The Myth of Academic Deviance


Mr. Robin teaches at the University of Haifa. His latest book is Scandals & Scoundrels.

Do we live in particularly deviant times? A cursory glance at academic newspapers, internet bulletin boards and, of course, the recent spate of books, suggests that an epidemic of academic crimes and misdemeanors--ranging from plagiarism to the fabrication of data-- is sweeping through the groves of academe. The historical profession, according to David Callahan, is now a card carrying member of the "cheating culture" in which "survival of the slickest" appears to be the norm. Personally, I have my doubts.

While statistics are hard to come by, there is little to suggest that we are in the midst of an intellectual crime wave. I do not, of course, deny the transgressions of ethics and standards in academia. In a profession that boasts few visible saints, there has always been a constant stream of rule benders, and scoff-laws. The difference today lies neither in the quantity nor the quality of contemporary malfeasance in the ivory tower. Wrongdoing is simply more resonant than rampant.

Technology Takes Command

To begin with, I would argue that academic deviancy appears more common because it is easier to detect. Many of us have, at one time or another, stumbled across a student paper created by Internet cut-and-past. Such instances are usually presented as evidence of uncontrollable online fraud. The Internet may, indeed, facilitate deceitful practices. But this same form of technology has streamlined detection as well. Suspicious prose can be “googled” to detect its origins, while Amazon and other sites provide online searches of books on every conceivable subject. With a growing number of journals requiring the posting of data on their internet sites, the hordes of amateur sleuths who comb through such accessible material have become a fabricator’s nightmare.

In addition to their removal from secluded surroundings, deviancy debates are now amplified by news forms of dissemination. Such procedures now take place on cacophonous Internet forums, where professional gatekeepers appear helpless to manage procedures or control the attendant fallout of bickering academics. The Internet has also changed, if not revolutionized, the terms of deviancy procedures. Once upon a time, deviancy spectacles boasted a judicial aura; they were presided over by a judicial body, observed and monitored—if at all-- by a mostly passive audience, and usually confined to the discreet surroundings of a well-defined scholarly community.

For better or for worse contemporary cyber debates do not offer such restraining circumstances. Latter-day deliberations cascade out of academic precincts and scholarly journals. Cyberspace encourages instant and mass participation, while eroding the distinctions between a handful of participants relaying information to a mostly passive audience. The abundance of cyber platforms and contributors is inherently subversive and open-ended; cyber-debates disrupt conventional authority and challenge professional portals. The internet forum blurs distinctions between the public and professional arenas, the local and the global, while empowering in the process a broad range of participants, arbitrators, and rule makers. Anyone with even the slightest interest or even passing competence may weigh in and contribute to ongoing forums. Given the Internet's deep memory, latter-day scandals and deviancy debates are, as well, practically immortal. They never fade away, and they can be brought back to haunt the original protagonist at a stroke of a keyboard.

Deviancy debates mediated through cyberspace rivet our attention because of their shrill tenor. It is often impossible to avoid the wall-piercing volume, the gratuitous acrimony and irrelevant verbal abuse that dominate the typical cyber-discourse. Even in the best of times, academic exchanges are often an exercise in verbal intimidation and metaphorical bloodletting. Yet, when mediated on the internet, with its protocols of instant participation, active rejoinder, and a lack of restraint borne out of the medium's relative anonymity, such cyber exchanges are inflammatory and immoderate. Cyber debates thrive on volume and speed, rather than persuasion and deliberation. And while internet discourse has obvious benefits—it is immediate, democratic, and accessible—it is, as well, impulsive, lacking in contemplation, and often inflammatory. Technology offers no avenue of escape either; colleagues, acquaintances and perfect strangers appear to conspire in clogging our e-mail boxes with the latest provocative response to the scandal-de-jour.

I do not, of course, imply that the current tidal wave of deviancy spectacles is solely the result of technology-run-wild. Nevertheless, in the case of deviancy spectacles mediated via the Internet, the medium is, indeed, the message. This does not mean that the text is unimportant, but rather that the use of a particular medium dictates the terms of debate, has a significant impact on the controversies’ life spans, their narrative structure, and their tone. Virtual communication is not only a technology for transmission and reception. Instant communication via the internet has encouraged the rise of a new pluralism, induced significant shifts in the geopolitics of academia, and has dislocated conventional nodes of knowledge and power. The dissemination of controversy via the internet breeds a culture of rancor that sometimes obscures structural objectives in the name of scoring points. In other words the mere use of a novel technology or mode of dissemination is, at times, of greater significance than the content of its messages.

Yet, lest I be accused of technological determinism, I should note that the applications of these technologies have achieved resonance because they are powered by prevailing, cultural, non technological forces-- in particular a widespread discontent with academic mandarins and the restrictions they have imposed on the production of knowledge, a growing fascination with the limitations of objectivity in scientific inquiry, and a powerful public yearning for moral transparency, intellectual integrity, and stable standards in unsettled times.

Trial-by-website is also the result of the demise of professional disciplinary mechanisms. Academic enclaves—from history to histology—possess, in theory, professional mechanism for maintaining disciplinary order. Such procedures are now functionally obsolete. Epistemological fragmentation, the sheer number of practicing academics, as well as the tangled growth of professional societies have eclipsed the monopoly of what used to be one coherent professional association capable of enforcing both mores and morals, formally and most often informally. An authoritative—and often discreet-- academic center has been overwhelmed by an ebbing, porous periphery, quite oblivious to the codes and cautious mannerisms of conventional governing boards. Technology merely provides the tool for the realization of a new pluralism that has been simmering under the surface for a long time.

The Selective Scandal

While the "outing" of deviant scholars is now a veritable cottage industry, not all of the accused find themselves trapped in the headlights of public interest. Is there a typical social profile of the scholar who merits a public tar-and-feathering? Jon Wiener has identified a direct link between the politics of the accused and their public lambasting. I would like to suggest some alternative explanations:

1. Media interest: One of the most fascinating aspects of latter-day scandals is the alacrity in which they find their way into the mainstream media. A scandal-hungry mass media is always fond of revealing the faults and foibles of the self-righteous. Surely, a lapsed academic is more titillating than familiar banker-gone-bad, or a crooked politician. However, not all wrongdoers are lambasted on the pages of the Boston Globe and other prominent broadsheets. This dubious privilege is reserved for the public figures among us, in particular those who have basked in the glow of the media prior to the eruption of scandal.

The incursion of a celebrity culture into academia has had many positive side-benefits for the media savvy historian. At the same time, celebrity historians pay a heavy price for their notoriety: they are entrapped in the Golden Cage of a celebrity culture. As "citizens in a republic of voyeurs" (Seyla Benhabib) we are fascinated with the spectacle of fallen Gods—be they rock-stars or those presidential historians with great hair who dominate the TV screen. The scandals exposed in the media usually involve celebrities, and often have a conspicuous melodramatic side. The scandal of a celebrity lend itself to a personalization of the act of wrongdoing: such as the morality tale of pride leading to a fall or other familiar mass-media images. The academic scandal of a star undergoes a transformation until, at times, they appear entirely unrecognizable. Their representations draw upon sensational language, personalized conflict, and familiar mass-media images that have little to do with the intellectual issue at hand.

2. Intellectual tenor of the debate: The well-publicized cases of malfeasance occur when deliberations tend to wander from a factual investigation of wrongdoing- to a more general critique of epistemological quandaries. A few well-known examples will suffice:

A. Plagiarism: During the debates concerning the transgressions of Stephen Ambrose, Stephen Oates and others—animosity appeared to stray from the original charge of plagiarism and focus, instead, on the perpetrators' hybridity—the fusion and confusion of an intellectual calling with a popular form of historical infotainment. Plagiarism debates tend to focus on the manner in which such hybrid scholars—who claim academic credentials, yet achieve their fame in the entertainment world—trivialize the craft of history writing by manufacturing a boilerplate form of history, replete with sentimental and derivative storytelling and a casual dismissal of disciplined remembering. Literary kleptomania does not appear to be the major issue at hand. Plagiarism is presented as an example of the type of transgression that occurs when scholars cross the divide separating intellectual reconstruction of the past from a pandering to nostalgic memory, when they churn out books at an industrial pace, thereby belittling and overshadowing the work of the "real" historical artifact: the product of a painstaking craft-like process, rather than assembly-line remembering.

B. Fabrication: Michael Bellesiles's alleged fabrications of evidence in support of a gunless America is a case in point. While ostensibly concerned with Bellesiles's imaginary statistical evidence, the scandal provided a conduit for a much broader debate on the pitfalls of the "usable past" paradigm and the follies of "presentism"—the casual, if not manipulative construction of the past as an explanatory device for contemporary reality. Instead of conducting an historical investigation anchored in verifiable documents, Bellesiles's original sin was his fabrication of data to reflect present-day concerns. Bellesiles chose what others have called the "noble lie." He allegedly manufactured an attractive, yet illusory version of the past to support the important existential cause of gun control. According to Ira Gruber, Bellesiles was "enamored by the idea of using the past to reform the present.” The great divide separating the lives of long-dead ancestors from the dilemmas of the present was conspicuously deleted from his work. Thus, a critical Jackson Lears observed (before he was aware of the charges of fabrication), Bellesiles offered the “anti-historical” but attractive premise that the past was first and foremost a “compendium of useful lessons” for contemporary dilemmas.

In tailoring the notion of a usable past to popular demand, Bellesiles found no redeeming quality in “recognizing “the finality of the past.” He was, then, no different from the army of mythographers he had set out to challenge. In his quest for a usable past he had enshrined a narrative no less mythical and unmoored than the version he had set out to debunk. “ America’s gun culture,” an emphatic Bellesiles claimed, “is an invented tradition.” Yet, in his zeal to undermine the power and resonance of this “invented tradition,” Bellesiles had willfully employed exaggeration, selective quotations, and distortion of quantitative evidence. His noble lies undermined the very position he had sought to bolster.

C.Embellishment in the classroom: The debate concerning Joseph Ellis's transformation into the Forrest Gump of our profession began as a straight-forward dispute on lying in classroom. Having deliberately mixed truth and invention before a captive audience, scholars wondered whether his research should be taken on faith, and to what degree did his embellishments tarnished his office as keeper of the past. Ellis's friends and colleagues pleaded poetic license, arguing that there "there is an element of great teaching that's theater," which legitimizes the creation of a classroom persona...that's really not quite you." (Donal O'Shea).

Predictably, the debate offered a commentary on the politics of academia as well. As far as the University of Maine’s Howard Segal was concerned, the Ellis affair was a prime example of the profession’s obsession with irrelevant misdeeds and its pervasive unwillingness to clarify the historian’s obligations to teach a biased-free understanding of the past. Segal complained that the same system that had rushed to judgment in this mostly minor case of intellectual misdemeanor appeared paralyzed by major offenses, such as the publication of ideological diatribes masquerading as history. Segal mentioned, in particular, the tomes of Wellesley's Tony Martin” who taught and published anti-Semitic “nonsense” with impunity.

Other commentators noted that Joseph Ellis was responding to a public demand for a particular pernicious form of remembering—the fatal attraction to the "experiential" form of remembering by means of a theme park, pseudo-real film footage, and, of course, the now-typical encounter with a pseudo-protagonist. In an age jaded by virtual reality, our student-consumers of historical accounts, crave the "real thing" an eye witness to "reality," even if the eyewitness report is invented. We are attracted to the glittering fake version, media sociologist Sherry Turkle reminds us, because the fake is more exciting and compelling than the real. "What would we rather see?" Turkle muses. "A Disney crocodile robot or a real crocodile? The Disney version rolls its eyes, moves from side to side, and disappears beneath the surface and rises again. It is designed to command our attention at all times. None of these qualities is necessarily visible at the zoo where the real crocodiles seemed to spend most of their time sleeping. And you may have neither the means nor the inclination to observe a real crocodile in the Nile or the River Gambia."

The understanding of the past through fictionalized presentations, observed Yale's Jim Sleeper, was Ellis's cardinal sin. Professors, he argued, had a sacred obligation to resist a culture of facsimiles and provide students with the necessary intellectual tools to sift between the real and virtual. History had been infected by what Joyce Appleby described as a pervasive "cultural milieu….imbued with factoids, infomercials and" fatally realistic reproductions. It is precisely under such circumstances that the historian has an obligation to at least seek authenticity rather than cede authority to credible verisimilitudes. Ellis, according to his critics, had failed this crucial cultural litmus test.

The Necessary Scandal

In concluding, I would like to survey, ever-so briefly two common interpretations of the significance of contemporary scandal debates and then offer my own take on the issue.

A.The postmodern view: Under the ironic gaze of the postmodernist, history is a malleable enterprise, where the borders separating the domains of fact and fiction, public domain and intellectual property are fuzzy, arbitrary, and political. Beneath the official record lie other, different versions of the past that are revealed only by acts of intellectual subversion. The past is not an entity unto itself; it exists as a reflection and refraction of the present. Therefore offering imaginative or even imaginary versions of the past is salutary because it erodes epistemological regimentation, encourages the disassembling of obsolete paradigms, and promotes the construction of a critical and constructive present. The postmodernist argues that academic malfeasance is a mutable, ideologically saturated affair. Even in the case of plagiarism, the postmodernist argues that such rigid definitions of intellectual property, are a political device for obstructing other cultural traditions in a multicultural America. Originality—the essence of scholarship—should not be measured by an obsessive counting of words and a compulsive search for original ownership of an ephemeral commodity such as text. Originality lies in the manner in which an argument is presented.

B.The traditionalist view : Many of our colleagues approach latter-day scandals as a symptom of a disease- ridden academic polity, a veritable “university in ruins.” Such pessimistic viewpoints are, at times, tempered by distinctions between the scandal as an illness—a passing malaise affecting one particular individual—and the scandal as pandemic— a rampant disease that has taken control of, and debilitates an entire community. All too often, (and based on circumstantial evidence), singular acts of wrongdoing appear as symptomatic of a larger cause. Scandals are posited as the result a virus, passing from one infected individual to another; they demonstrate the pathological symptoms of a disease-infected academic polity. The wave of contemporary scandals, is what Oscar Handlin described in another context as inundation of the modern university by “plagiarists, loafers, incompetents, drunkards, lunatics (mild)” and the most insidious enemy of all: the glib intellectual trend-surfer.

C.The Necessary Scandal: While there is, of course, much merit in the preceding interpretations, I would argue that the very existence of wrongdoing serves an important normative function. The sociologist Kai Erikson once observed that the detection of deviancy—academic or otherwise—is not necessarily a sign of a society in crisis. Aberrance, “is not a property inherent in any particular type of behavior; it is a property conferred upon that behavior” for the functional purpose of inscribing or revising rules and regulations. In other words, delinquency debates, such as the present wave of academic storms-in-a teacup, are part of a necessary process of reflection rather than a symptom of declension. I understand the most conspicuous accusations of academic miscreancy in recent years as somewhat more complex than simple instances of wrongdoing, and/or a symptom of the unraveling of grand narratives and paradigmatic conventions—whether salutary or cataclysmic. Deviant behavior may sometimes be, in the lingo of postmodernists, an issue of positionality, or in simpler terms, in the eyes of the beholder; in other instances, there is little ambiguity about the deviant act. But above all, scandals are in my view an indispensable device for intellectual border control. The “discovery” of deviance is first and foremost a didactic protocol for informing and conceptualizing intellectual boundaries; it is an essential instrument for preserving social structures and controlling ambiguity, and not a distress signal. Scandals today are more visible due to changes in scholarly communication and community arrangements rather than the spread of a deviance culture. But in the final analysis, scandals are necessary, observes historian J.C. Davis, “because it is only through deviance that we understand normality.” If this is indeed the case, the proliferation of disaster warnings, on the one hand, and gleeful funerals, on the other, may be somewhat premature. The present bout of scandals may very well reflect vibrancy rather than demise.

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