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May 03, 2006

Ivy League Cheaters

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Enough with the usual debates: How did the novel by Harvard undergrad/plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan novel actually come into being? (Hint: She didn't just sit in her room and write it.) An article by Slate's Ann Hulbert provides a revealing snapshot of how today's commercial fiction-publishing world sometimes goes about its business. I'd love to know more about Alloy Entertainment, the fiction-packaging outfit that took Viswanathan on. According to Hulbert, they describe themselves as "a creative think tank that develops and produces original books, television series and feature films" with a focus on the teen market. Gotta love it. A John Barlow article about working with a fiction-packager can be read here.

What has your reaction to the story been? I'm split. On the one hand, I feel for Kaavya. She has been broadcast nationwide in a negative light -- not fun! And her entire life is likely to be tainted by what seems to be, when you get down to it, overeagerness and misjudgment. (OK, bad misjudgment. But she has received a lot more coverage than many murderers do.) God knows that I'd hate to be held too responsible for a lot of my 18-year-old behavior. I shudder to think of what a fine-tooth-comb run through my college papers and early fiction would turn up. More than a few "borrowings," no doubt. Kids deserve to be cut some slack. And Hulbert's article shows Viswanathan being swept up in the gears of an unappealing machine that is much larger than she is. Don't current fiction-publishing practices deserve much of the blame here?

On the other hand: I find it impossible not to enjoy the spectacle of an over-achieving golden-child/grind taking a pie in her face. There's something else that I find pleasing too: The way the affair drags Harvard's name in the mud. I was tickled by the Larry Summers flap for a similar reason. The less-seriously the world takes the Harvard brand, the better off the world will be. Ivy Leaguers, patooie: Many of them are, in my experience, the least spontaneous, least generous, least open, and least-humane people imaginable. God knows that most of them are bright and hard-working. But what a pain they are too -- often unoriginal and plagued by me-too-ism, yet self-congratulatory to the max, annoyingly "entitled," and deeply convinced that they represent the country's best and finest.

Still, Kaavya is only 18 ...

How have you reacted to the affair?



UPDATE: Steve Sailer experiences the thrill of being plagiarized.

posted by Michael at May 3, 2006


I haven't followed this matter much below the first-paragraph level in news reports; but hey! why should information get in the way of opinion.

My take is that the gal was a Harvard!!! student fer gosh sakes. And "we all know" that the toughest part about being an Ivy Leaguer is getting admitted in the first place. So she almost surely was an "aware" person and not an idiot-savant or a zombie.

I (naively?) have to assume she knew what plagiarism was while in high school, if not sooner. And I think it likely that almost any news report about a case of plagiarism she read about would have had the hook that it had been discovered and that the plagiarist was in serious sh*t: think Steven Ambrose -- a major case she had probably heard of.

Given that she did a published novel and wasn't doing some cutting and pasting for a term paper, I have to think she went a long step beyond the youthful foolishness we all stumble through.

If nothing else, maybe she'll have learned enough to use a pen-name for her next novel.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 3, 2006 12:24 PM

I find it amazing that she never thought she'd get caught. Plagariazing an obscure academic paper is a relatively low-risk venture. But Ms. Viswanathan copied distinctive passages from well-known books, what's more books that would appeal to many of the same people who read her own work. And make no mistake about it; many of the passages were highly distinctive, clever phrases that simply would not occur to her independently.

Posted by: Peter on May 3, 2006 12:51 PM

It is clear that it is in her character, and she would have been plagiarizing later in life, or already was doing so in her schoolwork. I'm sure people feel bad for the Enron guys and Martha Stewart, also. But that's life when you're in the public eye and you get caught cheating. Better she is caught now, humiliated, and begins to make changes to her life now, than have this entire episode happen to her when she is 30 years old.

Posted by: Neil on May 3, 2006 01:29 PM

Yeah...18 is old enough to have some developed conscience, if one is ever going to have one. She does seem to have been quite infantile here---if her publishers didn't have a problem with it, why would anyone else? As if she had no responsibility at all. I'm sure she's shocked to find out anyone is holding her personally accountable at all. It reassures me that people are in fact doing that. But, her publishers are scumbags, too, and clearly were not looking out for her. Tough way to learn an important lesson.

Posted by: annette on May 3, 2006 01:32 PM

"Only 18" cuts no ice.

She stole someone else's work.

We have been extending adolescence into middle age in this country.

Now are we going to extend pre-moral childhood into the same age range? The Catholic Church has traditionally held that a child reaches the age of reason, and is capable of knowingly committing a sin, by age 7. I have five kids. In a couple of cases, age 7 was high. People are moral agents. To say that they can't know right from wrong in obvious cases like this one is to reduce them to a kind of childish custodial period that has no logical end point.

During the war of 1812 the US Navy sent ships around the Horn into the Pacific and surprised the entire British whaling fleet. They had so many prize ships that every single officer was given command of one, with a handful of sailors. Midshipman David Glasgow Farragut commanded a captured ship, full of hostile sailors and with a few of his own sailors to keep watch on them on a lengthy cruise. He successfully brought the ship in to Valparaiso, Chile.

He was 12 years old.

People do no more than is demanded of them.

Perpetual childhood is a luxury our fantastically wealthy society is continually buying more and more of. It is a poisonous luxury that degrades us all.

This young woman chose to steal someone else's work and put her name on it. She is an adult. She should bear the consequences.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 3, 2006 01:37 PM

Of course she knew - but that is not the most important fact. As the Slate article shows, the culture surrounding "book production" is indistinguishable for the creation of any other consumer product. She probably thought (or was told) that originality had verry little to do with the creation of this object, and that "finding her voice" was meant to be a group project with sales, not authenticity, in mind.

On the other hand, I too am happy this came out of harvard. When will al lthose people stop believing the Ivy hype? sheesh.

Posted by: Gerald on May 3, 2006 01:55 PM

A few years ago I taught a public speaking class at Blackfeet Community College where the students are all ages and not at all sophisticated. I was asked by administration to explain plagiarism and come down hard on them if they did it. What I discovered was that even after explanation, they simply could not get their heads around the idea that copying print was anything wrong. The stuff is everywhere, there is no evidence of a person having written it, it's supposed to be by this one or that one but in fact is not, none of it means anything in particular, machinery makes it easy to push around -- it's a sort of gravel for fill. Or maybe it's the same disconnect as between a living cow and a package of meat from the store, though many of these people own cows and butcher them to eat as well as selling them. None of them write much or read much.

They knew no one who ever sold writing, they are used to putting "poems" in the newspaper in memoriam -- all of them taken from somewhere else, usually "anonymous." Who ever heard of a treaty that was read, much less observed? Or even ratified by the US government, though the tribes were held to them.

So, there was a speech by a 40-year-old woman with five kids telling about how she climbed a mountain in Africa. When I told her I didn't believe it was her own experience, she was dumbfounded but -- luckily -- not hostile. She thought it was such a good story -- she liked it so much! How could I object?

The next one was a technical medical treatise on sex from a 22 year old high school flunkout. She couldn't pronounce the words. When I asked her what an epididymis was, she had no idea. (She recognized only penis and vagina.) When I gave her an "F" she went straight to the dean to have me fired. (It ended up in some serious counseling. She was being beaten up at home.)

In the end I got the dusty old overhead projector and wrote a speech on the spot, dragging it out of the students step-by-step from "brainstorming" and "webbing" to preparing notecards and giving the speech. THEN they got it. "I don't give a damn what's in print somewhere else -- I want to know what's in YOUR hearts."

After that it was Katie-bar-the-door -- a flood of violent, unique, personal stuff straight from their own guts. All the stuff they'd been told to keep secret. We ended up running something like a therapy group and I wondered what kind of monster I'd created.

What I'm saying is that the forces are a whole lot bigger than Harvard or even the thoroughly FUBAR publishing industry.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 3, 2006 02:16 PM

A tough crowd! (Mostly.) Interesting how hard it is to summon up sympathy for a misbehaving Harvard student, isn't it? I wonder if Harvard freshmen are warned that the rest of the world isn't going to like them when they're through...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 3, 2006 02:50 PM

Of course, Miss Viswanathan has a book for sure now -- with much broader readership than all those oral metaphors. "How Did It Happen?" is probably in negotiation right this minute. It has worked for all those NYTimes reporters and for Frey. In fact, they say the traffic on eBay in the already discredited book is fierce. Might be a movie in it.

(By the way, I'm not impressed by Harvardians -- it's the Johns Hopkins people who make me run for my life -- for fear of being deconstructed.)

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 3, 2006 03:13 PM

It is not a lack of sympathy for Harvardians. I know several people who went there and they are basically OK, not too badly damaged by the experience.

It is the conduct, Michael. The conduct. The conduct. The behavior. The content of her character. Willfully doing an obviously wrong thing for personal gain. That is the problem.

Not. Not. Not some ancillary fact like where is in school or that she is female or of subcontinental derivation.

Then, to make it worse, we see all this compounded by the suggestion that she is "young" or her publishers "made her do it". Where are the feminists? Is this young lady not a full grown woman able to make her own decisions and stand up for herself? The femininsts want fourteen year olds to be able to get abortions on their own, after all, without Mom and Dad even being told about it. Are we to believe that young woman is smart enough to get into Harvard but is nonetheless somehow a totally helpless and pliant creature needing protection from her own moral and practical ineptitude? There is something stereotypically Victorian about all this.

Extra credit questions: Would a male get the same response? Would she get the same response if she were not pretty?

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 3, 2006 03:22 PM

Had a similar experience with a classroom as Ms. Scriver. MASSIVE plagairism in schools these days thanks to Google and "cut 'n paste." Only time the majority of my students produced something original and compelling was during the autobiographical assignment. The stories they put to paper were powerful and heartbreaking and yeah, the classroom became an ad hoc counseling room for about a week. One of the reasons (aside from the need to provide food and shelter for my family) that I got out of teaching was the near-constant need to administer some form of counselign or mediation. I just wanted to teach English, fer chrissakes!

As for the young "author" in question, her admittance to Harvard doesn't color my feelings about her. From what I've seen, the stuff she stole was incidental details. While not admirable, I don't think it warrants all this attention and is probably more common than people realize. Her age, the size of her advance (500k) and the James Frey debacle is what this is all about.

Posted by: the patriarchy on May 3, 2006 03:28 PM

You are much too kind. I'm with Mr. Lexington Green. She should be put in solitary confinement and forced to transcribe, by hand and with a fountain pen, all of James Frey's output working from the end of each of his books and finishing toward the front. I'm sorry, but being a Harvard student makes the crime even more serious. No knocks on students in lesser demanding schools but if you pass Harvard's high standards, you should be ready to deal with the consequences of subsequently not meeting them.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 3, 2006 04:11 PM

Well, I guess I'm in the minority, but I think the comments here are really too harsh. But the main question I have is: who the hell would give an 18 year-old kid a half a million dollars to write a book? If these are the kind of people running the publishing business, it's no wonder that they're nervous about the future of their industry.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on May 3, 2006 04:42 PM

P. Mary -- Deconstructionists seem to me to do to lit what meat-packing plants do to hogs.

Lex -- Don't hold back, dude. Tell us what you really think.

Patriarchy -- "Teaching English" -- now there's a dream. Didn't you realize you'd been hired to babysit and therapize?

DarkoV -- I like your idea of forcing her to transcribe James Frey! To put on a slightly-straight face, I'd actually argue that the "Harvard" thing (and I'm the last person to cut Ivy Leaguers any slack, or at least I thought I was) actually tends to put pressure on these kids to behave in this way -- I'm surprised more of them aren't outed as cheats and plagiarists, because they'll all so competitive, under such parental pressure, so eager to please and impress that it seems inevitable that many of them should lift and imitate like mad, or maybe just let Mummy and Daddy do all the homework for them. That said, she needed a good slap on the nose. I don't think they're all deep-down bad kids or brown-nosers -- I think a lot of them (or a few of them anyway) are coming out of backgrounds where immense amounts of pressure have been put on them. Still, getting booted from Harvard should have been punishment enough. Having it all happen in the press must be infinitely more devastating.

JH -- I often think that the book publishing biz deserves the long slow death it seems to be experiencing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 3, 2006 04:50 PM

The more one reads about the behind-the-scenes story, the more interesting and ghastly it gets.

At the recent Great Falls Festival of the Book, Andrew Smith (one of the creators of "The Slaughterhouse Rule") said that he thought the root of the problem (the producers of some of his work were pretty much like book packagers) was that producers think that sitting together around a table speculating out loud is WORK. It is NOT work, he said. Sitting down alone with a pen or computer and writing out the story so it makes sense is work. The producers had a lot of brain-storming ideas (universally derivative), assigned them to the writer and thought the product was all done. Not. This was greeted with bitter cries of recognition.

We need to re-romanticize the struggling ink-stained wretch.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 3, 2006 04:53 PM

For Jon Hastiings: If my short and atypical experience is enough for extrapolation, I suspect that any writer who thinks they have a half-million dollar advance is entertaining fiction. There are a million small ways to bill the author for services. Authors today are often expected to pay for publicity, for illustrations, for the art on a dust jacket, for an index, for agent time and line-editing expenses, and anything else anyone can invent. Authors are seen as cash cows and the "advance" is much like the government running the new prescription program through the "needy seniors" of the nation so that it shows up in the GNP as a jump in the profits of the big pharmas.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 3, 2006 05:00 PM

I'm a creative writing major at Columbia U. Last week, a couple of students in my literary journalism class were talking about this whole affair. I found it very amusing, especially the way they seemed to feel vindicated by the knowledge that someone at *Harvard* had failed. Ivy League politics is kind of funny. . . Maybe that would be an interesting topic for discussion--the battle of the Ivies and why Columbia can't make it to the top. .

Posted by: bits'npieces on May 3, 2006 05:24 PM

Am I the only one who didn't understand a single word of that Ann Hulbert article? I found it impenetrable.

(Didn't do much better with Barlow's neither, to be honest.)

Posted by: Brian on May 3, 2006 06:40 PM

While we're on the subject of the Ivy League, is it possible to elect a president nowadays who did NOT graduate from one of these snotty holding pens for the elite?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 3, 2006 07:22 PM

" But she has received a lot more coverage than many murderers do."

But her punishment is also far less than the average murderer receives.

Her wrongdoing was exposed, she was briefly humiliated in the media.

Big whoop. Her life goes on, no doubt on the fast track to law, medical or business school and a highly priviliged life from then on.

What has she been deprived of? A book deal she didn't deserve, since she couldn't actually generate the writing herself.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 3, 2006 08:08 PM

Michael, the sepia mutineers have covered this front to back, natch, with all the varied crazy desi opinion there is on Sepia Mutiny. You ought to read some of the threads: those guys are clever, clever, clever. Well, I'm a regular so I'm just complimenting myself, basically.

I'll paraphrase what I said on SM: the whole affair is sordid from top to bottom, but I do feel sympathy for her, as much as I feel disappointment. And Kaavya, honey, the adults around you (okay, the older more experienced adults) are giving you lousy advice.

Here's my chick-lit proposal straight from lala land cause it would never happen in reality (par for the course, chick-lit-wise). An authority figure, an older elegant woman, pulls aside a young writer caught in a publishing scandal. The older woman google searches, she looks through articles on plagiarism, she reads, she asks advice from experts. The authority figure asks the young woman: 'did you do this thing?' The young woman says no, and then, after the authority figure says, 'you are human, you are fallible, and I will help you through this but you must be honest', and the young woman says, 'yes, I cheated', and they speak to the press together and admit it and it's all about making mistakes, and 'fessing up and transparency and forgiveness and taking your lumps when you screw up. I call it How Kaavaya cried, was osctracized and grew-in-size (you know, as a person, not getting fat or anything but I couldn't think of another rhyme). Sorry. I think I plagiarized that from somewhere.....

Or, the whole thing was packaged and she's just a front, and in that case, all the adults around her and this young woman ought to just come clean. Perhaps young people would behave in a certain way if certain things were expected of them.....sigh. No, not excusing the behavior, but disappointed in the entire apparatus surrounding the young prodigy.

You know, with my wierd creative attitude toward spelling, grammer and blog comments, at you know *I'm* an original.....

(Kaavya, seriously, you screwed up. It happens. But you know, the truth shall set you free. Except, in our tabloid society, the truth could just set more rabid dogs on her, too....)

Posted by: MD on May 3, 2006 09:51 PM

Oh, and although I may be Indian-American, and thus totally biased, dudes, I graduated from Iowa State so we can only take this bias thing so far.....anyway, I liked Iowa State. It was fun.

Posted by: MD on May 3, 2006 10:00 PM

Here's my chick-lit-tom-clancy-sci-fi proposal straight from la-la land:

A young female author of a snazzy chick-lit book gets caught up in a plagiarism scandal and is publicly humiliated for her transgressions, while the publishing house receives tons of media exposure for the debacle. The twist is that the publishing house actually manufactured the controversy to gain publicity for the book. In fact the young female author herself is a confabulation of the publishing house, which in actuality is a front for a super-secret former KGB operation now gone rogue since the end of the cold war. In fact, the book was not plagiarized but was 100% original, and contained coded messages to terrorist sleeper cells to carry out classified missions. The appearance of these phrases in other books published prior to the book itself is explained by a post-apocalyptic grrl power hero who sends coded messages back through time to try and prevent the apocalypse from ever occurring.

Posted by: . on May 3, 2006 10:45 PM

I think there's too much of a stink being made about this thing -- smart kids cheating! Next on News5: grade inflation at Harvard. I think the media's still wishing the Duke fake rape thing had turned out as they'd hoped, so they turn to this story w/o skipping a beat in the search for their Great Non-African-or-Latino Defendant, esp since the evidence is clearly against her here.

People love to smash the top tier schools (not just Ivies, but roughly the top 25-35 schools on the US News list) b/c they hate smarties. If a homeless person managed to publish a down-and-out novel or collections of stories that he'd partly plagiarized from Burroughs, it would feel like a defeat for the literati -- you mean the real-life Burroughses go to Harvard (yep), and aren't street people? But when some braniac plagiarizes, people jump on the character they love to hate.

In real life, those top tier schools -- and their art/design/music counterparts like Parsons, etc. -- are your best bet for finding creative people in the arts & sciences. Your worst bet is at the lowest level of education / IQ / class. These are general trends, of course, permitting exceptions. Sure, most Harvard kids will be forgotten, but proportionally even more low-education / IQ will be forgotten. The one major exception is Af-Am music (not the hip-hop junk), for whatever reason w/o an equally strong counterpart in the literary or visual arts.

Posted by: Agnostic on May 4, 2006 12:01 AM

P Mary -- That's a good point. I knew a guy, for instance, who got a 100 grand advance on his novel. Sounds like a lot! But once you subtract the basics (agent, taxes, expenses) and allow for the fact that it took him five years to write the book, he was being paid less per word than he was paid to write magazine articles.

Bits -- That's interesting to hear about (the buzz at Columbia), tks. And that is a good topic too -- the battle between the Ivies. Funny that kids still get hung up on this stuff. Columbia kids are defensive vis a vis Harvard?

Brian -- I'll bet Hulbert and Barlow went to Ivies, where they were told they were great writers.

Charlton -- I'm feeling doomy today so I'll say it isn't possible. The elites have captured the process and they aren't going to nominate anyone they don't feel comfortable with. But wouldn't it be nice if everyone got so fed up with what the elites are feeding them that the elites suddenly had to cough up something original?

Peter -- You and Lex are the Dirty Harrys of the lit world!

MD -- I'd been scared to look at Sepia Mutiny. I was sure it'd be too overwhelming, whatever it would be, and that I'd be unable to follow the intricacies of the arguments. What are you betting will become of Kaavya? Slap me if I'm getting out of line here, but I imagine it must almost be liberating for desis to see one of their own screw up so completely -- like, finally, enough with the perfect overachieving, we're human too!

"." -- I'll put my book packagers in touch with your book packagers and they can work something out. Or at least take a couple of long meetings.

Agnostic -- I'm on your side where much is concerned, and I learn much from you too. But I think you're completely cracked where the arts (and G) are concerned. In my experience, artistic talent has pretty much zip to do with G-style brains, at least once past basic competence. Also, your thesis here is overlooking an awful lot: jazz, blues, country music, the movies prior to 1970, dance, comic books, magazine design ... None of them are fields that Ivy grads have had much of an impact on. And I'd suggest that lit -- where they can seem to have a big impact -- is a special case, because they're essentially covering themselves. Ivy types populate the magazines, they edit, they work at publishing houses. They also think they're important and the best, so they carry on as if the novels and stories written by those like them have some importance. In fact, most of them don't. But we're seeing the lit world through the very biased eyes of Ivy commentators and Ivy filters. As far as I'm concerned, it's one good reason for people who like books and fiction to skip contemp American lit writing completely: they're being fed a lot of self-deceiving crap by people many of whom only half-believe it themselves.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2006 12:01 AM

Number one most important fact is that she's hot. Thus all will be forgiven in time. You can take that to the bank.

Even if she is kicked out of Harvard (nontrivial probability, or so I hear), some not-so-white-knight (likely a Harvard kid with a crush on her before her fall) will hook up with her to dry her tears and make sure she is at least married to a spouse w/ an MD/MBA/etc. She is guaranteed a soft landing.

This was definitely a mistake on her part, but you have to put it in perspective. An enormous fraction of the incoming class at Harvard/MIT/etc. has copied at some point in their academic careers. Those condemning her in public will be seen as tools and snitches. Sometimes even Harvard kids cut corners to make deadlines. When push comes to shove, though, they can deliver intellectual pyrotechnics -- and will continue to deliver over the course of their lifetimes.

In this case, you have a hot, smart, rich girl who screwed up big time and learned the most important lesson of all: don't get caught :)

Posted by: asdf on May 4, 2006 07:41 AM

"Number one most important fact is that she's hot. Thus all will be forgiven in time. You can take that to the bank."

Somewhat agreed here, although I'd say it's because she's a "hot" "young" "feminist-multiculti" icon. When a publishing house has a get together they get to put her up there as a token representative of 3-4 different groups at a time.

Just to play with some pithiness I guess I'd say that I find it ironic that feminism started with bad writing (Butler & other 'theorists') and ended with bad writing (Viswanathan and other chick-lit types).

Posted by: . on May 4, 2006 08:15 AM

An addendum:

Maybe I'm out of touch with the mainstream but I don't think any of the students I know from my college experience would endorse plagiarism, or think that anyone who speaks out against it is a 'tool.' People who plagiarize skip out on work and up the ante for everyone involved. Nobody wants to play catch-up to cheaters.

Posted by: . on May 4, 2006 08:19 AM

Maybe I'm out of touch with the mainstream but I don't think any of the students I know from my college experience would endorse plagiarism, or think that anyone who speaks out against it is a 'tool.'

The mp3/bittorrent/college culture is all about illicit copying. Just don't get caught.

Posted by: asdf on May 4, 2006 08:23 AM

although I'd say it's because she's a "hot" "young" "feminist-multiculti" icon.

no need to scarequote hot or young, she is hot and young.

not really a feminist/multiculti icon as chick lit is rather anti-feminist in its sensibilities and the multicult is not a big fan of asians (especially assimilated striving asians).

if she was, say, arundhati roy (fairly attractive indian writer who writes about how capitalism is pure evil, etc.) then you would be closer to the mark.

as for plagiarism/copying, it is as common in college as speeding on the turnpike. Do it excessively or drunkenly and you will get in trouble. Do it in moderation, without a police officer there, and you will get to your destination faster. You don't want to make a habit of it as you won't be able to pass your exams or understand the material. There is something of a disconnect between the seriousness with which the infraction is viewed by the administration and the students at large.

Posted by: asdf on May 4, 2006 08:29 AM

asdf - Are you kidding me? You don't see a distinction between copying MP3s to listen to them and enjoy the music and copying work and calling it your own (and profiting from it)?

Is your experience with plagiarism in college firsthand? I didn't notice it when I was there, but then I try not to fraternize with the sort of people who would do so. Obviously I can't say that none of my friends in college plagiarized, as I wasn't standing over their shoulders as they wrote, but I'd be very, very surprised. Most people don't have the ethical fiber to accept poor grades when they fail to manage their time and can't get a thing done on time -- But going to the teacher and complaining about a schedule and asking for an extension is an entirely different beast than lifting from other authors and calling it your own.

Posted by: . on May 4, 2006 10:31 AM

I should clarify: when I say "creativity," I don't mean creative products broadly construed, like comic books or country music. I mean, in the sense of "Wow, there is no way I could ever come close to that! How did a human being mangage that?" I could cook up some halfway passable comic book stories & illustrations, or country music lyrics & chord progressions, but I'd utterly, utterly fail at composing even 30 seconds of jazz, sculpting even a small piece of a Laocoon-ish work, or writing even 10 lines worthy of TS Eliot, for example.

I'll have to write up the science of creativity sometime, b/c there's so much confusion about it -- basically, the fundamental creative process is a part of the g hierarchy (it's labeled "retrieval ability" in Carroll's encyclopedic review of intelligence tests), though motivational factors like the personality factor Openness and perhaps some mild psychoticism also play a role.

The reason people think g doesn't matter much is b/c they're used to thinking of it at the highest level, rather than looking at the lower-order factors that it spawns -- the ones like spatial, verbal, quantitative, etc. They're not independent as Gardner suggests; they correlate. The best way to guess who'd make a great lawyer would be to examine just their verbal IQ score, but if you only had access to their overall IQ score, that'd still be your best bet. Likewise, the best way to predict who'd be creative would be to look at creativity sub-scores, but lacking that, overall IQ is still your best bet.

Posted by: Agnostic on May 4, 2006 01:02 PM

You don't see a distinction between copying MP3s to listen to them and enjoy the music and copying work and calling it your own (and profiting from it)?

What is the distinction? In both cases you have more money than you do had you not copied. And in terms of scale every student with a 10000 song library has "stolen" thousands of dollars worth of songs.

There is no distinction. It's just about the critical mass.

going to the teacher and complaining about a schedule and asking for an extension is an entirely different beast than lifting from other authors and calling it your own

whiners tend to snitch. copiers tend to shrug. most copying that i witnessed was not from other "authors" per se but from other students and on math related homework where there was only one right answer and (modulo shown work) copying was mostly undetectable. frequently copiers were cute or relatively cute girls, frequently sources were nerdy guys who thought that doing a girl's homework would get them in her pants (it did not work very well).

Posted by: asdf on May 4, 2006 02:51 PM

Maybe I'm out of touch with the mainstream but I don't think any of the students I know from my college experience would endorse plagiarism, or think that anyone who speaks out against it is a 'tool.' People who plagiarize skip out on work and up the ante for everyone involved. Nobody wants to play catch-up to cheaters.

Cheating is rampant among high schoolers and college students -- it was when I was in HS about ten years ago, and I understand it has only gotten worse. No one particularly wants to play catch-up to cheaters, but as a practical matter, it's a bit of a prisoner's dilemma -- you know certain people cheat, you know the teachers like them, and you know they end up getting into the best schools. I mean, within my immediate family, the joke about Stanford has been that it's the cheaters' school, because so many blatant cheaters in our acquaintance ended up going there.

Plagiarism is a step beyond mere cheating, but I'm not sure it's that much of a step. In this particular case, the use of a few phrases seems like something which in retrospect seems wrong, but which in the moment would probably seem no more than de minimis, and not particularly problematic. From the few examples of her copying that I've seen, it doesn't seem like a great moral fault here. I mean, if she had been taking them from a famous work, the referential nature of the borrowing would probably have made it more a touch of allusive spice than anything else.

I also suspect that we have not got the full picture yet, and that these plagiaristic bits crept in while the packaging/marketing people massaged her text a bit -- whose wrongdoing (hers or theirs) I'm not sure. They don't seem, at any rate, like the kind of touches that would have fit with the tone I understand her original concept to have had, which was a bit more angsty.

Posted by: Taeyoung on May 4, 2006 05:08 PM

I'm curious about something Michael Blowhard said: I don't know about the visual arts, but I would think that IQ had a lot to do with movies pre or post 1970. After all, movies are a semi-technical, group art form requiring a blend of touchie feelie intuition, managerial skills, and hard-nosed conformity to engineering. Perhaps they didn't go to the Ivies then, but I bet a lot of the early pioneers in film were high-iq cookies who would be candidates for Princeton/MIT today. Alfred Hitchcock would have done well on tests I bet. Probably also Welles and Lubitsch And didn't Frank Capra graduate from Caltech in engineering?

Perhaps high G isn't important for actors, but for writers and directors, I bet the average for Oscar winners is quite high.

Posted by: who knew on May 4, 2006 05:10 PM

What is the distinction? (between MP3 filetrading and plagiarism)

Downloading music without paying does not implicate authorial ownership; plagiarism does. Our outrage over plagiarism isn't about the money, it's about the attribution, and the pride and moral right of authorship. With MP3's, the author retains the moral glories of authorship, he's just not getting his lucre.

Posted by: Taeyoung on May 4, 2006 05:11 PM

Sounds like the "best" schools are nests of scheming, anything-to-succeed people. Kind of like when I was there, only worse. I wonder when the rest of us will stop taking them seriously. Any hunches from the younger set? Is it all about parental pressure? Impressing your friends?

Agnostic -- I look forward to your presentation of G and the arts. I do think you might want to be wary of one thing. So long as you pre-define "significant art" as "art that requires a lot of brainpower to do," then of course you're going to find that G and arts-creativity are closely linked. You haven't proved anything. Bach obviously had a lot of brain wattage -- that's complicated music. But a lot of art isn't complicated in a contrapuntal way and that doesn't mean that it isn't significant. If you're throwing out graphic design, country music, the blues, early movies, etc -- well, heck, you're throwing out a lot of what most people would call most significant about 20th century American art.

Who Knew -- As ever, I'd love to see studies done! FWIW, I've banged around the movie world a bit, and I've been a bit of a film-history scholar. And what seems to be the case is that a lot of people in movies have a lot of brains -- but it isn't always (or even often) the out-front creatives. It sometimes is, but there doesn't seem to be a general rule. The people who keep the whole thing ticking-over are often very bright -- but they're usually techies, editors, producers, execs. You're right: it takes a lot to keep all those balls in the air. But creative people? Some of them are certainly smart, but most are just talented. I've met smart directors and dumb directors. There are all kinds of wrinkles. Sometimes directors whose work makes them seem hyper-smart (Godard, for instance) turn out to be not-very-smart. I think Godard is/was a brilliant talent, but it turns out that he's much more a brilliant idiot than he is an intellectual. He was/is good at the appearance of intellectuality -- as some have pointed out, he actually read very few of the books his movies referenced. And there are geniuses like Buster Keaton. I worship his work as the pinnacle of film art, yet he was in many ways a simpleton. Welles ...? I've always thought of him as a master snake-oil salesman. Lubitsch certainly seemed like a smart guy. But my point isn't that there are no people-with-art-talent who aren't also smart, it's that there seems to be no necessary connection between art-talent and mental-horsepower. But it'd be nice to know more, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2006 05:30 PM

Our outrage over plagiarism isn't about the money, it's about the attribution, and the pride and moral right of authorship. With MP3's, the author retains the moral glories of authorship, he's just not getting his lucre.

Great, you have one kind of cafeteria morality. You pick outrage off the shelf selectively as is your wont. And your wont is mostly signaled by the behavior of larger society. If term paper copying was as public and blatant as mp3 downloading that too would not be a subject for outrage.

...fact is, criminal penalties for mp3 copying are quite a bit more harsh than sanctions for plagiarism, which (AFAIK) don't get the cops into the mix most of the time.

Posted by: asdf on May 5, 2006 03:27 AM


You asked, I answered. And my answer is largely descriptively correct, from a societal perspective, as you yourself seem to acknowledge: "mostly signaled by the behavior of larger society." That authorial moral right distinction is the distinction a large proportion of the population sees between plagiarism and MP3 filesharing. It's not reflected in the law, as you note, but that's a non sequitur. Nothing says the law has to reflect the popular morality, or that the law should command outrage solely because it is the law.

Posted by: Taeyoung on May 5, 2006 08:18 AM

asdf, are you ok? I mean, perhaps it's the way I'm reading your comments but you seem more than a little disturbed. Perchance are you a recording industry executive?

I find it fairly concerning that you seem so vested in presenting the issue as one of pure black and white, as though intellectual property / copyright is "natural law" akin to basic moral imperatives against murder, stealing, etc. In any case, it's a signficantly more complicated issue than you are letting on, and not one that's really pertinent here.

Posted by: . on May 5, 2006 08:30 AM

The gist of this story is that a rich girl paid $10,000-$20,0000 to get her into Harvard.

This company (IvyWise) basically built her application from the ground up, including taking a silly start of a novel she had written (like every high school english student) and turned it into a book contract worth $500,000.

If she didn't have the money to pay IvyWise she wouldn't have gotten in.

Some people at Harvard are smart, the other 99% are just rich enough to fake it.

Posted by: Ivy on May 5, 2006 08:39 AM


I think the real problem with the Ivies is their obsession with the "well-rounded", community-minded, liberal leader student. If they stuck to academics it would be a lot harder to get in on pure bs and bright students wouldn't try to game the system. Furthermore if there were a tough, non-grade inflated core curriculum, accidentally letting in weak students (have no idea about this girl's case?)wouldn't matter because they'd flunk out. As it stands, a student who would be below average at a weak state university could still graduate respectably from Harvard through judicious course selection. In contrast, being accepted on AA or legacy or creativity grounds or plain pity into Berkeley's EE program or computer science at CMU would be entrance into hell. [Caltech/MIT would be the ninth circle.] So grade inflation + weak requirements = plenty of room for arbitrary discretion in admissions.

Posted by: who knew on May 5, 2006 09:59 AM

Well, my own p-o-v on it is, Why do we get so hung up on the Ivies, or "the best" in general? The more we put that kind of concern into perspective, the better.

Incidentally, you rowdy lot yakking about MP3s, etc? Strong feelings and vivid presentation are valuable, but let's also keep it civil, tks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2006 10:30 AM

re ivy competition. yes, it seems to me a lot of kids at columbia suffer from an 'ivy inferiority complex.' personally, i'm more than happy with columbia. but as far as the ratings go it is no harvard, yale, or princeton. and probably never will be.
i don't really know the other ivies but from my short visits to cambridge i usually come back to nyc really happy to be on a campus that's not so new england preppy . . . there's a sense of entitlement at harvard that would not be tolerated, i think, at columbia. not to say there aren't rich daddy's girls (and boys) at columbia, but fewer. that's my sense, anyway.

Posted by: bits'npieces on May 7, 2006 12:11 AM

Agnostic, I was under the impression the creativity, or divergent thinking scores were only weakly (like.2) correlated with IQ, is it really much higher?

Posted by: rob on May 7, 2006 07:47 AM

in the end we all know MONEY talks

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