A new school year has descended upon us. And as I write this, early in the morning on the first day of class, I have a sinking feeling that I am already behind. For me it was an arduous road to get here. Here. Columbia. As an elite student. But even more strenuous than getting here is the path I travel now that I am here. With a husband also studying at Columbia, a new baby, and debt that looms ominously over me like a dark cloud, every day that I show up to class seems like a miraculous event.
My fears, however, are easily dispelled when I remind myself of the education I am receiving from the world's top professors, leaders, and academic scholars. They are my raison d'être in this environment. How many times did I listen to NPR and hear, "Leading professor at Columbia" only to dream of having access into its luminous gates? Professors ascended to god-like stature in my own narrative. And the institution became their governed heaven.
But last year, sadly, I had an experience that shattered that myth. Twice a week, I showed up to an introductory level class at Barnard to learn from a professor in one of the college's most illustrious departments. Eager to learn, I took copious notes. After class I would research class topics online hoping to understand every aspect of the lecture. Until one day, I plugged "positivism" into Wikipedia's search box and, dumbfounded, read a definition that was exactly like the one written in my notebook! I had the most disheartening of realizations. My professor, whose intellect I had raised to god-like stature, was plagiarizing Wikipedia in her lectures. The proof was too black and white to deny. As I typed in more and more phrases, more and more periods of history, it became blatantly clear to me that a considerable amount of my professor's lecture came verbatim from Wikipedia.
I calculated how much I was paying for the class, and I began to feel robbed—literally robbed—of my education. What was I paying for? Information I could get off the Internet. Why did I struggle to show up to class? To listen to a professor who assumed her audience was too naïve to pick up the pieces she was putting down. A professor would never pull out that definition before a room full of peers or graduate students. My discovery reeked of wrongness on so many levels—anyone can write on Wikipedia's pages; the professor should know better; the professor didn't cite her source; if a student plagiarized from Wikipedia in a paper, they could technically be expelled; academic integrity is the cornerstone of academia.
Perhaps the most disconcerting question is why would a professor who has spent the better part of her life toiling through books and writing a dissertation stoop so low as to read aloud a definition of a concept so profound as positivism from Wikipedia? One could write an entire dissertation on positivism. Isn't there more to say about positivism than a generic sentence from Wikipedia's page? (Which has since been edited and changed.) A professor who holds a Ph.D. should be able to define positivism in her own words. My narrative began to read like a Greek tragedy and positivism was Hermes' staff, left powerless and void of meaning, broken by god's sin.
Soon after my discovery, I had a lengthy phone conversation with a dean at Barnard deliberating over this prickly incident. He didn't seem convinced that what she did was wrong. Lazy, maybe, but wrong? Hm. He wanted to think that one over. I have spent the better part of the last six months thinking this over, and it is the spirit of academia that haunts me, reminding me why we are all here. That spirit should be unshakable by the lure of the Internet and all the easy access to information its search boxes grant us.
In the aftermath of the Teacher's College incident in which Madonna Constantine was suspended over allegations of plagiarizing, it is clear that lecturing and publishing are two different mediums. However, equally important as the written word is the word that we get from our professors in lecture. It is the way knowledge has been handed down throughout millennia, and it reminds us of the fundamental uniqueness of being human.
Paradoxically, this spirit we refer to when talking about academia depends on all of us playing by rules that were designed to eternally advance us on the path towards knowledge. When we fail to acknowledge the rules, we chip away at that spirit. We limit the boundless nature of our imaginations. As we embark on a new semester, perhaps it is important to remember that Wikipedia is unreliable, and our professors are not gods.
Cathy Madeo is a student in the School of General Studies majoring in anthropology. A Contrario runs alternate Thursdays. Opinion@columbiaspectator.com