Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eisner, Caroline, and Martha Vicinus, eds. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age

Eisner, Caroline, and Martha Vicinus, eds. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

This anthology of essays addresses the growing concern about plagiarism in our computer-networked age. I have read it, as with the other books on plagiarism that I have read lately, in hopes of gleaning some practical advice on how to prevent and eliminate plagiarism in college courses, and the text does offer some useful advice, which I will discuss later. However, the authors often go beyond the walls of the classroom to consider issues of originality in academic publishing, courts of law, and, even, public sculpture, among other topics, all of which are very interesting, but not tremendously useful given my purpose in reading the text. Nevertheless, the editors suggest in the introduction that all these factors are connected, as they write, “It is no accident that public debates about plagiarism have coincided with efforts to limit access to copyrighted material” (1). In other words, the ease at which material can be duplicated today via computers has exposed holes in our previous conceptions of the ownership of ideas and their expressions, and we are attempting to deal with such issues. For college instructors specifically, these issues often boil down to the question of, as the editors ask, “How do we conserve and inculcate a tradition of ethical research and writing standards, while acknowledging and taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by new technologies?” Indeed. Alas, the volume is very good at raising such good questions, but not terribly good at answering them, perhaps because the issues are quite complex, as the authors of the essays often point out. Despite all that, the book holds a tremendous amount of value for the college instructor. Anna Berggren’s essay, “Do Thesis Statements Short-Circuit Originality in Students’ Writing?” is extremely thought-provoking. She traces the history of the thesis statement in writing instruction, and argues that it only became prominent after World War II when college enrollment increased and neophyte writing instructors hired to handle the influx of students needed an easier and faster way to evaluate writing (58-59). She suggests that rather than organizing thinking, the thesis statement may limit the creativity and originality of students. I don’t know that I agree, but the essay will certainly make one reflect over the pedagogical value of demanding thesis statements in student writing. Perhaps some students do turn to plagiarism because they don’t value the writing assignment or the purported learning that it is supposed to generate if everything has to be distilled down to a sentence or two; a more fluid structure might incur more enthusiasm in students. Another interesting idea is supplied by Kim Walden and Alan Peacock in “Economies of Plagiarism: The i-Map and Issues of Ownership in Information Gathering.” They suggest that students document the stages of their thinking in a research project, and share the document with the instructor along the research journey. This method would certainly cut down on the cases of plagiarism where a student, due to procrastination usually, turns to an online essay site or whatnot the night before an assignment is due. Though Walden and Peacock have a specific type of document in mind with their i-Map, the same result could likely be achieved with a journal, blog, or other means. Similarly, in “Plagiarism, a Turnitin Trial, and an Experience of Cultural Disorientation,” Lisa Emerson notes that holding individual conferences with students lowered instances of plagiarism (186-87). Stefan Sanders even explains in his essay “Academic Plagiarism and the Limits of Theft” how he was able to develop a student’s writing after she was caught plagiarizing. When the student was under threat of expulsion, she suddenly took writing seriously. The description of the experience makes for an interesting case study. Finally, Lynn Z. Bloom suggests that if teachers were more original with their assignments, then students would be more original as well. In “Insider Writing: Plagiarism-Proof Assignments,” she states, “In the final analysis, avoiding plagiarism is fundamentally a secondary concern for teachers, whose efforts are better spent inventing writing assignments that are original, intellectually demanding, participatory—the essence of insider writing” (216). She defines insider writing as writing where students are invested as “engaged participants rather than as alien outsiders whose understanding comes through what others—sometimes centuries of others—have had to say on the subject” (210). While you probably won’t be able to copy the specific assignments she describes since they likely won’t fit your courses--and anyway that would be plagiarism if you didn’t credit her, right?—she asks us to emulate the spirit of her approach and come up with creative assignments of our own. The book is available through OhioLINK.

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