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Monday, May 29, 2006

The Mood at Harvard Post- Kaavya Viswanathan

Harvard University’s administrative board is looking into taking disciplinary action against Viswanathan. Opinions are distinctly divided, while one camp is for disciplinary action against her the other believes that this is not an academic issue; it is more of a personal issue. Is it the role of an academic institution to bestow not just education but also morals and ethics in its students, is an issue that is rising out of this controversy.
The Harvard Crimson in it’s staff editorial says that, “The Administrative Board does have—and should have—broad authority in cases such as the present one. As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences states in the Student Guide to the Administrative Board, “by accepting membership in the University, an individual joins a community ideally characterized by free expression, free inquiry, intellectual honesty, respect for the dignity of others, and openness to constructive change.” Membership in that community extends beyond the end of class each day and beyond the gates of the Yard.”
They also believe that, “The opportunity to attend a private university such as Harvard is a privilege rather than a right, and that privilege may be reasonably reconsidered in light of a student’s actions. The Ad Board explicitly recognizes “resolution of...breaches of community standards” as one of its primary functions.”
A dissent published in the same publication by two student editors Ramya Parthasarathy and Emma Lind takes a different stance, “To send Viswanathan to the Administrative Board is to send the wrong message to both the Harvard community and the community at large—namely, that Harvard’s name subsumes all other identities we might have before, during, and after our tenure here.” They firmly believe that, “The writing and publication of “Opal Mehta” lie entirely beyond the purview of Viswanathan’s academic work and therefore beyond the purview of the Ad Board. That she drafted the manuscript in a Lamont carrel is wholly irrelevant.”
Though reactions around campus ranged from disbelief to schadenfreude, students at the Harvard campus were not really discussing this in public. Nevertheless this has been a topic of conversation at the Harvard Crimson. Outsiders have also participated in dialogs and commented. An Indian journalist from Ahmedabad, India, is reported to have e-mailed the Crimson saying that this was the outcome of an Indian educational system where the emphasis is on memorization and learning by rote and an Indian students way of learning. The reaction from the Indian American students at Harvard University was immediate and they responded by saying that this was an Indian American student, not an Indian student.
Rabia Cheema, a Pakistani student at Harvard University who has not read Viswanathan’s book says, “ The campus is divided I would say amongst people who are confused about the entire incident [i.e. they don't want to believe that she plagiarized, but the evidence seems terribly solid] and those who have condemned her outright.” A biology major who expects to graduate 2008 she says, “I find it hard to believe that an intelligent girl like Kaavya would deliberately and knowingly plagiarize the work of others. Why would she go to the trouble of plagiarizing four different books? I find that the sentence structure and paragraph formulation that was duplicated in Kaavya's work is a staple of the chick-lit genre, and while some similarities are a lot more obvious than others, sometimes the so-called plagiarism is a bit hard to swallow.”
Cheema believes that a large part of the publicity of the Kaavya incident involved the fact that she was a Harvard sophomore, “I don't believe it will significantly impact upcoming writers at Harvard.” She also believes the media went a little bit too far, “Some of the similarities they that they 'caught' were frankly stretching it, and others were just ridiculous. I wonder how many similarities we would find if we perused the works of popular chick-lit today, not because they were plagiarized, but because certain plot lines, ideas and ways of writing have become native to that genre,” says Cheema who firmly believes whether Kaavya chooses to write again is completely her decision, and no one else, and although she might have a significantly harder time getting published, if she can, then she should be allowed to be published.
Paras Bhayani is a Harvard student works at the Harvard Crimson. One of the authors of the very first story that outed Viswanathan’s alleged discretions, he says, “The opinion here is that the whole situation with Kaavya is, quite simply, disappointing. None of us takes pleasure in seeing a peer fall. Everyone seems to have their theories: some argue that it was written by the book packager, many that she just internalized passages from other works, and others that she personally and deliberately copied. I think there are problems with jumping to any of these conclusions, but I could not propose a better one. The fact is that there were strikingly similar passages between her work and the works of others, and unless we can read her mind, none of us will ever know for sure what happened.”
Bhayani feels that were it not for the plagiarism allegations, Kaavya may have been the start of a new trend -- of publishing companies taking risks on younger writers. But because of these allegations, they will probably be more hesitant in the future, “I want to reiterate that it is not as though Harvard students were landing book deals left and right and that Kaavya's plagiarism is going to put an end to that. She was the first one with a book deal of this size, and because of the plagiarism, she may be the last one too, at least for some time to come.”
Bhayani says, “Kaavya received a tremendous amount of press for her book when it was published. It is naive to think that once the plagiarism allegations came out that the media would not cover them in great depth. But if a work is hyped and printed by a major publisher (Little Brown, Time Warner), it is unfair to attack the media for effectively performing it's oversight duty.”
“As for punishing Kaavya, it is important to keep in mind that her book deal is gone, her movie deal is gone, her book has been recalled, and Harvard is "gathering information" about the allegations and deciding whether or not it will look into possible disciplinary action,” articulates Bhayani.
Nehal Raj who will be graduating from Harvard Business School in Spring 2006 feels that it is unfortunate that Viswanathan’s editor or publisher did not catch her plagiarism before publication. “The fact that the author is a student at Harvard probably has a lot to do with the media attention—it makes for a more compelling headline.” He supposes that in the future, “Young adult writers will be especially careful to avoid plagiarizing the works of others, as the level of scrutiny will probably increase after this incident.” He firmly believes that, Viswanathan should be able to publish another book, “as long as the editor/publisher ensures that her book is her own work. Everyone deserves a second chance. Plus, the free publicity that she received from this incident might actually help to increase sales of any future books.”
Nikhil Raj, also a student at the Harvard Business School, finds it hard to buy Kaavya’s “internalization” argument on what happened, “There are way too many similarities between what she has written in Opal and what has been found in other literature. It is possible for an aspiring writer to be influenced by one or more established writers. I believe every writer has their own individual style no matter what their influences are, and that style develops over time as the person assimilates the different influences and comes up with their own.”
He believes that a truly mature writer will recognize when they have developed their unique style before they decide to unleash their work upon the world, “It is a tough profession for the author – both internally in the genesis of original ideas as well as externally in competing against other authors vying for the attention of the same, small audience.”
“I would hesitate to speculate on what really happened. My view is that the decision to publish Opal was immature on the part of Viswanathan as well as her publisher,” he says. Raj reckons that the issue highlights the lack of checks and balances in the highly competitive and struggling publishing industry, which is trying to find success, “Viswanathan must have known about the similarities between her work and the work of her influences (seems like there were many). Over time, she would have figured out what her own writing style was and would have been fundamentally prepared to deal with becoming a writer. I think she ventured out to become successful even before she became a writer.”
Raj is of the opinion that Viswanathan knew what was going on but he also believes it was a mistake from a young and immature kid, “The implications were not clear to her. She has special talent – not many kids have the energy, enthusiasm or opportunity to proceed as far as she did in getting her work out and published. She should be allowed to harness some of this talent and hopefully entertain all of us again in the future.”

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