends tend to regress toward the mean, human beings, no matter how authentic, are pulled by the gravity of the group and tend to regress to the norm. In short, human beings tend much more regularly toward the behavior of the performance self that Blum tries to paint as an ethical blight.

Blum derides the performance self for its conformist nature, but she fails to recognize the conformity often found among authentic types as well. The sixties may have had a visible movement toward authenticity, but those very soul-searchers she lauds often pursued the authentic self in groups that formed their own norms of dress, hairstyle, music, drugs, and behavior. I would argue that the authentic self shares more in common with the performance self than Blum wants to admit.

Take Edward, one of the students interviewed as part of Blum’s research and someone offered up as an example of the new performance self. In his interview, Edward says, "personally . . . I would rather care less what people thought of me. . . . I will be my own person, . . . most of the time, . . . unless I'm in . . . a really uncomfortable situation . . ." (73). Edward doesn’t sound like someone unconcerned with authenticity. In fact, he shows a preference for it, but also understands that compromise is a social lubricant. He sounds reasonable enough to me. I’m not sure what cause he gives us to question his ethics.

Blum also misses the mark in suggesting that the performance self is something new. Sure, there have been individuals and cultural movements that stress authenticity, but a performance focus, which Blum seems to equate with a propensity toward duplicity, is historically common, even dominant. Dr. Blum, I’d like to introduce you to Nicolo Machiavelli. I think you two have much to discuss.

Blum has tortured her reasoning to reach the conclusions she's presented. She claims the performance self is obsessed with achievement and concludes, "[t]he performance self is more prone to cheat and plagiarize than the authentic self, given its focus on results rather than on the expression of a singular personal essence. Whose words are spoken is irrelevant; what matters is that the words fit the requirements" (89).

I have my doubts, but let's pretend for a moment that these two "selves" exist and that recognition of them is in fact useful. Her conclusion that the performance self is more likely to cheat because it means meeting the requirements strikes me as poor reasoning. After all, if the requirement is to cite your sources, why wouldn’t the requirement-obsessed performance self not just cite the sources? Come on Performance Self. You don't have to understand it. Just do it. Be like the rest of us. It's easier and we'll like you for it.

Blum demonstrates the danger of spending too much time immersed in research. It seems to me she has created her own echo chamber of ideas that make perfect sense as long as you don’t listen too closely. It's what allows her to make this statement with a straight face:

"The value of citation stems from the authentic self's focus on an individual's singularity: you give credit to the author, the unique person, because the book is 'the imprint of a living human soul.' But how can the performance self see the point of tracing the products of a unique self when it doesn't believe in the unique self?" (79)

As a scholar, I can see where Blum can make such a statement. It lines up with her research and deeper analysis about the roots of the concept of intellectual property. But my student self -- one that grappled with the issue of how to understand the need to document my sources for many years of undergraduate and graduate work (not to mention high school) -- never thought like this. I would bet good money today's students don't think like this either.

Moreover, I think it’s irrelevant whether they do or don’t. The authentic self, if it exists, is a type so pristine as to be virtually unattainable. It certainly does not now, nor has it ever described the mainstream of students, faculty, or humanity of any kind. We’re all more or less some version of the performance self in practice, and nothing about that characterization necessarily leads to unethical behavior. We’re still left with the difference between unintentional plagiarism (for whatever reason) and cheating.

The answer, then, to Blum’s last question about getting today's students to understand the point of tracing information to its source is "teach them." Understanding the need to cite your sources is no more difficult than understanding that your reader may want to look at those same sources. Or, if you prefer, that faculty need to be able to confirm your research. Either way, the performance self should be able to understand that, in order to succeed in their papers, they'll need to do this. Blum’s own argument suggests that students will want to conform to this expectation. It does not require any deeper navel gazing.

As for the cheaters among the plagiarists, Blum has already cited evidence that cheating on written work hasn't shown signs of increasing (2). Perhaps students have more options for cheating, but then again, there are more options for catching them. Certainly, today's cheaters are no more immune to the threat of being caught than a cheater of any generation. Any self should be able to understand that.

Quick aside: I'm sure you've done the math by now, as I have, and realize that there is no realistic way that I'm going to finish this book, let alone blog on the rest of it before the book group meeting on February 3 (which is next Wednesday). While this whole thread of posts is somewhat off topic for the blog, I might consider extending the conversation after the meeting as well. I'll leave that decision up to you. If you want me to continue, please leave a comment letting me know.


Anonymous said...

David: Your comments are delightfully pragmatic. We ask our students to cite their sources because in the realm of research and scholarship we all stand upon the shoulders of those who laboured before us. If even a small portion of our own research or anlysis is based on a mistake made in the past, the unhappy result is that we do not add to the sum of human knowledge but rather continue detracting from it. It becomes important for both ourselves and the scholar of the future to have a clear pathway back to the source of our misinformation. These sorts of discussions always remind me of F. O. Matthiesson and his "soiled fish."

David said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Last week, I encountered another reason to cite our sources: politeness. I was in a meeting where there was a discussion of how to improve a web site. The person next to me offered a good idea. About two minutes later, the person next to her -- the person actually leading the discussion -- claimed the idea as her own.

To someone like me who has spent most of his life documenting sources, it was such an obvious breach of protocol, I had to correct her.

I suppose this is exactly Blum's point: some people don't value ownership of ideas the way others do. If nothing else, it's worthwhile to discuss the issue as one of rhetorical context.

Anonymous said...

To David and Anonymous,
Speaking of soiled fish, or rather rotten fish, and the issue of acknowledgement, either formal or via the niceties of colleagiality, may I ask a hypothetical question? Let us suppose that somewhere on our campus or perhaps another,an individual is fired from one department but for one reason or another is moved by a higher level of adminstration to head a new enterprise. For the sake of argument, we will call it a "Science Center", operating in a fashion similar to your own Writing Center. Let us further suppose that although said individual has no qualifications to head this new operation, he/she did participate while in the first department in laying out and proofing material (written, though for the most part unsigned, by others) for certain handbooks or newsletters which might be construed as indeed relevent to this new "Science Center." Let us suppose even further that this material, without the knowledge or permission of his/her former Director, disappears from the department with the departure of said individual. Suppose it is later discovered that the material, much of it on computerized files, was either destoyed or removed to a place unknown, perhaps even his/her own home. Let us assume that later, perhaps at the prodding of his/her former department, administration does finally return it to its place of origin. Ah, problem solved one concludes. The Dean has done his job. The Bishop has regained his silver candlesticks. But is the problem solved? This is obviously not at this point a full blown violation of academic integity, at least as far as one can know. However, since we speak hypothetically, how can one be certain how much of a role this person claimed behind closed doors in the production of the remaining materials, how much did he/she copy and keep for further use. Perhaps she/he did none of these things, perhaps all. As to the material destroyed, whose call is that? To whom does such material actually belong? The university at large to disperse as it pleases? The department from which it originates? The persons who wrote and edited it, who, by the way, at the time chose to omit their own names as it was a departmental venture? The individual who did the computerized layout? Should the Dean have investigated the matter more thoroughly? It is situations such as these, like your meeting, which bring the issue of "ownership" of both ideas and these sorts of academic materials out of the realm of gentle speculation and into the harsh world of reality.

David said...

Anonymous II: An interesting case. There are details here that lead me to suspect that this case isn't hypothetical at all, but rather a slight restructuring of an actual situation.

There's a lot here, so I won't pretend to tackle all of it. Here, then, are some specific comments:

1) I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of the difference between the "gentle world of speculation" and the "harsh world of reality." While I admit this is beside the true point, I do think it is a significant characterization that betrays some of the attitude of the writer. In our profession, such discussions are undertaken specifically because of the reality of plagiarism and transgressions of academic integrity. I think we're engaged in a real search for practical answers and not just in an intellectual exercise.

2) Much of the answer to your "hypothetical" situation lies in whatever contractual agreements might be in place. At my previous job, it was specified that the company, by virtue of my employment with them, owned my work. In practice, the administration wasn't concerned with what I might take away of my own work so long as it didn't jeopardize their competitive advantage in the marketplace. For anything that related to that advantage, there was a period designated under a non-compete clause that effectively prohibited me from taking what I knew to a competitor.

Contracts like that have real value in such situations. There is so much gray area ethically. I don't think anyone would claim that I couldn't use 1-inch margins in my next document because my current department "owns" that idea. Similarly, the developer of an internal process should be able to take that knowledge with him or her into his or her next assignment.

What's interesting about your "hypothetical" is that ownership of the work never really passed out of control of the owning body, the university in question. It just moved departments.

3) To me, the heart of the question of intellectual property is the assumption that one has the right (I hesitate to use that word) to profit from their intellectual or creative work. However, equally relevant to the issue is the assumption that such work will be shared for the greater benefit of society. It is not meant to be hoarded. In the situation you presented, I'd say that the person in question was wrong in taking the material, but not in recreating it again for the new department. After all, it doesn't seem that any competitive advantage was gained. Each person who worked on the original project would have the same right to recreate what he or she could in a different environment so long as it didn't breach a contract.

4) Much of this issue in professional academic circles isn't even about ethics. It is widely accepted that you shouldn't publish a scholarly article in more than one journal. Is this really about ethics? After all, it is your work. Shouldn't you be able to disseminate it as you will? Rather, it seems that scholarly journals behave like corporations, protecting their competitive advantage by limiting the publication of a work to their own publication once that work is accepted.

Anonymous said...

David -- May I contribute a thought or two on this interesting situation and your provocative answer. Many years ago, the head of my department put together a handbook suggesting various ways students might approach the understanding of our particular discipline. He was no horder. This was material he would gladly have shared had he been asked; but a year or two later, he was astonished to see it xeroxed verbatim under the name of the head of a different department and being distributed to students there. Again, this was a matter of material not leaving the parent institution but just changing departments. Nonetheless, do we not owe one another the courtesy of at least acknowledging authorship even on unpublished and informal documents such as these? As to the interesting "hypothetical", I note the individual who was moved from one sector of the university to another is said to have been fired from the first and moved to a second for which he supposedly had few if any qualifications. To me, this casts the destruction of materials actually written by other members of the first department in a very different mold from simply taking an old project one had created in one department and recycling it for new uses in a second. In addition, if I am reading the situation accurately, it appears that the individual had very little to do with the intellectual aspects of creating these documents but rather simply with the lay outs. Taking that material and possibly claiming it as the product of his own invention might well render this individual a competetive advantage in either getting his new position or in keeping it. The orginal writers/editors would in a situation such as this, it seems to me, have very litle way of knowing what, if anything, had been done with it or will be done with it either in the past or in the future. As Anonymous notes, it could for all anyone knows have easily been copied before being returned. The individual who carried off this material may well be guiltless of nothing but simply removing it, but he puts himself in a very precarious position. It seems to me a very unprofessional thing to have done. An entire realm of possibilities for his misuse of this material opens wide. Nohing poisons the atmosphere of any entity, even an academic institution, more than suspicion. I quite agree with you that these cases, hypothetical or real, are not simply objects for recreational debate but of very serious practical importance.

David said...

One of the dangers of a forum like this is that it encourages me to answer people's comments. I like engaging with my readers. Truth be told, I'm astonished (and grateful) that I have readers.

The risk for me is that I might begin to pontificate on things I'm not knowledgeable enough to pontificate about. So I'm going to resist that temptation. I concede that the ins and outs of this issue ultimately go beyond my ability to resolve. (And I recognize that no one was asking me to resolve anything. We're just engaging in an interesting conversation with real implications.)

In the situation that my most recent Anonymous commenter describes, it certainly does seem that some professional courtesy would have been appropriate. On the other hand, what was lost? Certainly, if I was willing to, say, give someone $20 and instead the person just took it from me, I would say a crime had been committed. I would be upset. But, I'm not sure that my emotional response to the situation changes the actual outcome: the other person has $20 that I was willing to give.

I'm not trying to pretend that my emotional response makes no difference to the situation; it does. In fact, the other person's act of taking what was not yet offered changes the situation.

I don't know exactly what to do with this observation, but I do think it is very interesting the effect other people's actions have on us. We're in a profession where our primary goal is to help other people, yet we resent it when others help themselves (so to speak) to what we would otherwise offer freely. This resentment completely changes our view of the situation.

Why is credit so important to us? I mean, aside from what I've called a competitive advantage, why do we still value the credit so much when there is nothing gained by it? And more than that, even when credit isn't really at issue, I notice a strong tendency for some people to be almost personally offended by what they perceive as moral or ethical transgressions even in situations where no real damage is done or the ethic in question is somewhat arbitrary. Why is that?

And just for the record, asking those questions shouldn't be used to infer an opinion. I'm genuinely curious about this.

Anonymous said...

David, You make a very effective Devil's Advocate. In the arena where nearly eveything (possibly even genes) is patented or copyrighted, and we are very particular in our writing, under pain of being called plagiarists, not to neglect citing our sources, the word "credit" is defined rigidly and, though the element of ethics is not lacking, has very definite material ramifications. Upon this sort of credit rests grades, degrees, jobs, salary, residuals, tenure, research grants and the like. I do not receive a passing score on a test, a diploma, a position, a promotion, or a higher salary by allowing someone else to walk off with the intellectual work which I have produced. If someone does take my work, there are formal protocols and laws to protect me. Your recent discussions appear to center upon the hazier arena of the ideas and writings produced by unnamed individuals in a department and contained within unpublished documents ,i.e., office memos, departmental publications, computer files of newsletters, etc. in a circumstance where work of this sort was removed without permission(either by being destroyed or physically hauled away) from a department by a departing employee who did not create the ideas or write the words. What happened to the material after that act is almost irrelevent. So-- perhaps these words and ideas were burnt or shredded, perhaps taken home, or perhaps to a different department. The point is that these were taken. It is not even pivotal to the discussion if the words and ideas in this material were used in the new department or claimed as his own by the departing employee because though these possibilities exist, we do not know that this has occured. It does not even matter that what was left of the material has now been returned. At the heart of the matter is the fact that, like your twenty dollars, these writings were taken. In this sense, the word credit assumes an almost wholly ethical dimension. In order to do history or science or whatever our discipline, we must be able to trust one another even in cases where we cannot appeal to a court or a committee of inquiry. I think you resolved an issue of this sort yourself in the meeting at which you spoke up when one individual "borrowed" the idea of another. I would say you have an ethical credit score of
800; the individual who destroyed and removed documents without permission:0. Well, maybe we should give him 10 for returning what was was left of them.