A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Cheating Culture, part 2

She was a 17 year old who got a half million dollar book deal without ever having written the first page of the anticipated first novel. She's now a student at Harvard. The first novel was finally published to great fanfares of publicity. Kaavya Viswanathan's book is entitled How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life. The title immediately alone sets off internal alarm bells in my head warning that this is the literary equivalent of Turkish Delight which can only lead to immediate atrophy of synapses, and after reading some of the novel in question, you've gotta judge that book by its title.

The problem? Chunks of Viswanathan's book apparently plagiarized passages from a fellow chick-lit artiste.

Yes, that's as American as an ice cream cone. But you gotta love her excuse:
In an e-mail message yesterday afternoon, Ms. Viswanathan, 19, said that in high school she had read the two books she is accused of borrowing from, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings," and that they "spoke to me in a way few other books did."

"Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,' and passages in these books," she said.

Calling herself a "huge fan" of Ms. McCafferty's work, Ms. Viswanathan added, "I wasn't aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." She also apologized to Ms. McCafferty and said that future printings of the novel would be revised to "eliminate any inappropriate similarities."

Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, said that Ms. Viswanathan planned to add an acknowledgment to Ms. McCafferty in future printings of the book.

In her e-mail message, Ms. Viswanathan said that "the central stories of my book and hers are completely different." But Ms. McCafferty's books, published by Crown, a division of Random House, are, like Ms. Viswanathan's, about a young woman from New Jersey trying to get into an Ivy League college — in her case, Columbia. (Ms. Viswanathan's character has her sights set on Harvard.) Like the heroine of "Opal," Ms. McCafferty's character, Jessica Darling, visits the campus, strives to earn good grades to get in and makes a triumphant high school graduation speech.

Well, she's definitely creative: she didn't steal the words of an author she read less than five years ago; no, she "internalized Ms. McCafferty's words"-- and against her own will!

Ohhhhhhh, that's okay then. And her agent says to blame teen culture: "Knowing what a fine person Kaavya is, I believe any similarities were unintentional. Teenagers tend to adopt each other's language."

I guess this has struck a chord in me because I had to call a parent recently and inform him that his child was taking a make-up exam with me and was surreptitiously (is it really surreptitious if you're blazingly obvious and you're caught?) using notes to try to raise his grade. The poor parent apologized over and over again. It made me cringe, because it's not the parent who should be apologizing-- I know he's been trying to do the right thing. "Kiddo" is plenty old enough to know better. But our culture admires people who "get away with things." Even though the kid admitted that he was cheating, he claimed he didn't recall his parent's phone number at work-- until I called home and explained that to grandma, who put the kid on the phone. Within seconds, a miracle happened and the number was recalled. Well, one attempt at honesty out of three chances isn't bad, I guess.

This is not a rotten kid-- just an incredibly polite but disorganized one who needs some reinforcement of study skills and a big dose of accountability. Kid comes to class late, asks to go the restroom in the middle of class about three times a week, leaves the second the bell rings, and refuses to get help from me or a tutor or a study group, even during free time during the school day. Apparently, Kid has been claiming that he has been coming to me for tutoring for months now. Kid has been telling me, meanwhile, that his coach won't let him miss practice, even when that sport is not in season, because, apparently, I am THAT gullible in this kid's eyes. Meanwhile, Coach hyperbolically emails me that Meanie Me may cost the kid a college scholarship (carbon copied to half the building) and then provides as supporting evidence every racial stereotype you can imagine. Does this guy not realize that he is implying that the kid can't do the work because he's a minority? And aren't there SOME KIND of academic requirements for athletic scholarships-- unless, of course, you play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers? (Kidding!-- a bit...)

I appreciate the fact that the kid eventually apologized. I appreciate the fact that the parent actually supported the contention that cheating is wrong-- it could certainly have gone the other way. But hey, everyone cheats, right?

****Saturday Update: the book has been pulled from the shelves, supposedly to be "revised." No word on when or if it will be reissued.


At 4/25/06, 10:22 PM, Anonymous Mrs. Bog said...

Eldest son told me that some kids at college write their cheat notes on the inside band of their underwear... soooo if you are the female teacher and you're looking down some kid's pants to see if he is cheating. The mind boggles.

At 4/26/06, 6:12 AM, Blogger Mike in Texas said...

Isn't it amazing how they try to make it seem as if you are the problem?

You could always let the coach have it via return email, but CC to the entire district.

At 4/26/06, 12:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. My daughter and I have been talking a lot about plagiarism and cheating. According to her, it is rampant in her school. Her GPA isn't as high as she would like it to be, but as she says, "at least it is all my work." She's really drawn to colleges that have a strong honor code.

We've also been talking a lot about academic shortcuts in the Harry Potter universe. I don't know if you've read the books, but Hermione is forever fixing essays and even writing parts of them for Harry and Ron.

Sounds like the boy in your story hasn't had the kind of parenting experience that will allow him to construct "work arounds" of his attentional difficulties.

Sorry about the coach deal, too. Doesn't it chap your hide when colleagues are not on the same page.

At 4/26/06, 12:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was totally underwhelmed by her book...can't believe the $$ deal she got. However--do you really think she knowingly copied these passages/phrasings? I only ask because when I heard about it, I thought it had to be an innocent mistake. Now that I've read your post, I'm re-thinking it--but would she really be that stupid?

At 4/26/06, 2:41 PM, Anonymous algrad said...

It is her fault, but it is also the fault of the environment. For upcoming writers, maybe it would be in their interest to write about topics that they have no interest in. At least then their work would have to be original. If it is similar to other works, it would be purely coincidental since their subject is not even in their interest radar. But that doesn't make sense. Why publish a novel about something you have no interest in? Until someone actually publish a novel about a subject matter that they have no interest in, any new novels will resemble older novels they've read in the past.

For most people who read, they remember passages that leap out at them. Plots are remembered. I read books for enjoyment and remember the plotlines. When a plotline is fuzzy in memory, I reread the book to strengthen the memory. By my logic, I can never become a writer since I am in danger of automatic plagiarism charges. Hmmmm ... I wonder if I can get out of writing papers ...

At 4/26/06, 5:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can see the part about "adopting" another's language...that happens to me all the time. I'll read a particular book and whatever story I try to write around that time will echo its author's writing style.

HOWEVER...I saw the excerpts from both the Opal Mehta and Sloppy Firsts/Seconds books. There were parts that seemed to be lifted practically word-for-word, with only a small tweak here and there. That's not internalizing another book or adopting an author's style! Anybody who says otherwise is just looking for an excuse.

At 4/26/06, 7:42 PM, Blogger Superdestroyer said...

Ms. V is not the only one who used plagarism to get into Harvard. Gaming the system is now a national past time.

Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blair_Hornstine.

At 4/26/06, 11:20 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Bog: EWWWWWWW! That's a fool=proof plan! I for one would "look askance" at that....

Mike: Well, I was a bit cutting in my response. Any time you get an email that starts with the phrase, "I think athletes should be accountable for taking care of business in the classroom BUT..." you know you've got a lulu coming....

LIZ, your daughter is getting the education. Her classmates will not be able to keep up with her eventually. I have seen it a million times.

anonymous go to the link and look at the passages side by side-- you'll see.

algrad and anonymous 2: I have the same problem. When I was in Scotland for a week, I picked up a brogue like nobody's business. But that didn't make me more of a Scot. And this young lady is less of a writer than if she's just mangled prose on her own. Yeesh!

superdestroyer: yep. That was my point. If "everyone does it," is it wrong anymore?

At 4/27/06, 3:29 PM, Blogger Vance Maverick said...

It seems now that the plagiarism in the Viswanathan case runs deeper. She got the book published by letting a "book packager", a sort of literary chop-shop, rewrite it for her. The speculation is that the explicit verbal theft happened in this process. But if true, this is arguably even more embarrassing for her....

At 4/27/06, 6:11 PM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

Actually, I was just about to defend the author, but I don't like that "litereary chop-shop" notion.

The work was sufficiently differentiated that I could've accepted it as unintentional. Of course, if she didn't actually write the whole book herself, that's another thing entirely.

I'll refrain from suggesting we "throw the book at her."

At 4/27/06, 8:03 PM, Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

Ms. Cornelius, if you caused that kid to have a thought or two about honesty and accountability, you did him a big favor.

We had to terminate an employee last year for falsifying. The thing is, she admitted it and said she didn't think it was a problem. Imagine her surprise.

At 4/27/06, 10:07 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Yes, that "book packager" thing is just too bizarre. Makes me question the entire publishing industry.

NYC-- bad puns are always accepted here. Don't hold back!

Laura-- I seriously fear that if kids suffer no consequences, they think it's acceptable. I completely believe your story-- and I have had parents tell me many times that their child was just doing what everyone else does, and that there should be no consequences.

At 4/30/06, 5:23 AM, Blogger Eduardo said...

I cringe even to admit this, but just over half of those surveyed in the School of Education in my University admitted to cheating.

These will be our colleagues, our co-workers, our fellow teachers.

I have been in a funk ever since the report was published.

At 4/30/06, 9:25 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Eduardo, what does it mean when you and I are appalled and your fellows aren't? I'm afraid to find out....

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