Landing : Athabascau University

On Goldsmith's uncreative writing and the pedagogy of plagiarism; or, Whoa, dude.

Kenneth Goldsmith is a scholar and writer leading an aesthetic movement he calls "uncreative writing" in his recent book on the subject. Arguing that, unlike the readymade borrowings of visual art and the sampladelica of music, literature has remained mired in Romantic traditions of originality and authenticity, Goldsmith argues that

creativity—as it's been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the "creative class" but also as a member of the "artistic class." At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it's time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.

This far, I'm in agreement with his argument. It is precisely such an overdetermined, overinvested, and overblown idea of creativity that provides discursive ammunication* for the propaganda weapons of copyright maximalists.

But it's when he translates this aesthetic critique into pedagogical practice that I'm compelled to say Whoa, dude. Do you need to go there?

For the past several years, I've taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania called "Uncreative Writing." In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly what they've surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness. [...] for their final paper, I have them purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it, surely the most forbidden action in all of academia. Students then must get up and present the paper to the class as if they wrote it themselves, defending it from attacks by the other students. What paper did they choose? Is it possible to defend something you didn't write? Something, perhaps, you don't agree with? Convince us. (emphasis added)

I don't have a problem with the pedagogy here: it's bold, verging on bonkers, but there's method in most of this madness. What I object to is that the pedagogy is financially supporting illegitimate "paper mill" services that couldn't care less for redefining creativity or rejuvenating the vitality of literature, but are happy to take money from students - who shouldn't also have to pay out of pocket for participating in this pedagogical experiment. Seems to me it would be entirely possible - and, ethically, far preferable - for Goldsmith to assign students to find free term papers out there in the wilds of the Internet, without subsidizing the academic black market and costing students the out-of-pocket expense.

It reminds me of an exchange from the 1999 scene of Underground Resistance's copyrght skirmish with Sony. UR promoted to its fans all kinds of ways to boycott or block the sale of Sony's uncleared ripoff of a popular UR record. One fan wrote to the Detroit techno email listserv that he had surreptitiously scratched the copies of the Sony record at his local record shop, to render it unsellable. Another responded to say he had bought all the copies of the record at another record shop, to get them off the shelves. Guess which self-styled saboteur was doing it wrong?


[* I was going to just correct this typo of "ammunition," but in recognition of some of Goldsmith's valid arguments about the latent literariness of digital text, I'll let it stand as a serendipitous coinage. Ammunication: ammunition + communication. Seems fitting for a lobby that uses the latter as the former.]


  • an unauthenticated user of the Landing June 6, 2012 - 9:41am

    I've been mulling over the whole notion of originality as it relates to student essays myself. The idea that undergraduates have something original to say about a topic that's been thoroughly digested by scholars is really silly. The most reasonable response to this demand is probably plagiarism. We should be completely up front about what we are asking them to do: read a specific body of material and present what they find in a coherent fashion, being as scrupulous as possible to list and cite all sources used. The next level would be using the synthesis skills they have developed to put together a basic argument on a given topic. Ideally all of this has already happened in high school although I understand that engaging students in long writing projects is becoming increasingly difficult.

    I like any approach such as Goldsmith's that allows students to reflect on the notion of authorship/authority. The approach I want to try is to have them think and write about the concept of author originality and intellectual property--to help them deconstruct the academic writing process and situate it in their own minds among other kinds of texts that they and others produce.

    - Mary Pringle

  • Geoff Loken June 7, 2012 - 9:59am

    I didn't find myself really doing any kind of novel research until I was into graduate school. I do see a clear distinction between ripping off other people's work, and trying to write an intresting analysis of secondary scholarship on a subject. During my own experiences, and in marking fist and second year papers, I was struck that the most important aspects of the undergrad were basic technical skills: learn to cite properly, learn to quote, learn to apply your own analysis without stealing someone else's, learn to ask questions and to find the questions that other people haven't been asking. You don't get to answer questions yet at the undergrad, not really. 

    I love remixing, reimagining, borrowing, and collaborating, but there's nothing terribly new about any of them. What's new is the idea that they're unacceptable, I swear it's got to be a product of draconian copyright laws more than anything else.

    Some good ideas there, but the admittedly brief write up sounds like it's trying to shock to garner attention. The ideas are good, but not revolutionary, and in saying "I have them purchase a term paper from an online paper mill and sign their name to it, surely the most forbidden action in all of academia." the author all but admits that they're in it for the scandal.