By Sarah Giragosian
At one university where I taught College Writing I for a semester, I was required to include the following definition of plagiarism in my course syllabus:
Plagiarism is a serious academic crime; it is, in essence, the stealing of someone else's ideas. Plagiarism will result in immediate failure for the course, and all students involved will be held responsible; the Dean of Academic Affairs, the Humanities Division Director, and your Academic Advisor will be notified.
The consequences for academic infringement are severe, and the institution’s policy was inflexible; in its definition, plagiarism was construed not only as an academic infringement, but as a crime. Fortunately, I never encountered a paper that I suspected of plagiarism. While I urged students to take responsibility for their writing, I realize now that I toed the party line without understanding the limitations that inhere in the university’s definition of plagiarism.
In “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty,” Rebecca Moore Howard re-conceptualizes the standard institutional policy on plagiarism and accounts for the various forms that plagiarism may take: cheating, non-attribution, and patchwriting, which complicates—in a potentially productive way— overly rigid definitions of plagiarism. For students learning to inhabit new discourses, writing is a transitive process, and patchwriting may be a pedagogical tool for students who are learning the conventions and practices of a particular discourse. While cheating, non-attribution, and patchwriting fall under the category of plagiarism, today’s technologies and complex notions of authorship necessitate a re-examination of the factors that motivate textual appropriations among students. Additionally, as Howard shows, it is possible for students to violate academic conduct codes unwittingly. Donning the values, topoi, and habits of different discourses, students who are evolving as writers and scholars may patchwrite as they attempt to understand difficult material. Accordingly, the ethical implications of plagiarism fall along a continuum and may call for less draconian disciplinary measures than those currently in place at many institutions. As Howard suggests, instructors should facilitate dialogues with students about their writing processes and provide not just a disciplinary framework, but also a pedagogical structure for addressing plagiarism.
Much like emerging creative writers, novice scholars achieve fluency in their discipline through the transitive stages of reading, listening to, endorsing, swerving from and subverting each other. In the realm of poetry, for example, poets are accorded a space for the misprision of their precursors, which Harold Bloom theorizes in his seminal The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom argues that the young poet, or ephebe, must “clear imaginative space” for herself through creative misprisions of first rank poets, writing, “But nothing is got for nothing, and self appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself? Poetic influence… is necessarily the life cycle of the poet-as-poet” (Bloom 5). While it would be problematic to suggest that the poet’s “life cycle” can be correlated with student’s educational cycle, I believe that Howard provides an entryway into considering the anxieties and misapprehensions that occur as the student develops facility in a discourse. Inadvertent academic violations, such as interpretive misprisions and patchwriting, may be part of early writing attempts.
As a graduate instructor, I have decided to address plagiarism in the classroom with a more expansive notion of the factors contributing to academic violations and the forms that plagiarism can take. Rather than reducing plagiarism to a single definition, I believe that it is important for instructors to offer a concrete framework for students to examine complex notions of authorship, to discuss their own writing processes, and to monitor their own efforts at apprenticeship.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Second Edition (Oxford:
Oxford University Press 1997).
Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty”
College English 57.7 (November 1995): 788-806. Web. March 2014.