Documenting and Thinking
One of my least pleasant duties as a teacher is to confront students who have turned in plagiarized papers. We have an established procedure: The faculty member confronts the student privately and asks the student to sign a form letter admitting to the infraction. Once part way through this distasteful ritual I suddenly started smiling. I had just been struck by the exquisite irony of asking someone to admit to plagiarism by signing a document written by someone else.
Documents written by one person but bearing the signature or by-line of another—in the workaday world, these are commonplace. But in academic writing, whether by students or professors, we consider it inexcusable to present someone else’s writing or research as if it were our own.
The reasons for that difference of outlook come mostly from the peculiar working conditions of the academy. As researchers, academics are in the business of producing knowledge. Professional advancement is procured in exchange for the common currency of “original contributions to scholarship,” contributions that others will want to use in turn. Students, for their part, think that lots of citations make their papers look like they worked on them really hard. Professional academics, however, are judged not by how many citations they make of the work of others, but by how often their own works are cited by others.
There’s an implicit paradox, though, between the very notion of “an original contribution to scholarship” and the other scholarly virtues connected with proper citation. Nowhere is this paradox seen more clearly than in the convention of the “review of the literature.” The writer researches previous literature on a subject partly to avoid duplicating already published work. As in student papers, there is also an epideictic element of display in the lit review, which is an economical and comprehensive way of showing that the writer has done the homework and mastered the subject. And, ostensibly, the review of the literature enables the reader to identify and contextualize the writer’s “original contribution to scholarship” by providing a summarized record of previous writing on the subject. The original contribution does not really make sense, could not exist, without the context of the literature reviewed. The lit review underlines how original contributions to scholarship depend on previous contributions, and in turn make more new contributions possible.
It’s embarrassing, though, to see how quickly we abandon the rigorous standards of professional academic writing once we step out of our offices and into the classroom. Stop some time and carefully consider the contents of a typical classroom lecture. How much of it is an “original contribution to scholarship”? How much of it comes from “outside sources”? How scrupulous are we about documenting the sources of the knowledge we present to students in our lectures? (And lest I be accused of practicing what I preach against, I should acknowledge that I first realized this paradox thanks to a remark by my former colleague Ross Borden as we were talking about Neil Hertz’s essay “Two Extravagant Teachings.”) “That’s different!” my academic colleagues may protest—but is it? Aren’t we implicitly presenting someone else’s work (many people’s work) without giving credit where credit is due?
There is likewise a tension between our demand that our students “acknowledge their intellectual debts” and our desire that they take knowledge and “make it their own.” My wife and I have frequently observed how our older son will often repeat to us stories and bits of information that we have told him ourselves just a couple of days before. He tells us these things not just as if we had never heard them before, but as if he had discovered them for himself. And why shouldn’t he? He has honored us by taking something from us and “making it his own.” We would gladly share with him almost any material goods we have: Why not the contents of our own minds? After all, don’t we want him to pay attention to us when we talk to him? And where did we get that anecdote or factoid? Almost never does it represent “original research.” When we hear it from him, we exchange meaningful glances and smile indulgently, knowing where he got it. But if we stop to ask ourselves where we got it, more often than not, we can’t say. Apparently, somewhere along the line, we “made it our own” without having made it up ourselves.
Even so, as teachers we admonish our students to avoid the whole range of plagiaristic practices in order to preserve their “intellectual honesty.” Honesty, properly understood, is indeed the best policy. We feel cheated when student writers label someone else’s work with their own names. And then there is the matter of grades. Grades do have some practical consequences: low grades can lead to warning or suspension or other forms of academic discipline, or to loss of financial aid. So in the interest of fairness, we want to keep the playing field of grades as level as possible, and plagiarism tilts it.
Still, the best reason to help students avoid plagiarism is not ethical but pedagogical. We rightly insist that our students avoid the grosser forms of plagiarism: having someone else write a paper, copying whole papers or large blocks of text from unacknowledged sources, downloading ready-made papers from term-paper websites. Why? Because they can’t learn to write by not writing. By cheating, students simply avoid doing the kind of work they have to do if they are ever to develop their own skills as researchers and writers. And in the “real world,” students are more likely to find themselves writing letters for others to sign rather than merely adding their executive signatures to such ghosted letters.
But why insist that they go so much further than writing their own papers? Why expect them to employ the whole clanking machinery of index cards and outlines, of citation and documentation? We must use that machinery in our own professional scholarly writing, and naturally we tend to value writing of the kind we do ourselves. But since so few undergraduates will ever go on to careers as professional scholars, it may seem excessive to have them master the arcana of MLA or APA documentation. We might just throw up our hands and tell them that they have to do this because they need to “become part of the academic community,” because “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Before long, we find ourselves thrown back on that old parental brainteaser, “Do it because I said so!”—not the kind of argument that would stand up under academic scrutiny.
There may in fact be a better reason for making students learn careful note-taking and scrupulous citation, but that reason has less to do with “intellectual honesty” than with intellectual maturity—or at least with one step in the process of maturing intellectually. When students document their borrowings from sources, they acquaint themselves better with the mechanisms by which they acquire knowledge. We want students to “make knowledge their own,” but we also want them to pay attention to how they do that. Instead of casually and unconsciously “making knowledge their own,” students need to reflect on the complex process of drawing bits and pieces from here and there, passing them through the clouded filters of their own prejudices or critical judgment, and then trying to present the results in a conventional format easily digested by readers. Unless students become more scrupulous about keeping track of where they find information, they may not ask whether that information is unbiased, carefully reasoned, and adequately supported by evidence.
The writing that emerges from their use of such a process is almost never an “original contribution to scholarship,” nor do we usually expect that it will be. The best we can hope is that occasionally an astute, motivated student will tell us not something that no one has ever thought of before, but something that the student thought of without having read it or heard it from someone else. Student papers that express such thoughts are precious to teachers—precious partly because they are rare.
But these occasional original thoughts in student essays provide little justification for teaching the elaborate documentation expected in academic writing. Instead we hope that the writing of documented research papers will turn the spotlight of attention inward on students’ own processes of thought and learning. With luck, that scrutiny will itself encourage those processes to change, to become more sophisticated as they become more self-aware. As students use documentation to trace the pedigrees of the ideas they present in their papers, they should become more aware of the ways in which they acquire and transform what they learn.
As so often happens with pedagogy, the problem quickly becomes practical. How do we optimize the desired result? Should we deliberately highlight that process for students, add a further layer of recursive self-consciousness to it? Maybe not. We complicate our own teaching enough if we highlight it to ourselves, and then ask ourselves the next obvious question: Once we take that inner transformation of the student’s mind as the goal of assigning documented college papers, how do we manage our own teaching in order to further that goal?
Dept. of Writing
[Note: A portion of this essay appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of the School of Humanities and Science’s newsletter, KnowLedges.]