Beyond Accessibility…and Beyond!

Overall, my presentation for the Beyond Accessibility Conference directly following the DHSI at UVic was the oddest presentation I’ve ever given.  But, it was at least the best attended.  It was on my process of finding plagiarism and self-plagiarism in Oscar Wilde’s work as well to explain the importance finding plagiarism in other authors’ works, not just in my own research, but with the hope that others will not ignore plagiarism’s capacity for hidden meanings within a text, easily missed, but rife with critical importance.

That was my intention anyway.  I began my presentation with an explanation with a few points I thought to include to hedge against obvious questions and criticisms.

– An example of Wilde’s plagiarisms to show that he indeed was borrowing from other authors.

-An explanation that searching for plagiarism is not just a “gotcha” type exercise.  I was treating plagiarism as a poetic device.

I showed what I was doing and included a brief example of how one thing Wilde was doing can be construed as an “ornamentation” technique, which lends a reflective and poetic layer to a text which is all about ornament and decoration, a sort-of self-demonstration, like a poem about the color green which is printed in green.  But if you didn’t know the plagiarism was there, it’s like the poem was copied in black and white—the layer of meaning would be invisible.

It wasn’t an Earth-shattering presentation—I had a nifty Powerpoint with some clever animations, but stumbled a bit midway when I thought I saw people look a little askance at me–but wow, I got LIT UP when it came time for questions.  First question I got was, bluntly: So what?  And yes, it was phrased that way, or rather, he asked, “At the risk of being rude, so what?  So what, if Oscar Wilde plagiarized, as you say?”

I was a little tempted to go back to my notes and start back at slide one—that was the whole point of my presentation!  I took a breath and explained where I thought there was a disconnect.  I come from a background in linguistics and close reading, I explained.  And so, little things like the change in tenses of a word, or the fact that a passage is an echo of another, an allusion, a repetition, or a plagiarism, makes a big difference in the meaning of the text, I believe.  Without knowing that the passage I analyzed was a plagiarism, we would be unaware of a type of poetic effect–in this case, an ornamental effect.  It is as if we read a poem in translation and did not hear its original rhyme.  Also, the study of an author’s plagiarism can have implications for insight into the author’s writing process if one is interested in that, and his/her influences since they are clearly proven within a text using plagiarism.

The questioner still looked unhappy, but we moved on to other questions, and though there was another speaker in my panel, the next five questions in a row were shotgunned at me.  I don’t remember them all, but several amounted to: I don’t think you should call what Oscar Wilde did plagiarism, since a) he has another conception of originality/property and b) plagiarism is negative and c) plagiarism is culturally constructed and d) there was no such thing as plagiarism and/or copyright at the time.

I answered: a) Yes, he reportedly called plagiarism “the privilege of the appreciative man.”  So, didn’t he call it plagiarism himself?  b) Yes?  And some might view his practice in a negative light today.  Calling it “creative borrowing” or “un-attribution?” might lose some of his intended effect, as perhaps he meant to flout social conventions. c) Yes, and?  Aren’t most things?  d)  Yes, there actually was.  Wilde himself was very conscious of copyrighting his own work.  And, as to different expectations of plagiarism, there was a cultural expectation to avoid verbatim copying, as well as copying ideas, or style without giving credit to the source at the time Wilde was writing (1890s).

Of course, my answers weren’t quite that smoothly-spoken, and some could have been more complete.  I kicked myself later for not just blowing off some of the questions because their tone was, at times, pretty hostile; at least, as hostile as academics get while trying to make themselves sound smart and merely inquiring.

Another thing that got me was that all week I had been searching for a program that could investigate plagiarism more effectively in the week-long workshop.  I spoke to everyone about it, and announced my project, but to no avail—no one was aware of a program that could do what I wanted, which spurred me to try to get help on making my own.  However, in this question round of this presentation which took place after the workshop, one of my former classmates suggested a program I had no idea about that he said could do what I did much more effectively than I did it.  I thanked him, but was practically dying—this was what I asked for all week and he tells me now?  In front of an audience, where now I look like an idiot?   One of the reasons I felt comfortable enough to go up in front of an audience to talk about my project was that I spent the week seeing if there were better ways I could do what I was doing and getting what I thought was expert advice on the subject.

So, rough Q&A, but for all the ravaging I felt during the presentation, I had the best conversation afterwards with my panel-mate.  He gave me some positive reinforcement and we talked about the Q&A for a while as well as his project, which used some of the same techniques as mine, but for different purposes.

Right after lunch, I went for a long hike to see Cadboro Bay.  Skipped some rocks, and felt a bit better.


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