Academic journal article Composition Studies

What a Tangled Web: Teachers, Students, and the Knot of Plagiarism in the Postmodern Academy

Academic journal article Composition Studies

What a Tangled Web: Teachers, Students, and the Knot of Plagiarism in the Postmodern Academy

Article excerpt

WHAT A TANGLED WEB: TEACHERS, STUDENTS, AND THE KNOT OF PLAGIARISM IN THE POSTMODERN ACADEMY Rebecca Moore Howard. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stanford, CTT: Ablex, 1999. Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, ed. Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Albany, NY: SUNYUP, 1999.

Though semester's end is typically plagiarism season, the early fall of 2002 brought an unusually grim harvest. In the course of preparing for and writing this review, three cases of plagiarism crossed my desk. All three clearly constituted plagiarism by any traditional measure, though in truth they were as different from one another as the three students who did (or didn't do) the work. After considerable soul (and Internet) searching and hours of conversation with colleagues, they were differently resolved-in some measure because of the thoughtful discussions in the two books under review here. Collectively, these texts challenge the monolithic interpretations of plagiarism that would lump all acts of textual appropriation as transgressive and seek to understand the historic scope and modem problems that make defining and adjudicating plagiarism difficult. They also suggest that the rise of composition scholarship, the ascendance of postmodern theory, and the increasingly public anxiety about ethics in the University demand that we re-see our definitions, policies, and historical perspectives on plagiarism.

Rebecca Moore Howard's One history of the subject successfully argues that patchwriting, or the too close appropriation of source material by a student writer, "has a legitimate and valuable place in literacy instruction" (xxii). Comprehensive and thoughtful, her book reviews the history of rhetoric to discover how the direct incorporation of an author's words without explicit acknowledgement, what we call plagiarism, has slipped from its place as a recognized and valuable mode of classical and medieval scholarly discourse to that which is "immoral, transgressive-a threat to culture, the academy, and writing" (26). Her final recommendations for pedagogy and policy will challenge many readers to radically re-think their definitions of plagiarism and their process for teaching students to master academic writing.

By Howard's definition, patchwriting is what one of my students had done. In her attempt to tackle the legal language and technical history of her subject, she patched together long passages of text with only minor syntactic and semantic changes. She had duly cited all of her sources both within and at the end of paragraphs, so there was clearly no intention to deceive. In fact, she was so anxious to correctly cite everything that she pointed out several concerns she had about correct documentation in the paper and even made pencil clarifications on the final copy before she handed it in. Further, she was articulate in her oral presentation, working largely without notes in her responses to her classmates' questions about the topic, and so clearly she had worked hard to understand the research. Thus, it was with some surprise that I began to feel a familiar chill as I read the paper. This was too good, the words and style too polished. And when I checked all the sources she had so conscientiously provided, there it was. But what was it, exactly? Her intent hardly seemed criminal, and she had clearly worked hard on the paper and the research. 1 was hesitant to criminalize her actions at this point and thus reluctant to fail the paper.

Howard argues that intentionality is precisely what should determine how we understand this student's process. In the introduction to her book, she makes what is perhaps a very controversial argument and certainly one that has important consequences for both policy and pedagogy:

I am prepared to take a further step and recommend that the category of plagiarism be redefined by educational institutions: that authorial intention become a component in determining what is and is not plagiarism, and that patchwriting qualify as plagiarism and thus a transgression only if the author's intention is fraudulent, (xxii)

There is no question that this assertion will strike some (perhaps many) readers as unworkable. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.