A Digital Dilemma

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While I realize that the problem is not really a brand new one, I have only recently become aware that there is a lot of very good popular cultural analysis available on the Internet in video form.  Well, what's wrong with that?  After all, the Internet is an absolutely indispensible resource for popular cultural semiotics, a treasure trove of up-to-date primary and secondary source material that I now wonder how I ever did without in my own writing and teaching.  So how could there possibly be a problem here? The problem, I'm afraid, is that video-format analyses are not detectable by Turnitin or by any other language based search engine detection method.  For while a video certainly contains plenty of language, its sentences are spoken, not written, and thus are not able to be captured by any search method of which I am aware.  My concern here is not that intellectual property may therefore be appropriated without attribution (after all, the producers of such video content generally are open source aficionados with little interest in personal copyright protection) but that student writing may be rewarded for undocumented insights that are not the student's own.  And this, as I tell all of my students when I explain the rationale for academic strictures with respect to plagiarism, is why I am a rigorous enforcer of such strictures. That is, if a student paper is filled with sharp but undocumented analyses that an instructor believes to be the student's who wrote the paper, that paper is likely to get a higher grade than a paper that was written honestly, and that is stealing not so much from the true author of the analyses (who, I admit, does not lose anything thereby) but from other students (who may lose a lot because the playing field has been tilted).  It's the same thing as with the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports: someone gets an illicit extra edge.  That matters to me, and should matter to our students as well. I am not going to name any particular video analyses here for various reasons, but I will describe one way that an instructor of popular cultural semiotics can both detect and avoid their successful illicit use—beyond, of course, explaining to students that they must be documented just as any other source must be documented.  This is to construct assignments that require students to set up their own systems of association and difference within which to situate their topics as signs within a semiotic system.  Online video analyses tend to be formalistic in manner, focusing an analysis of a film or television program much in the manner of a New Critical reading of a text.  Such analyses can be quite clever and enlightening with respect to the individual popular text, but they aren't the goal of a popular cultural semiotic analysis, whose goal is to interpret the social significance of the text, and that requires broad contextualization.  To put this another way, the goal of a cultural-semiotic reading of a text is not an intrinsic description of its signs and symbols, it is an extrinsic interpretation of that text with respect to social history. So, here is something else to keep in mind both when assigning and reading student essays in a class on popular cultural semiotics—and, for that matter, student essays in any class on any subject.  Youtube, et al (and this includes university based sites, as well, I suppose, as the TED lectures) is filled with useful, but undetectable, material.  I hadn't thought of it before, but it is worth passing the word along.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.