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pluralizing plagiarism

16 november 2011

Pluralizing Plagiarism is the rare academic book that truly works on the project announced in its title. "Pluralizing" anything is a hot move in the academy recently. One always wants to pluralize, never to singularize. Editors Rebecca Moore Howard and Amy E. Robillard could have been forgiven for choosing their title on the basis of alliterating buzzwords, and allowing the content to wander in different directions. But the volume carries out its program of helping us to see the most dreaded academic malfeasance in a number of distinct forms and lights.

As Susan Blum and other writers on the topic have noted, plagiarism means different things in different venues. Among recipe writers, it's encouraged. Among teachers, including many who write composition assignments, it's a way of life: our class materials very often come to us via informal borrowing along "copyleft" principles. Creative artists usually find imitation without attribution to be a very sincere form of flattery. And even academic researchers, serious about ownership of their ideas, behave differently from discipline to discipline. You don't need to cite (Michelson & Morley 1887) in a scientific article every time you invoke the speed of light.

But too often, college English teachers set traps for their students in the form of research paper assignments that ask writers to convey ideas without using the words of those who developed them, or to formulate new ideas on topics where even the best academics would be hard-put to say anything original. Cutting and pasting another's words into your own English paper is improper. Rephrasing someone's argument without credit, even in "your own words," in an English paper, is improper. And yet we keep assigning topics that seem to leave students few good ways to avoid such "patchwriting."

Even when we design exercises with an eye to forestalling plagiarism, says contributor Chris Anson, we oughtn't to do it just to limit cheating (140). We ought to do it so that students can learn something valuable from the writing they do. But too many assignments don't teach anything useful, and demand masterful use of sources plus pellucid original argument. When students can't deliver, we turn them over to the Judicial Affairs Office in chains. And in so doing, we underscore the university as an exclusionary institution, meant to weed out applicants to the great American meritocracy.

That's not to say that some don't deserve weeding. "The political, as well as plural, character of plagiarism does not mean that charges of plagiarism are never warranted or that plagiarism somehow doesn't exist," cautions Bruce Horner (176). Sometimes students buy papers, or get others to write theirs; sometimes "patchwriting" is not a principled effort to master a complex discourse but a way to get a paper passed when you don't have the time or willpower to write any of it yourself.

But all kinds of different dynamics affect the realities of plagiarism in universities, realities that the press too often (as contributor Michele Eodice complains) reduces to horror stories of sinful fraud. "Time is not on our side," Kami Day reports from community-college teaching; when you have to read 150 papers a week, how can you be sure that each of them represents the original thoughts of an individual soul? Students, parents, and taxpayers don't want to pay for attentive teaching, but they want perfect results and swift justice for cheaters all the same. Even the rules about what constitutes plagiarism change from culture to culture (as Celia Thompson & Alastair Pennycook note), from religious tradition to tradition (Kenny Fountain & Lauren Fitzgerald), and discipline to discipline (Sandra Jamieson).

One of the most interesting contributions to Pluralizing Plagiarism is an essay by Kathleen Yancey on what it means to create knowledge in the first place. Everything we say (this review is a good example!) is a tissue of things said by other people. Where do they leave off and we begin, and when is it important to note the passage? Can we even identify that passage?

I feel personally affronted (to say the least) when I find that a student has attempted plagiarism on my watch, or still worst gotten it past me. But unlike some of Howard & Robillard's contributors, I don't beat myself up about it. Academic honesty is still on the student, I believe. But good teaching is on me. I agree with Chris Anson: we shouldn't spend our time trying to forestall plagiarism. We should try to find ways of teaching that will draw students into learning for themselves – to create classroom experiences where they wouldn't even dream of cheating.

Howard, Rebecca Moore, and Amy E. Robillard, editors. Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, contexts, pedagogies. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2008.