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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In the most sincere form of flattery inevitable?

I once sat in on a colleague's information session to get ideas for sprucing up my own (we borrow and personalize a lot of what others say in these sessions). At one point, he asked the audience to identify the author of the phrase "sound and fury, signifying nothing". Some people answered that it was a line from Shakespeare's MacBeth and others guessed that it had been written by Faulkner, who published a book in 1929 called The Sound and the Fury.

My colleague replied that Faulkner had borrowed the line from Shakespeare. I guess those who said Faulkner were correct, but those who said Shakespeare were "more correct".

I'll come back to this...

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I spent last night doing what I do every night in January (and February and part of March): reading applications. I came across an essay that almost identical in style to one I read last year; one I read out loud at almost every evening program I gave during the fall travel season during my "you can write an awesome essay" pep talk. I checked the applicant's address and it was in a town where I had given a program.

At first, I seethed. The style and theme were so specific that it'd be silly to assume no one would notice. After a little while, I was more disappointed than annoyed. I remember the frustration of application essay writing. I know that the pressure has increased exponentially since I was applying to schools. Perhaps this poor kid had been desperate to get our attention and forgot where she heard the quirky essay she adapted. I set the folder aside and moved on.

In the morning, I googled a line from the essay and was shocked...both essay styles matched an example given on an application essay advice website. I went down the hall to my colleague and presented the facts. Was this a case of "Sound and Fury"? Were these students just adapting a catchy idea to work for them? Or, was this a case of plagiarism? Should these essays be considered stolen because the starting line and overall theme matched the essay on the internet?

Each time I decide the essays were copied (I go back and forth on this), I think of something I heard years ago during an interview with Billy Joel. He said that there are a finite number of melodies possible and that while that number is high, that someday all "new" music will inevitably be like something that's already been composed. Are we getting to that point with college essays? Even the ones that seem quirky and different are recycled?