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The Academic Bates Motel

lethargilistic profile image Mike Overby ・5 min read

This morning, after a nudge from my friend Brian L. Frye, I read Agnes Callard's "Is Plagiarism Wrong" and, to me, the most significant part is the recollection of her teacher introducing her to plagiarism norms through public humiliation when she was six-years-old. Anti-plagiarism norms had nothing to do with what this child wanted out of life a priori, yet the teacher projected this value as a natural law. Perhaps, in the teacher's mind, anti-copying instincts once helped normal humans survive in their natural habitat. In reality, the teacher was fulfilling her duty of preparing her students for that glorious institution all children must aspire to attend: the Academic Bates Motel.

The Academic Bates Motel is a chosen professional realm for adults where most people are guests and a select few are allowed to remain as hosts forever. Of course, it's generally preferred for everyone to think of themselves as colleagues there, so we call it "college" or "the Academy" and everyone gets the fancy title "academic." (Also, there are many adjunct hosts strung along by the promise of becoming full hosts one day, maybe, but we're not supposed to talk about them.) The guests are there for myriad personal reasons, to sleep and eat and mingle and learn a little something about the world before they leave. The hosts will remain forever, and they find the best way to keep themselves entertained through the long years of marshaling guests and reducing the janitorial staff to contract work is to create norms that define their job done "well." The bed must be tucked in from the left, the towels must be lain just so, the toilet paper must be folded with perfect 45 degree angles, and—most importantly—it is improper to ask why the senior staff never seems to do any of this so meticulously as the rank-and-file.

But eventually the guest does check out and leave for the realm of whatever worldly pursuit they choose. Practically, this means they join the increasingly casualized professional workforce and hope to maybe get a job doing something they liked to do while a guest at the Academic Bates Motel instead of subsisting on temp work. (Almost needless to say, there is no guarantee that any employer will give them a job and plenty of unwritten reasons why existing abnormally means they are unworthy of working, but we're not supposed to talk about that.) Personally, it's been about four years since I checked out and apparently that's so long ago that employers collectively pretend I never checked in at all. For all the admonishment I endured to behave in certain ways or refrain from certain things—to never plagiarize or patch-write being but one—those rules sure don't seem to provide for me now that I live outside the support structures offered by academics to their fellow academics. I am not an academic anymore; I'm just a former guest. I got whatever benefit I was going to get by following these norms from five years as an undergraduate student. The price for this was being subjected to behavioral conditioning for nearly my entire life, from 5 to 21-years-old.

The conditioning required by the Academic Bates Motel's peculiar professional standards is considered so important that the Motel franchised itself into the prisons where we consign every child in America. Their teachers are aspiring-hosts who wouldn't or couldn't hack it at the Academic Bates Motel, so they became wardens. Our children spend their workdays slaving away while more and more pressure is placed on them to conform as prisoners so that they will succeed as guests and then, it's supposed, they will be attractive to employers thereafter. (Of course, this means that the significant time children spend as prisoners is considered less and less valuable to their overall lives, and that this effect compounds over generations of prisoners, but we're not supposed to talk about that.)

So, outside of understanding how the Academic Bates Motel's pipeline to employment works, what benefit does a child receive from the enforcement of plagiarism norms? To me, it seems like the benefit is supposed to be that children understand adult professional values like these:

  • they have no rebuttal when their superiors throw their work away or call it worthless,
  • the value of their work comes from its originality, not what their work actually means or accomplishes,
  • copying is an anti-creative activity,
  • they must always be watching their peers for signs of abnormality,
  • being abnormal is a crime punishable by public humiliation.

This is on top of the further fact that essentially all of these children's work will be thrown away after being graded. This proves to the child without ever quite telling them explicitly that what they create with their time and labor is for their unquestionable superior's benefit and not their own. Now, I ask you, do the birds sing just because they believe a human, christened with intelligence, will be there to score it with an alphabet that skips 'E' just to make sure the prisoners and guests will know they've truly Failed? When I was in school, the wardens made a big deal about also dropping 'D' because it was a redundant non-passing score. Once dedicated to this system of scoring, it seems like the wardens thought making its prisoner-sorting more efficient was a more salient goal than measuring granular levels of prisoners' actual learning. It is the same with plagiarism norms.

When I naively presume that the purpose of academic writing is to inform and persuade the public about things of importance, I am told that those are two nice goals, but that they must be balanced within the confines of the tenure system that values "originality." This is a ginned up way of saying that the academic's benefit to the public is not important when compared to the tenure committee's self-imposed interest in advocating against plagiarism. The system is its own justification. The importance of what prisoners and guests and slaves accomplish is diminished to imperceptibility, then the hosts are judged solely by their fidelity to the system. Students' work is read once and is destined for the trash and, likewise, the professor is reduced to a list of "original" papers the tenure committee has never read at all.

We go to school to learn how to learn and become better citizens. We are encouraged to question everything about society and the universe except extra-legal property rights important to academics with absurdly complete control over our intellectual development from the time we're 5 years old. What we learn after almost two decades of indoctrination is to obey the moral supremacy of scholastic credit-capitalists and to never question their professional norms' weight slung over our backs. Once this publicly-funded psychosis is dolled up as a congenital moral imperative, we're not even allowed to question what it is anymore, let alone whether the form it takes is reasonable.

They do not kill us at the Academic Bates Motel. They check us in, they take our cash, they check us out, and they give us our parting gifts. But they can never leave. After the hosts wave us off, the smile fades. Their arm falls to their side. They turn, march up the stairs, and apply the lipstick they keep under that cap—yes, they're already wearing the gown. "Hello Mother. Another class is on their way home to you."

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Mike Overby Author

A meta P.S. because I didn't write this for DEV specifically.:

I can foresee an argument that this is borderline out of the "Productivity" tag's scope (mainly because the tag is popular), so I want to say it is firmly within it. Copying can be a creative pursuit and I argue that it is wrong to suppress it if our goal is to make people creative. However, copying can also be about productivity and efficiency and it is wrong to suppress it if our goals are productivity and efficiency. (That is, without good reason.) In addition to ways of optimizing our personal productivity by learning a new tool or doing some trick, it is important to interrogate our assumptions about how we work that have been baked into us by people more powerful than us with interests which are irrelevant to us. This article is an attempt at doing that. Go forth and multiply!