Reframing the Concept of Plagiarism, Or What I Learned From Banksy

April 7, 2011, 12:22 pm

I really enjoyed the Banksy movie. The first half was especially fascinating, chronicling the rise of street art. The second half seemed a bit fantastical, but I’ll suspend my disbelief for the sake of entertainment.


The film made me think of a recent project that we had in our library. It was titled Motivational Reflections and brought a street art vibe into some of our bathrooms.


The short version of the story: An enthusiastic student ends up in my office. She pitches an idea for a class project involving bathroom mirrors. Right away I was worried.


She goes on to outline a creative and inspiring idea. I’ve encountered numerous students with crazy ideas, but I must commend this one for being very organized. She had drawings, a timeline, a statement of purpose, descriptions, etc. It was well thought out. How could I refuse?


Basically her goal was to create a serendipitously positive encounter in the library during finals and dead week. While looking in the bathroom mirror students can place their face into an outline of the Beatles, Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, or Rosie the Riveter. There was also some text on the background wall reflected in the frame offering an encouraging or thoughtful message.


Here are some photos:

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For more information about the project visit the student’s blog post.


The result—we received positive campus press coverage and it generated some excitement among library staff and our users. It was a gamble but I think it paid off well. I am going to approach the student about designing something else, perhaps for our exterior walls, for the start of the new school year. When I returned from my paternity hiatus the first thing I noticed approaching the library entrance were the drab brick walls—what kind of message does that send to incoming freshmen? I want something more inviting to greet them as they pass by the library those initial weeks.


Conceptual Plagiarism & The Influence of Success

This got me thinking about a different art project from another course. An instructor wanted to explore the idea of “anonymous collaborative construction.” The easiest way to describe this is– let’s say you gather a pile of rocks and arrange them in some public setting. I come along and add a new rock and then someone else comes along and adds a few more rocks and perhaps changes the arrangement slightly. Over time this effort takes shape, morphing into something completely different. This occurs without any direction or oversight. (Note: I actually saw something like this done with shells near the beach here in Santa Barbara.)


Anonymous Expression was a concept that her class was exploring. We worked out a plan for students to use spaces within the library for a set period of time to see if they could generate a public response—could they develop a project that would take on a life of it’s own? Part of the assignment was to monitor the reaction and evaluate any interaction with observers.


The instructor gave me copies of their final papers, so it was interesting to read their analysis, but what really stood out was the instructor’s own reflections:

“I did come away with one insight that I will keep in mind for future projects and that is— I won’t have them go to look at a model created by a group that preceded them. I was blown away by the plethora of post-it note projects.”


This was in response to our own TO DO interactive exhibit that we hosted in the library lobby. (I thought I did a blog post on this but apparently not—it only made it as far as my facebook wall.) Here are some images:

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Courtesy of Lisa Koch


The faculty member felt that her students were too influenced by our popular exhibit and that they tried to recreate it in a sense. Or in her own words:

“The problem for many of my students (mostly freshmen and sophomores) is that they didn’t really demonstrate a level of imagination for unique modes of expression. I felt that all those post-it note projects were a loose form of plagiarism. I am struck by how closely they rely on someone else’s ideas to create something and how unaware they are that the model they copied or borrowed from should be acknowledged.”


An example:


 Meaty discussion here, huh? I think as librarians we approach plagiarism exclusively from the paper and citation perspective– the notion of stealing (perhaps unintentionally) someone’s words is one thing, but it is interesting to see this concept manifesting itself in a more visual and tangible manner.

Our project was a a universal To Do list, while one of the student groups used the same materials to develop a crossword-like puzzle. The concept is completely different, but the practice of using post-it notes was obviously similar. It also occurred in the exact same spot as ours had been constructed. Since the instructor showcased our effort as a example, it only makes sense that it would be emulated.

The question is, would they have done the same crossword-via-post-it notes project if we had had not done our To Do list months before? Other things to ponder: would Mark Zuckerberg have created TheFacebook without learning about The Harvard Connection? Did Shepard Fairey's Obama print infringe on copyright?


This type of problem will probably become more prevalent (and gray) as we shift away from the predominate term-paper based academic model and move deeper into project-based learning. Tracking down the use (misuse) of sentences is one thing, but conceptual ideas is a whole different matter.


So what is our role, if any, in aiding faculty along these lines? When the concept of plagiarism is connected to books or journals (our bread and butter) we feel comfortable, and perhaps even entitled to be involved in that discussion, but what about with other forms of expression? What happens when plagiarism becomes more abstract? I know I'm treading into legal waters here but this is the type of thing that our faculty are dealing with. Is there an opportunity for us? I'm just brainstorming here.


Art Projects in the Library

Last year I posted about renegade art in the library. As a follow-up to that, we made an effort to communicate with art faculty about assignments involving public spaces. Surprising they responded positively and we often get a heads-up now during the planning stages. This has been beneficial because it adds character and creativity to the library environment, while also enabling us to be responsible facilitators of the space. The bathroom mirror project was a result of this campaign, as was the anonymous collaborative construction pieces. There have been a few others as well. Things seem to be a lot less hostile when we actually encourage these projects because then students don’t have to sneak around “breaking the rules.”


A closing note from the instructor about the learning experience:

“I think they will always take slightly more ownership of the library as a result of the project, even if it is a subconscious feeling. “


Let’s leave it at that for now… but nice to think that having the opportunity to develop a project or program (aka: be engaged) in the library can lead to a deeper personal relationship.


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