merely synthetic

18 December 2009

Years ago, ex-blogger (and current twitterer) Caleb McDaniel wrote a post about academic plagiarism called “Good Fear and Bad.” The good fear was the fear of committing plagiarism that keeps academics vigilant, guarding against carelessness and error in their own research and writing: “It’s one of the internal controls that helps prevent the outright cases of intellectual theft from happening.”

Of course, no one really needs to be afraid of committing conscious plagiarism: being by definition a conscious act, they should focus more on not doing it at all. But that’s not really what Caleb was talking about. Instead, he was raising the specter of truly accidental or coincidental cases: cases where one paraphrases from notes without realizing that the paraphrase brings them back more closely to the text the notes are based on, or cases where one arrives independently at an image or metaphor only to find someone else already arrived at the same place. Cases that might look like plagiarism – that might even draw accusations – but aren’t.

I was reminded of this recently because I’m currently trying to work part of a course paper into a blog post (or two). It’s my own paper but it’s not original – that is, I did the research and did the writing and everything else involved in producing the paper, but it’s based entirely on secondary sources. It’s about the history of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as documents: mostly, it’s about how they’ve been preserved over the years. My principal sources for the pre-1950 history of the Declaration and the Constitution were the 1949 annual report of the librarian of Congress and an article by Verner Clapp in the journal Special Libraries; among my post-1950 sources were some articles in the New York Times (I can post the full bibliography with links if anyone’s interested). I did not, because I was looking at material history rather than cultural or intellectual history, look at any of the many histories of the documents as expressions of ideas. But I kept them in mind for future reading.

A few days ago, I picked up Pauline Maier’s history of the Declaration of Independence, American Scripture, and was quite surprised to find much of what I covered in my paper written into its first few pages: Maier’s introduction starts with a reflection upon the Declaration as a material object and its history. There’s no question as to primacy here: I wrote the paper a couple of months ago for a readership in the ones; Maier wrote years ago for a readership in the thousands. So I did what any former almost-historian would do: I turned to the footnotes. And sure enough I found that same Librarian of Congress annual report, the Verner Clapp article, and one of the New York Times articles I used.

Before knowing that we worked from the same sources, I found the resemblance striking, even worrying – there’s at least one quotation we both used (it’s a good quotation!); after looking at the footnotes, it seemed almost unremarkable. After all, how many different ways can you say that for a few decades the Declaration hung on a wall in the United States Patent Office Building opposite a window where it was exposed to natural light, and that many suspect this prolonged exposure of causing much of the fading visible in the document? (I have not looked that up to make sure I’m not inadvertently quoting someone. Apologies to that someone if I am.)

But what about the sources themselves? There have been cases where scholars have been accused of hiding their unoriginality by quoting and citing sources they found through others’ work without acknowledging where they found those sources. Generally, the problem is with using only the bits of sources that another scholar used without crediting that scholar (e.g. by not writing “quoted in [citation]”), not with finding the sources and then using them directly. Since I worked directly from the sources I cited and in any case I found them elsewhere, that doesn’t really apply here.

Interestingly, we followed similar routes to our identical sources: in her footnotes, Maier thanks a conservator at the Library of Congress for the references to the Clapp article and the 1949 annual report. I found those same references through an article in a 1997 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, which for full circularity also refers to Maier’s introduction to her book. Appropriately enough, parts of that 1997 article also seem to be based on the references it recommends. I assume we both turned to the New York Times for more recent coverage because it’s a prominent paper with a certain amount of credibility and it has carried some fairly detailed articles on the documents’ preservation.

In the end, I don’t really think accidental plagiarism, or the appearance thereof, was ever much of an issue here. I wrote about the Constitution and Bill of Rights along with the Declaration – although the Declaration has the best documented history and consequently got the most attention in the paper – and I tried to include a bit more technical detail about preservation when I could. I also cited my sources and did not claim to be uncovering original information, just to be putting together in one place information already available.

I am still glad, however, that although I picked up a copy of American Scripture some time ago I did not open it until after finishing the paper: I think I might have been so paralyzed with fear of re-summarizing Maier’s summary that I would have had a hard time writing anything at all.

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levels of knowledge

2 October 2009

Being in school again has me thinking about what it means to know something. Not because of anything covered in any one course, but because of the fact of the courses themselves. When you’re out of school, if you read something, and you have reason to believe you understand what you’ve learned from it, you can act as if you know that information without too much hesitation. Of course that knowledge, like most knowledge, is provisional: you could be misunderstanding it, or the source itself could be wrong. Just because you believe you know something doesn’t mean you’re beyond correction. You might qualify your statement when you present that knowledge – “I remember reading a study” – and you might ask someone with more expertise if what you know is true, but you generally don’t feel as if you need some sort of external approval to demonstrate that you really know it.

It’s different in school, where there are systems of evaluation set up to periodically evaluate your knowledge. Read a book about subject A outside of work and there’s not much you have to do aside from finish the book to believe that you’ve learned and now know something additional about A. Read the same book for class and you might have the same belief  about your knowledge – but until you’ve finished the coursework evaluation process, it will seem less settled.

Why am I bringing this up now? Aside from the fact that I’ve been struck by how differently I approach what I know depending on whether it’s part of an education program or not and simply think that is interesting, I am also going to be writing a bit about subjects related to my program. So I want to emphasize that this blog reflects the fact that I am in the process of learning. There are certain risks involved in showing one’s learning process in a public forum, but I hope that in writing about what I am learning, I’ll be able to give others at least a partial idea of what the library and archives fields are about. You can learn along with me.

For example, if I don’t have time to get into details, I tell people I’m in library school. People usually know libraries and they have some understanding of what librarians do, so library school doesn’t sound like anything that out of the ordinary. But I’m not just in library school; I’m also in an archives program (it’s a joint degree, so I’m in both). And people are less familiar with archives and what archivists do. I plan to write a post about the difference between the two – that is, between libraries and archives – but it turns out that the definition of an archive is quite particular – as is the definition of a record – and something that you have to learn carefully, even if you know, under general knowledge, what archives are, have done historical research in them, and don’t find the idea of “archives school” completely foreign to you.


transcript and memory

24 August 2009

I ran through something like this in my head last fall when I dug up my college transcript to apply for library school. But it hadn’t occurred to me to make a post out of it until I read teo’s look at his transcript.

It’s striking how I narrowed down to taking almost all history courses in my last few terms. I didn’t decide on graduate school until almost a year after I graduated, but you could see where I was heading. Read the rest of this entry »


premonition

12 November 2008

Cornelius Cole was not nearly the diarist his wife was – I was more interested in his correspondence – but that doesn’t mean my research did not turn up something incidentally interesting. Again from my old notes, again something not relevant to my research topic, here’s Cole, then a member of the House of Representatives, on Lincoln (from an entry dated 8 Jul 1864):

Mr. Lincoln takes no care of himself + I fear he may be assassinated by some rebel who could easily make his escape. I call upon the President often + once with Hon John H Rice of Me when I expressed my fears to the President that they might assassinate him in order to throw matters into confusion + make an assault. I before or afterward stated the same fears to Mr. Stanton. To the suggestion Mr. Lincoln replied that when he first came to Washington he determined that he would not be dying all the while.

That he did not believe that he was to die in that way. That no one could do such a deed without expecting to lose his own life, and the life of each man was equally dear to himself. That if any body wanted to kill him it was easy to do it from a window any day while he was riding out 7th street. He did not think such was to be his fate.”


not for granted

11 November 2008

I don’t have anything to say about Grant’s status as an intellectual, never having read his memoirs, but this discussion reminds me that I have in some old research notes an impression of Grant set down shortly after his first inaugural in the diary of Olive Cole, whose husband was then a Senator from California, and whose papers can be found in this collection. The entry is dated 5 March 1869 (words in brackets followed by a question mark indicate I had trouble making out what was written):

Genl Grant converses easily and, barring a peculiar Western pronunciation, quite elegantly. His language is simple – clear and forcible. He always asks many questions, and is quite as willing to answer general ones, tho’ is sometimes “reticent” – when leading questions are addressed to him, or special favors are asked. He wants time to decide important questions and to consider the propriety of granting favors to others. He [hears?] urging very patiently, I hear. Time will reveal to us the extent of his great patience. He told me a few evenings ago at the house of the Ex – [Mayor? Major?] Hallack that he was too lazy to perform the duties of President and he looked forward to them with dread. Then I [sallied? sullied?] him upon his duty to the people at this great crisis of all the good he might do etc – he coldly remarked he was not ambitious to do what another could do better and he presumed the people would be as happy to have him leave the White House at the end of four years as they are now to see him go there.

[Here my notes indicate that the following section is crossed out in the diary]

My only fear is he is not in sympathy with the great “people” and does not realize the necessity of establishing our government upon the principles of freedom. He is a good judge of a General, of a cigar, of a horse, but is he of men in general? He has not made human nature a study – and his ignorance of somethings national and political astonished even me.

[end crossed out section]

He is fond of his wife and children – and well he may be, for they are gentle + lovely.

I believe he will do as nearly right as any man we could have chosen for President, tho’ he may not do as much. My greatest fear is that he will forgive the Rebels too freely – and trust them too far.

His gentleness of heart will lead him to great charity + forbearance that is better in excess – than excess of tyranny.

I would caution against taking this as a sort of definitive judgment on Grant, especially given that he had barely been President when it was written, and that some of it had been crossed out sometime after it was written. But neither do I have reason to believe that Cole misrepresented their conversation.

Cole’s diaries, incidentally, were among the most engrossing documents I read during my history grad student days. Too bad it was information about her husband’s work in Congress and his relations with business that I was really looking for in their papers. Also too bad is that I’ve never worked up that research into publishable form (blogging doesn’t really count, I don’t think).


crafty historians

1 August 2008

Thinking more about this

An undamaged (so to speak) brain perceives direct experience as continuous, but direct experience is not the same as history. Silas Weir Mitchell (in the linked post) wrote about injured Civil War veterans; Marc Bloch uses the following example in The Historian’s Craft:

Let us suppose that a military commander has just won a victory. That, immediately, he sets to work writing an account with his own hand. That it was he who conceived the plan of the battle, and that it was he who directed it. And finally that, thanks to the moderate size of the field (for in order to sharpen the argument, we are imagining a battle of former times, drawn up in a confined space), he has been able to see almost the entire conflict develop before his eyes. Nevertheless, we cannot doubt that, in more than one essential episode, he will be forced to refer to the reports of his lieutenants. In acting thus as narrator, he would only be behaving as he had a few hours before in the action. Then as commander, regulating the movements of his troops to the swaying tide of battle, what sort of information shall we think to have served him best? Was it the rather confused scenes viewed through his binoculars, or the reports brought in hot haste by the couriers and aides-de-camp? Seldom can a leader of troops be his own observer. Meanwhile, even in so favorable a hypothesis as this, what has become of that marvel of “direct” observation which is claimed as the prerogative of the studies of the present?

No doubt the commander’s experience of the battle was continuous; no doubt his account of the battle will fail to replicate that continuity. But it is not accurate to say that the former is the product of a healthy brain while the latter, no matter how thoroughly constructed, is doomed to resemble the product of a damaged one. The commander, in producing his account, is trying to capture more than what he experienced – more than what any single participant in the battle experienced, and indeed, more than any single person could have experienced. If history always fails to reproduce the past as it appeared to the people who lived in it, it is not just because historians’ access to the past is necessarily limited, it is also because historians are asked to do things no historical actor ever does when the past is still the present, and no living person does when the past is recalled as memory – history, at least in the form we know it today, is fundamentally unnatural.

Later Bloch writes:

Because the individual, narrowly restricted by his senses and power of concentration, never perceives more than a tiny patch of the vast tapestry of events, deeds, and words which form the destinies of a group, and because, moreover, he possesses an immediate awareness of only his own mental state, all knowledge of mankind, to whatever time it applies, will always derive a large part of its evidence from others. In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past.

If what historians do is more like producing than reproducing, why pay so much attention to the so-called irreproducibility of the past?

It is easy to see why this remoteness of the scholar from the object of his knowledge makes so strong an impression upon many historical theorists. It is because they think of history primarily in terms of events, even of episodes – of a history which, rightly or wrongly (and it is immaterial at the moment) attaches an extreme importance to the exact reconstruction of the actions, words, or attitudes of a few personages, brought together for a relatively brief scene, in which as in a classic tragedy, are marshaled all the forces of the critical moment: the day of a revolution, a battle, or a diplomatic interview.

Bloch concludes the paragraph with an example that shows why the brain-damage analogy can sound so plausible:

It is related that on September 2, 1792, the head of the Princess de Lamballe was paraded on the end of a pike under the windows of the royal family. Is this true or false? M. Pierre Caron, who has written an admirably honest book on the September Massacres, does not venture an opinion. Had he been permitted to watch the ghastly cortege in person from a tower in the Temple, he would have known what to think – at least if, preserving his scholarly detachment in these circumstances (as might be expected), and properly mistrustful of his own memory, he had further taken the precaution of making a note of his obvervations on the spot. Unquestionably, in such cases, the historian is mortified by comparing his position with that of a reliable witness of a present event. He is as if at the rear of a column, in which the news travels from the head back through the ranks. It is not a good vantage-point from which to gather correct information. Not so very long ago, during a relief march at night, I saw the word passed down the length of a column in this manner. “Look out! Shell holes to the left!” The last man received it in the form, “To the left!” took a step in that direction, and fell in.