Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Plagiarism and Contextomy

These examples are random, and yet it pains me (as both a student and teacher of literature) that the trend toward plagiarism and "contextomy" -or, quoting out of context- is increasingly written off as no big deal by popular culture. No apology is provided in either of the following examples. The responses, from the offending parties, do not even offer so much as a "my bad." But I cannot help but question, "What happened to scholarship?" Or, at the very least, "What happened to pride in a job well done?"

Example 1: Plagiarism
Chris Anderson's 'Free' appears to borrow freely from Wikipedia and other sources

First of all, Wikipedia? Are you kidding me? But more to the point- even school children know that plagiarism equals failure.

Example 2: Contextomy
Ann Coulter takes all kinds of liberties with her direct quotes

Coulter's bigotry and hatred anger me to begin with. Regardless, I find it hard to believe that even she could convince herself that she accurately captured the context of this New York Times quotation. She clearly has an agenda, but the degree of false attribution here is remarkable! This is exactly the sort of "quotation" I warn students against. To be fair, Coulter's usage is much bolder than I've seen from students. Why? Perhaps they know I'll mark them down for inaccurate scholarship and weakening their argument. Although, I would like to believe it has more to do with self-respect. Ann's response to Fraken is a logical fallacy, as well. But now I'm depressed.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Odds & Ends

Hey, everyone~I'm alive! Mostly, anyway. I'm in between summer courses and about half a million other projects, but I feel so bad about neglecting our little blog, and I've been coming across some really interesting stuff lately, so I thought I'd give you all some things to read/think about.

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First up, from the British Museum website on the Parthenon sculptures (the Elgin Marbles, read more about the controversy's history here.) (emphasis mine):

"The British Museum....is a unique resource for the
world: the breadth and depth of its collection allows the world public to re-examine cultural identities and explore the complex network of interconnected world cultures. Within the context of this unparalleled collection, the Parthenon sculptures are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation.

Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insights on how ancient Greece influenced, and was influenced by, the other civilisations that it encountered.

The Trustees of the British Museum warmly welcome the opening of the New Acropolis Museum which will allow the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens to be appreciated against the backdrop of ancient Greek and Athenian history. The new museum, however, does not alter the Trustees’ view that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries. The Trustees remain convinced that the current division allows different and complementary stories to be told about the surviving sculptures, highlighting their significance for world culture and affirming the universal legacy of Ancient Greece."


Can we just talk about the language here for a second? First of all, this emphasis on "world public" and "world culture"-could it be more paternalistic? This is the British Museum basically saying, "we have the authority to act as curators for the world, by which we mean all you puny countries we took stuff from during our years as a vast, evil empire, because we represent the whole world."

Okay, I may be embroidering a bit. But the sentiment is there-the idea that things that are important to humanity are better off with [Western, Anglo] curators so that more [Western, Anglo, or privileged] people get to see them. "World public"=people in or able to travel to England (therefore, people who either live there or have enough money/privilege to go there [which totally undermines this 'free of charge' thing they're so proud of]).

All this stuff about "transcend[ing] cultural boundaries" is really the British Museum's way of positioning themselves as having transcended centuries of imperialism, paternalism, and other forms of international conflict, even as they continue to exert imperialistic authority by refusing to return the sculptures. It's like people in the US who think it's okay to make racist jokes because having an African-American president means racism doesn't exist anymore. Teh logik it hurtz my brainz.

I haven't had a chance to see the sculptures [yet], but I hear they're pretty awesome, and it would be cool to see them without having to go to Greece. BUT, I do think that's where they should be [unless Greece decides to let them tour]. In case you couldn't tell. What do you think?


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Next, something less controversial. If you haven't already, check out this fascinating article by Lera Boroditsky of Stanford. A few highlights:

"Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello." "

Cool, huh? When I mentioned this to my mom (hi, mom!), she brought up the problem of people with no sense of direction, people who couldn't find their way out of a chalk circle with a map (hi, mom!). How would they cope in a culture like this? Is our ability to orient ourselves in the space we occupy inherent, or is it (as this article would suggest), cultural? How might it change the way you think about your house, your neighborhood, or your city if this was your way of understanding orientation?

"[W]e gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role."

Guess what? I'm weird. Some of you knew this already, but what you may not have known is that my visualization of time is completely wrong for my linguistic background. This, for comparison, is the average native English speaker's conception of time (note my mad MS paint skillz):

Time moves from left to right and top to bottom, just like the way we would expect to see text printed on a page. But in my head, time looks like this:

Completely reversed. I have no trouble using standard calendars, but in my head, time goes left to write and bottom to top, and it has for as long as I can remember. Same goes for months in the year-May is to the right of now, July is to the left. Plus, if you were to ask me to draw my week on a blank piece of paper (not a pre-printed calendar) the standard way, I would have to pause to reorient and "translate" my mental image into the left-right, top-bottom format.

(Interestingly, spans of years (ie. 1950-2000) are left-right in my head.)

I've done some searching, and it seems to be a pretty rare thing. I've read about a few native English speakers who picture weeks right-left, but few or none who picture their days bottom-top. How about you guys? Any guesses as to what it means?

One more quote from the article (which you really should read for yourself, because it's incredibly cool):

"Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering." This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers. Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people's ideas of concrete objects in the world."

Since I've studied a few romance languages, this is something I've always wondered about. It has a lot of implications for how language is used/received in things like advertising, legislation, or literature.

For instance, if I read Baudelaire's "La Musique" in English, it seems either gender neutral or even masculine with its nautical images (a man at sea, the violence of a tempest), so that even a reading of the sexual imagery would be more inclined to consider the male body and the male experience. In French, though, it's full of feminine words: une mer (sea), ma ├ętoile (star), la voile (sail), la toile (canvas), and la nuit (night) are all feminine, as is the title, which gives the poem a very different sort of texture. Obviously, even if the initial gendering of those words was neutral or arbitrary (another interesting question), the reception of them cannot be.

I'd love to hear some people with more experience in translation or comparative lit weigh in on this...

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Finally, other fun stuff I've marked as blogfodder in my Google reader:

DesignerMatt Dorfman's awesome wedding invitation.

Oddly modern-looking color photography from the turn of the century.

Marvel fails spectacularly to speak to its female fans.

And this. I have no idea what it is, but it's kind of fascinating.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Labeling and Identity

I know our lovely little blog has been on hiatus a bit, but I'd like to initiate a conversation on identity, labels, and boxes. By "labels and boxes" I don't mean office supplies, but those organizing features that so many seem to need to fix to everyone in order to understand the world and put people in their proper category.

To begin, a some background and an anecdote.

As many of my fellow blogistas and those few that know my true identity are aware, I started dating the lovely woman named Teacher Poet about 9 months ago. This was the first female I had dated, and, of course, questions arose about my identity. Who was I? A lesbian? A bisexual? A heterosexual who happened to fall in love with this one woman? Over the course of these months we have been together, my particular philosophical/theoretical training (you know, feminism, gender studies, and the "posts:" post-modernism, post-structuralism) has caused me to shirk any kind of label in relation to my sexuality. This is because I look at most forms of identity as changing and in flux, and I don't think that who you date determines a thing about you. in other words, actions do not always equal identity (because how could they?).

Now, I do realize that not claiming some sort of label has all manner of implications for identity politics. We often need these labels in activism to decide who is marginalized, and therefore whose rights we are fighting for. You know, defining group identification and all that. In that case, I would gladly claim a label for a political purpose. If, for example, me standing up and saying, "I am a lesbian" gives me more, um, credibility (?) in fighting for gay civil rights to, for example, get married, then so be it. In general, though, I do not want to be referred to as a heterosexual, a lesbian, or a bisexual. Identity is in too much of a state of fluctuation for me to worry about such things. And what does it mean to be in one of those labels anyway? Again, we get into some complex issues regarding identity politics and tricky definitions.

So, recognizing that my decision to not claim any kind of label except in very specific cases has all kinds of implications and problems, I still stick behind it. If anything, the label "queer" fits very nicely, because from what I've heard it implies that you don't link sexuality to identity, you don't worry about which categories your behavior fits into, etc, etc, etc. That discussion is probably best for another time.

When I arrived at Cornfield U about 6 months ago, I was open about the fact that I was dating a woman to my fellow classmates, but I was also just as open about the fact that I do not like to claim labels for myself and why that was. Today, however, I discovered that despite the fact that I tell people why I don't want to be put in a box, they have put me in one anyway. I was just having an afternoon snack with a few girls in my program when they told me that they had told someone I was a lesbian (long story as to how that came up).

Now, let me make myself clear: I am not, not, not bothered by the fact that I was called a lesbian. What bothers me is that despite the fact that I have made it clear to these women that I do not claim a label (and WHY!) they still put me in a category based on the fact that I am dating a woman (a very wonderful and beautiful one, by the way :-)). They decided what my identity would be based on their own definitions. They put me in my proper box (and perhaps they did it because that is how they have to see the world. But why does it matter? It always makes me suspicious of people's motivations when they have to identify who's "gay" and who's "straight."). Part of me wants to say that perhaps we need a different classification system, one where there is a term that sums up my philosophy on identification and such. However, that wouldn't address the issue I am bringing up, would it?

My reason for posting this anecdote is to try and get a conversation going about identity and identity politics. I realize that I have raised many issues in this entry, and not all of them are particularly well fleshed out. How, for example, is my choosing to claim/not claim labels hurting/helping the LGBTQ community? How does this factor into identity politics? And am I just reading too much into all of this? :-)

Happy discussing.