February 2012

When in Rome: Don't Snap, Don't Push

I have just returned from Rome, where I was able to attend events associated with the Consistory of the College of Cardinals. The new grandmaster of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Archbishop O’Brien, received the ring and red biretta that mark his new status as a cardinal, as did Archbishop Dolan of New York and about twenty other prelates from around the world. I had a great time with a group from St. Louis, and I will only make two remarks.

First, I have come to believe that there is a new threat to any decorum in public ceremony, one that most of us harbor in our own pockets. That is, of course, the cellular phone with its easy-to-use camera. Cameras were always bad for public ceremonies, since they take the members of the audience or congregation or crowd out of the role of participant and put them in the role of private creator of images. But only a few people toted big cameras and the obvious disruption caused by their flash bulbs enforced some restraint. The cellphone allows almost everyone to retreat into his own viewfinder. And the cameras are no longer held at eye level, so that there is some chance of seeing over the heads of the snapshot monger. Instead, they are head high above the head, so that the view of those in the back is blocked by a sea of little screens showing tiny bits of what they obscure. Since people are willing to hold even iPads over their heads, there is not much chance for the back rows to glimpse anything, especially since people lost in the robotic viewfinder don’t even notice that fellow human beings are inconvenienced when they climb atop chairs.

If I had my way, I would ban all amateur photography at public events. Leave the image-capture to the pros, people, and actually pay attention to the event you have crossed the seas to take part in. I don’t think that policy is likely to be instituted widely in many places, but as I wait I will share a second dream. Another thing that reduces the participant to the role of spectator is amplification. It is indeed necessary at times, but too often it is needed only to overcome the buzz it itself creates. (It is always a crutch that poorly trained speakers rely on.) The effect of amplification is to take away from the people one of their most important roles: maintaining silence. The ambient buzz and the artificially loud voices make it seem not just possible, but appropriate to rustle and chat to one’s heart’s content. These are two technologies that are used mostly because they exist, not because they have made anyone’s experience richer.

Second, while I nurture all the appropriate shame for the crimes and failings of Anglo-Saxon culture from Wounded Knee to Colonel Sanders, I rejoice in a quality that our culture still nurtures better than most others. It seems to be losing it hold even among English-speakers, but we still are better at it than most of the world. Our great contribution to world culture: Queuing Up. For the most part, we are good at standing in line. We do not do it sullenly and under duress, like the Russians; we do it in a spirit of fairness and camaraderie. Most of the people of Europe, to judge from the pilgrims in Rome, were never introduced to the idea that jumping the queue is one of the most despicable acts a person can commit. The rich, the poor, the well-dressed, the sloppy, the lay, the religious—all Europeans believe that sharp elbows and unceasing efforts to contort rat-like into any space in front of someone who has been waiting longer are fair weapons in the war of all against all to get a better seat.

To my brethren on the continent, I offer this plea. Reject American culture, if you like. Burn the McDonalds, the KFC, the Gaps, even the Starbucks. Listen to your own music instead of the Delta Blues as imported through Liverpool. Stop watching our stupider movies and festooning their creators with medals. Push it all away. But learn this from us: the path to true happiness is a well-respected line with no pushing and no cutting.

I have few photos of my trip, but here is one. (It was taken during a designated photo op and I had waited in line for it.) I was evidently amusing Cardinal Dolan:


North American College, February 18, 2012

Administrators and Plagiarism

For years I taught my students about plagiarism, thinking I was teaching about honesty itself. To pass the work of another off as one's own was ignoble, dishonest, just plain wrong. It would be as wicked for a scholar to tolerate it as it would be for merchant to tolerate the sale of tainted goods or a policeman to tolerate the use of bogus evidence. I also thought that position was one of the underpinnings of an academic world in which people were evaluated mostly by their writing.

I have not changed my views, but I cannot teach them to students without admitting that the standards I espouse apply only in the artificial setting of the classroom. The university as a whole acts on the assumption that doing your own written work is like emptying your own wastebasket: something you do only if you are not important enough to have someone do it for you. Students are still punished for plagiarism, and plagiarism might sink an applicant for tenure. But my university—from which I am semi-retired—is governed by a chancellor and a president who are both proven plagiarists and who have ample staffs to write the documents they sign and the speeches they write.

(I would find the ghostwriting less offensive if the administrators followed the lead of those honest celebrities whose autobiographies appear “as told to” the real author. Acknowledging the real author in the text of the document or program of the speech would be honest and might make clearer what jobs academic administrators actually do.)

But the question remains, do we demand students do their own work simply because we have to test them on it? Does our society, even in its academic institutions, no longer value giving credit for ideas and the eloquent expression of them to their creators? The behavior of many academic administrators says it does not.

(Ref: “
Faking It for the Dean” by Carl Elliott, Chronicle of Higher Education “Brainstorm” Blog, 2/7/12.