That time I tried to use a Tom Lehrer song to teach students about plagiarism

Like most instructors, I’m forever searching for fun and engaging ways to teach students about my area of expertise. I feel like this is a hard thing for any instructor to do in part because you can’t force students to be as passionate about the topics you’re teaching them as you are. But it’s especially hard with information literacy because the limitations of the contexts in which IL is often taught mean that as instructors we generally have to boil IL, which is actually a complex and nuanced subject, down to its most basic and boring parts.

Like plagiarism.

It’s hard to make plagiarism fun. Conversations about plagiarism are generally meant to scare students. It’s a SERIOUS ACADEMIC OFFENSE. It can GET YOU KICKED OUT OF SCHOOL. It can RUIN YOUR ACADEMIC REPUTATION. As a result, students understand the consequences of plagiarism without necessarily actually understanding what plagiarism is or how it applies to them. They can tell you that plagiarism is wrong but they probably can’t identify it in their own work when it happens. And it does. A lot.

Unfortunately, this post isn’t about how I solved that problem by introducing students to the wonders of academic integrity through some magical, fun activity. Mostly I’ve solved this problem by avoiding it: I barely talk to students about plagiarism or citation unless I have to and I throw up in my mouth a little every time I hear a course instructor try to scare students by telling them that citing their sources incorrectly will ruin their intellectual lives. Instead, I talk to students about the ethical use of information and what it looks like in various contexts, including but not limited to academic and scholarly ones.

I did try something once that I think qualifies as an interesting experiment though I also think it failed badly. That is, I tried to teach students about plagiarism by using Tom Lehrer’s song “Lobachevsky.” I found myself thinking about it recently after livestreaming a local concert celebrating Lehrer’s 93rd birthday in April.

If you’re unfamiliar, Tom Lehrer is a satirical singer/songwriter who was most active in the 1950s and 1960s. His songs, if you’re not really listening to them, tend to sound like pleasant little ditties that your grandparents would have danced to on their first date. But those songs have titles like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” And then there’s one called “National Brotherhood Week,” a seemingly upbeat ditty in which Lehrer calls out the hypocrisy of such a celebration by cheerfully singing “it’s fun to eulogize the people you despise as long as you don’t have to let them in your school.” Basically, what sound like gentle fun tunes are often quite acid and also sometimes quite political. Like all satire, the humor’s not for everyone. If you play one of his popular songs, you’ll probably know immediately whether or not it’s for you.

“Lobachevsky” is one of Lehrer’s more elaborate songs. In it, he adopts the persona of a math scholar who reveals the secret to his academic success: “Plagiarize! Let no one else’s work evade your eyes! Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize—only be sure to always call it please ‘research.’” The scholar then goes on to detail his various elaborate schemes to steal the ideas of his various colleagues and friends.

The humor of the song is not necessarily about the plagiarism itself. The humor is in the level of fame the scholar achieves through his plagiarism. His first book, which is copied from a phone book, becomes such a wild success that it’s turned into a film starring Bridget Bardot as the hypotenuse. In the introduction to the song, Lehrer explains that he himself was a mathematician before first becoming a soldier and then a singer. He tells the audience, “I don’t like people to get the idea that I have to this for a living…I could be making $3,000 a year just teaching.”(1) The idea that a math scholar could achieve wealth and fame through his work is a big part of what makes the song funny. The humor around plagiarism is kind of an added bonus.

In my IL course, I used this song as part of a lesson on plagiarism. In part, it was just to get a few laughs out of the students. But I also tried to make a whole activity of it by asking students to comment on how the plagiarism in the song is achieved and how that might be different from plagiarism now. Basically, the math scholar in Lehrer’s song goes to hilariously (in my opinion) elaborate lengths to copy the work of his fellow mathematicians. There’s an entire verse that describes his campaign to steal the ideas of another scholar, which involves a long phone chain of various friends of friends in faraway cities and countries who communicate back to him what he needs to know to beat his colleague to the punch. These days, all you have to do to plagiarize someone else is hit the “copy and paste” buttons on your computer. It’s a simple and (to me) kind of obvious point about how technology has made plagiarism easier and more common than it would have been during the time the song was written.

If you read my earlier description of Lehrer as a “satirical singer/songwriter,” you probably know what went wrong here. Satire requires a certain level of sophistication to understand because it often relies on a certain amount of irony. In order to see the humor, you have to be attuned to the irony involved.

This isn’t to suggest that people who don’t find satire funny “just don’t get it.” You can get why something is satirical and still not think it’s funny. You can also think something is funny without necessarily understanding that it’s meant to be satirical.

That’s what happened with my students. They understood that the song was meant to be funny—it’s hard not to understand this, given the way Lehrer sings it. But they took the song weirdly literally, in a way that I wasn’t expecting. They were baffled that Lehrer wrote a song seemingly promoting plagiarism and talking about it as something that can bring you wealth and fame rather than the evil it is. It was like they thought I was trying to trick them or something.

I wasn’t. I just thought it was a funny song.(2)

Interestingly, Lehrer makes for an interesting case study in “information has value” outside of this one particular song. In 2020, Lehrer decided to place all of his work in the public domain so that anyone can use or perform his songs. He even made all of his lyrics and sheet music available for download on his website. Thinking about why he did this and what effect it might have on his musical legacy could be an interesting subject for a copyright lesson one day.

For now, I still reference Lehrer’s song in my course but don’t try to use it as the centerpiece of any particular activity. I might, if I still taught in person and I could explain the song to students in real time. But like any good joke, explaining too much makes it less funny. I’m happy just to get my own chuckle out of Lehrer’s work.

*

(1) Incidentally, a $3,000/year salary in 1953, the year the song was written, would translate to about $30,000 a year now.

(2) Also incidentally, the same thing happened back when I used to use a segment from The Colbert Report to help introduce students to information literacy. In the segment, Stephen Colbert (as his conservative media alter ego, Stephen Colbert) introduces the concept of “truthiness.” This was back in 2011 when I first started teaching and The Colbert Report was still on and fairly well-known as both a comedy and a satire. Or so I thought. Somehow, the students didn’t seem to understand that Colbert was being funny. Or they thought I didn’t understand that he was being funny. Or they were messing with me. Whatever the reason, they treated the whole thing like Colbert was perfectly serious. Total fail.

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