Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: scholarship (page 1 of 1)

a note on plagiarism

The Claudine Gay plagiarism scandal — or, depending on your point of view, “plagiarism” scandal — has me thinking about How We Write Today. John McWhorter has recently written that there really is a meaningful distinction between plagiarism and “duplicative language,” and I suppose there often is, but it’s all because of technology, innit? 

That distinction arises because of what people do when they read as well as write on a computer. “Duplicative language” arises when scholars (presumably in something of a hurry) see something in a digital book or article that they want to use, copy the relevant text, and then paste it into Word with the intention of editing it later to in some sense make it their own. (Part of McWhorter’s argument is that maybe we don’t need to do that, or do it as often. I don’t think I agree, but I’ll waive the point for now.) 

At least some of these issues arise from a general sense that one’s work should not contain too many long quotations, an idea that Adam Roberts has explored and questioned here. (I might disagree with Adam also, but I’ll waive that point as well as McWhorter’s.) The tendency to overquote becomes a problem when professors don’t have a lot to add to an existing scholarly conversation but need publications for tenure or promotion. In such circumstances, the bulk of any given article will likely be the collecting of other scholars’ work, and if you quote too much, it might become obvious that there’s not a lot of you in your article. So you need to rework the quotations to make the extent of your debts less obvious. 

But note that all of this is a result of the pressure to publish, a pressure that people might feel especially strongly if their stronger interests are in teaching or administrating. That Claudine Gay has never written a book, and has produced only eleven journal articles in twenty years, one of those co-authored, and moreover moved quite early in her career into administration, all suggests that we’re dealing here with a person whose primary calling is not the production of scholarship. And that’s totally fine! By all accounts Gay has been an effective administrator, and Lord knows academia needs more of those. Heck, maybe Gay even has some scholarly humility, something I have heard of, occasionally. 

So if you’re a person who is publishing under pressure, and not really extending the scholarly conversation in dramatic ways, and perhaps not even very excited about writing, then you’ll probably be more prone to (a) copy and paste that digital text and (b) forget later to make the necessary changes. 

I don’t think I do this? I hesitate to assert too strongly, because I may be deficient in self-knowledge. But I will say this: whenever I copy and paste from some existing text, primary source or secondary, I paste it as a quotation. I never ever paste it into the body of my work. When I’m drafting an essay or article or book chapter I just don’t worry about whether I have too many quotations or whether the quotations are too long. That’s something I assess in revision. 

Which makes me wonder whether some of the plagiarism (or “duplicative language”) we’re now seeing so much of is a result of one small habit common to digital writing: pasting wrongly. Pasting as body text and not as quotation. Maybe this should be part of what we teach our student writers: If you think you can just drop a quotation into the body of your text and and then go back to fix it later, you’re may well be fooling yourself.  

Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose:

Study, in effect, is per se interminable. Those who are acquainted with long hours spent roaming among books, when every fragment, every codex, every initial encountered seems to open a new path, immediately left aside at the next encounter, or who have experienced the labyrinthine allusiveness of that “law of good neighbors” whereby Warburg arranged his library, know that not only can study have no rightful end, but does not even desire one.

Here the etymology of the word studium becomes clear. It goes back to a st- or sp- root indicating a crash, the shock of impact. Studying and stupefying are in this sense akin: those who study are in the situation of people who have received a shock and are stupefied by what has struck them, unable to grasp it and at the same time powerless to leave hold. The scholar, that is, is always “stupid.” But if on the one hand he is astonished and absorbed, if study is thus essentially a suffering and an undergoing, the messianic legacy it contains drives him, on the other hand, incessantly toward closure. This festina lente, this shuttling between bewilderment and lucidity, discovery and loss, between agent and patient, is the rhythm of study. 


Lots of enjoyable coverage of Dennis Duncan’s new and wonderfully titled Index, A History of the. (You may find a brief excerpt from it as a work-in-progress here.)

The best thing I’ve seen is (unsurprisingly) by Anthony Grafton in the LRB. Here’s a noteworthy passage:

Indexing flowered at a time when readers saw books as great mosaics of useful tags and examples that they could collect and organise for themselves. The chief tool they used to do this job was not the index but the commonplace book: a notebook, preferably organised by subject headings known as loci communes (common places), which provided both a material space in which to store material and a set of designators to help retrieve it. Like indexes, commonplace books were wildly popular. John Foxe, a corrector of the press during his exile years in Switzerland, printed two editions of a blank commonplace book designed to be filled in by users under Foxe’s various headings. One such user, Sir Julius Caesar, crammed his copy so full of notes and excerpts that the British Library classifies it as a manuscript. In his preface to the first edition, Foxe made clear that he knew he was riding a wave. He worked for Johannes Oporinus, the Basel printer who brought out the Magdeburg Centuries, a vast Protestant history built on commonplace books compiled by students. Foxe pointed out, with relish, that everyone who was anyone was making commonplace books and telling others how to do so. Humanists commonplaced to ready themselves for effective speech and writing, medical men, lawyers and theologians to prepare for their professions. Foxe argued that the commonplace book was vastly superior to the index. The index might point you to the materials you need, but the commonplace book actually provided them, handily organised. Holmes, like his contemporary Aby Warburg (another dab hand with scissors and paste), was a late master of the commonplace book, even if he called it an index. If printing made indexes easy to compile, commonplacing made them indispensable to printers and readers alike. 

In response to the TLS’s review, my dear friend Tim Larsen wrote in with the following: 

I can confirm that one does indeed need a human indexer with a decent knowledge of the topic at hand. I thought I could safely ignore the index for my Oxford Handbook of Christmas (2020), but when it came back with an entry on “Joseph, father of Jesus,” I knew I had to step in. Mercifully, it went to press as “Joseph, husband of Mary.” As to humour in indexes, one of my favourites is E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Its index has an entry for “Truth, ultimate.” The three pages listed under it lead one to the blank pages that divide the book’s parts. 

Let me register a vote for My Favorite Indexer: Hugh Kenner. In some of his books he not only tabulated references to key figures, he offered memorable single-word descriptions of many of them. A few examples from his book on Irish writers, A Colder Eye

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Of course, the delight here is turning to the appropriate pages to find out just how Kenner settled on the identifications he chose.  


A scholar can never become a philosopher; for even Kant was unable to do so but, the inborn pressure of his genius notwithstanding, remained to the end as it were in a chrysalis stage. He who thinks that in saying this I am doing Kant an injustice does not know what a philosopher is, namely not merely a great thinker but also a real human being; and when did a scholar ever become a real human being? He who lets concepts, opinions, past events, books, step between himself and things – he, that is to say, who is in the broadest sense born for history – will never have an immediate perception of things and will never be an immediately perceived thing himself; but both these conditions belong together in the philosopher, because most of the instruction he receives he has to acquire out of himself and because he serves himself as a reflection and brief abstract of the whole world. If a man perceives himself by means of the opinions of others, it is no wonder if he sees in himself nothing but the opinions of others! And that is how scholars are, live and see.

— Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator”

how to read biblical scholarship when you’re not a biblical scholar

I’ve spent many unedifying hours reading books by biblical scholars in ways that have not been … ideal for my purposes. Today I’m going to share with you all some important lessons I’ve learned through my suffering. 

1) The first part of the book will explain in mind-numbing detail how the author situates himself or herself in relation to several hundred other biblical critics. (Maybe only several dozen, but it will feel like several hundred.) The author will insist on explaining to you at, frankly, shocking length that there are

(a) scholars whose position he or she doesn’t agree with at all but whose work, in the cause of fairness, must be described thoroughly;

(b) scholars whose position he or she has partial sympathy with and whose work therefore must be described even more thoroughly; and

(c) scholars whose position he or she largely agrees with, though hopes to extend, and whose work must therefore be described until you are old and gray and full of sleep.

Skip all this. Seriously, don’t read any of it. If you’re not a member of the guild it will be neither interesting nor valuable. (All scholars interact with previous scholars in their chosen subject, but biblical scholars are in my experience unique in their devotion to “literature reviews” and “methodological introductions.” One gets the sense that they would write nothing but literature reviews and methodological introductions if they could get away with it.)

2) Next, read the last chapter, or conclusion. This is the place where you’ll find out what the author actually believes and get at least an outline of why he or she believes it. You should scrutinize the conclusion with great attentiveness, because almost all the good stuff is there.

3) As I say, the conclusion will give you at least an outline of why the author holds his or her views, but sometimes you won’t get as much detail as you need. No worries! The author will sometimes say things like “As I argued in Chapter 3” or “As noted above (pp. 173–79)” — so follow those bread crumbs and see the complete argument about whatever you’re interested in. And don’t bother with what you’re not interested in.

And that’s it! Three easy steps to getting great benefit from biblical scholarship at the least cost to your health and sanity.