Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another Example

Rebecca Howard's concept of patchwriting is introduced early in Susan Blum's My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Cornell University Press, 2009). Under the heading "Encouraging Plagiarism 'Patchwriting'", Blum quotes Howard's description of how she realised that academic norms against plagiarism were inhibiting student learning. "Patchwriting was for them—as it is for us all—a primary means of understanding difficult texts, of expanding one's lexical, stylistic, and conceptual repertoires, of finding and trying out new voices in which to speak" (Howard, quoted by Blum, p. 26-27). I'd really prefer Howard speak for herself here ("as it is for us all"?)* but the point is that she does have broad support in the community of writing instructors. "She urges a permissive rather than punitive stance with regard to student learning," Blum reports (p. 27). "Many in composition studies have now been persuaded of the rightness of her position."

Blum, too, seems to have been persuaded. In her conclusion she tells her own anecdote about a case of plagiarism. She presents it as a "hard" problem and puts a great deal of the blame on herself. Recall how profoundly Howard's experience affected her: "Fifteen years later [it's] still sitting with me. [It's] a moment I don't feel comfortable with at all" (5:00). But unlike Howard, who felt she was forced by rigid guidelines to give a student an F, Blum (informed by Howard's work) chose pedagogy over punishment. I think "permissive" is the right word, but here, again, I'd really like to hear what my readers think.

Blum discovered that a student had copied an entire paragraph verbatim without quotation marks (unfortunately she doesn't state clearly whether the source was cited or not) and the assignment was strangely alienated from itself in other ways. "Only peripherally did it even begin to mention [the assigned topic], and then not in any terms or ideas that the course had covered. There were strange phrases and odd old sources cited" (Blum, p. 174). The student offered the following explanation: "I've been working thirty hours straight and threw the paper together. I often collect quotations to use in my paper and I must have forgotten to put quotation marks around it" (p. 174-5). Blum interprets the student's explanation in terms of her theory of "the performance self" (on which more in the next post): "[The student] had copied pieces, uncredited, from other sources; she was uncertain about how to denote even those sources she did cite; and she wished only to turn something in, complete her performance, and get some sleep and then go home for Christmas" (p. 175).

What baffles me here is why this is a pedagogical conundrum. The student's work exhibits a complete lack of mastery, both of course content and study skills. She has terrible work habits, does not do careful scholarship, and this results in a text that is, not just partly plagiarised, but doesn't even really answer the assigned question. Nonetheless, Blum gives the student another chance. The violation was reported to the provost, and she would get only half the grade on the resubmitted assignment. She was given four days to rewrite it, and the result was disappointing: a light rewrite that also contained plagiarised material.

Unbelievably, Blum gave her a third chance! She assigned additional reading on avoiding plagiarism, told her to read the assignment one more time, and then to start over. "The third version was unimpressive but clearly original." Now, here's what she wants us to take away from the example:

[I]t demonstrates how hard a problem this presented. Here was a student at a highly selective university. She was a senior, planning to go to graduate school. We had already met to go over the penalties for plagiarism. And yet she did it again.

Blum now engages in some soul-searching ("I failed to convey the needed information") and then some reflections about how difficult, how time-consuming it is to deal with such cases.

And that's really my point. The reason to punish students who cheat, rather than letting them pretend they just have something to learn, is that there is no time to worry about student intention and motivation. If you don't take your studies very seriously you can make mistakes that can get you kicked out of school even if you didn't cheat very consciously. That threat is what lets the teacher get down to the business of teaching. It doesn't mean she should spend her time "policing" plagiarism; it just means that when she does run into it, it doesn't require further teaching. There's certainly nothing to suggest that exactly this student deserved all that extra care and attention from her professor. It's a simple administrative matter, or, in mild cases, a straightforward grading issue. Give the low grade, explain why, and move on.

One last thing. I hope I'm not the only one that raised an eyebrow at that "Here was a student..." bit. Are all those who get in to "a highly selective university" just destined to succeed, so that it's the university's fault if they fail? (That's not a simple rhetorical question by the way. Keep that tuition issue in mind.) But more importantly: this student wants to go to grad school?!?!? And her teacher wants to do everything she can, bending over backwards, to make that dream come true? If that student did out-compete someone for a graduate placement ... well, that's where we'd have the real travesty of justice, don't you think?

*To be fair, she sometimes cites empirical work to support this. But as far as I can tell it would let her say only "as it is for one third of us". That issue is worth a separate post.

Monday, September 29, 2014

What Am I Missing Here?

At the two-minute mark of this video, Rebecca Howard begins to tell a story about a student plagiarism case she was involved in with a second-year Chinese student. The student had cut and pasted significant passages from a source that she did not cite properly. When confronted with it, the student acknowledged the problem, said she was aware of the plagiarism policy, knew it was cheating, and did it anyway "hoping she wouldn't get caught", because she would have been unable to express the necessary ideas in her own words. Howard, apologizing (it seems to me) for the severity of the plagiarism rules (the lack of "leeway"), informed the student that she would get an F in the course, "And that was the end of that."

While the case seems cut and dried to me, Howard presents it as a very difficult conundrum. "I will never forget [it]," she says. I, however, don't understand what it was that made the case so difficult. A student who was unable to do the assignment, and therefore unable to demonstrate that she had learned the content of the course, chose to pass off someone else's demonstration of the skills under examination as her own. She was caught. And this led to a failing grade for an assignment that presumably would have gotten a perfectly respectable grade if the plagiarism had not been noticed. In that case, she would have graduated with a certified ability to do something she could not do, or understand something she could not understand. This is plagiarism in its most ordinary form—neither exceptionally brazen nor forgivably minor. And the student was punished to my mind somewhat mercifully. (I hope at least that some sort of record of the reason for the F remains in the university's records.)

It's true that universities who let students into degree programs that they don't have the basic writing skills to pass are doing those students a disservice. But its the admissions office, not the writing center, that has a problem here. There's the old adage, "Your lack of planning is not my emergency." We need to come up with something similar here. Your lack of admission standards is not my teachable moment, perhaps.

As always, I mean it when I say I'm looking for more eyes on this issue. This re-evaluation of plagiarism seems very wrongheaded to me and it puzzles me that writing instructors are leading the charge.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Patchwriting 2: Definition and Policy Proposal

As I understand it, Rebecca Moore Howard would prefer that we dropped the notion of plagiarism from our vocabularies for talking about academic writing. Her most forceful argument appears to be a 2000 piece in College English, in which she says plagiarism is an inherently sexual and sexist notion. You can get a pretty good sense of her (more moderate) views on patchwriting and plagiarism by watching the videos on her website. And here is the patchwriting section of the plagiarism policy she proposed in 1995:

Writing passages that are not copied exactly but that have nevertheless been borrowed from another source, with some changes—a practice which The Bedford Handbook for Writers calls "paraphrasing the source's language too closely". This "patchwriting" is plagiarism regardless of whether one supplies footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical notes that acknowledge the source. However, patchwriting is not always a form of academic dishonesty; it is not always committed by immoral writers. Often it is a form of writing that learners employ when they are unfamiliar with the words and ideas about which they are writing. In this situation, patchwriting can actually help the learner begin to understand the unfamiliar material. Yet it is a transitional writing form; it is never acceptable for final-draft academic writing, for it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source from which he or she is patchwriting. Because patchwriting can result from a student's inexperience with conventions of academic writing, instruction in quotation and source attribution and a request for subsequent revision of the paper may be an appropriate response for the instructor. But because patchwriting often results from a student's unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text, instruction in the material discussed in the source and a request for subsequent revision of the paper is even more frequently the appropriate response. Patchwriting can also be the result of a student's intent to deceive, in which case the minimum penalty is an "F" in the course and the maximum penalty, suspension from the university. (Howard 1995: 799-800)

On the plus side, it's good to see that she characterizes it as a form of plagiarism and says that it is "never acceptable in final-draft academic writing". That is, she does not suggest a lowering of the bar. But I'm uneasy about the decisive role she assigns to intention. Not only does she allow that it is "not always a form of academic dishonesty", she proposes severe penalties only in cases where the "intent to deceive" is present. There are at least two problems with this. The first is that intent is notoriously difficult to prove. The second is that if patchwriting is what Howard says it is, then it is, actually, always deceptive. Let me explain why I say that.

Howard tells us that patchwriting is a way students deal with their "unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text". Indeed, she says that "it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source". Obviously, however, it can only "demonstrate" something if is caught by the teacher. Until then, patchwriting actually fakes familiarity with the words and ideas of the source. In other words, patchwriting is done with the intention of deceiving the reader about the linguistic and intellectual competence of the writer. For this reason I think it is very important to call it plagiarism. The student must be told that what they have done is more like cheating than it is like learning. In the end, I don't think patchwriting can help the learner even to begin to understand difficult notions. All it does is to open the possibility of getting away with one's ignorance.

It gives the teacher a lot of unnecessary work to do, treating students who are taking an easy way out, half-hoping to get away with it, as though they just well-intentioned learners. Students must understand that a certain amount of care is required of them. Under those conditions, catching only the odd patchwriter/plagiarist will suffice. They have to realize that it's much better to use a concept in their own perhaps misunderstood way than to "patch" in a sentence or phrase that (presumably) uses it correctly but for no reason the student is aware of.

Next week I'm going to present an example of patchwriting by a high-profile academic that appears in a widely used textbook. I'm going to be very curious to hear what my readers think of it, i.e., how bad it is.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mayhewianism #7

On my other soon-to-be-retired other blog I used to keep track of "Mayhewianisms", defined as expressions that are characteristic of Jonathan Mayhew's exemplary scholarly persona. Ideally, they are actually written by Prof. Mayhew. They're usually assertive in tone, and have a tendency to draw a line in the sand. They often appear to tell you who you think you are, but really just reveal that Jonathan has a clear sense of who he's talking to. Anyway, I just found an oldish one, not previously noted:

"If that quibble seems too basic to you you are reading the wrong blog."

I think I'll continue the series here at RSL.

Monday, September 22, 2014


I'd like to write a few posts about "unintentional plagiarism", or what Rebecca Howard has called "patchwriting". My aim in raising this issue is to hear the views of my readers about it, so please don't hold back in the comments. Let me know what you think.

I've seen it come up in a few places, most recently in reading Diane Pecorari's Academic Writing and Plagiarism (Continuum, 2008). She cites Howard's Standing in the Shadow of Giants (Ablex, 1999) for her definition.

[Patchwriting is] copying from a source text and deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another. (Howard 1999, p. xviii, quoted by Pecorari 2008, p. 5)

Now, the thing that concerns me—in fact, bothers me a little—is the emerging consensus among writing instructors,* at least those working with undergraduates and foreign graduate students, that patchwriting is "virtually inevitable as writers learn to produce texts within a new discourse community" (Pecorari, p. 5). They rightly think it should be corrected, and even punished (with lower grades), but they urge us not to conflate it with "prototypical plagiarism", by which they mean the use of a source without proper citation and with the intention to deceive. My view, which I think is shared by many others, is that a lot would be gained if the question of intention was simply ignored. The question should be a strictly factual one.

Consider the example Pecorari provides:

In a study of the course of the progress of second-language writer through a business course, [P. Currie] found that the student, Diana, worked diligently in the early weeks of the course to raise the level of her writing assignments, but was at real risk of not receiving the grade she needed to stay in her program. Eventually Diana hit upon the strategy of repeating words and phrases from her sources; in other words, she began to patchwrite. From then on her teacher's feedback was more positive. (Pecorari, p. 9)

The question I want to raise goes, in a sense, to the response of the teacher. By giving the student more positive feedback (and presumably a higher grade) for submitting work that demonstrates greater writing ability than the student actually possesses (Diana would not be able to write as well without relying on her sources) is she really doing the right thing?

Pecorari emphasizes that Diana did not consider what she was doing "cheating" and that patchwriting is hard work in a way that plagiarism is not. (She mentions buying an essay from someone else; presumably straight copy-paste plagiarism is just as "easy".) But it does not seem to me that these considerations in any way mitigate the problem that plagiarism actually represents. After all, Diana is going to great efforts to appear to be, at the very least, a better writer (in English) than she actually is, and probably also a better thinker and a more knowledgeable person. She is constructing an illusion of her academic competence.

I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's remark, inspired by Talleyrand, that people have language, not to conceal their thoughts from each other, but to conceal the fact that they don't have any thoughts. My worry is quite simply this: by not pushing back on patchwriting as severely as we do plagiarism in general we are training people to "fake it until they make it". In the realm of scholarship, this actually implies faking it even after you make it (i.e., tenure). It will leave writers alienated from their thoughts, having too long practiced reproducing a semblance of scholarly prose, rather than a representation of their own thinking in prose. Indeed, there's a growing suspicion, both inside and outside the academy, that much, perhaps most, scholarly rewriting** is an elaborate put-on. Perhaps this is because we have come to accept patchwriting as a developmental stage?

When I say we should push back on it as severely as plagiarism, I'm not saying there can't be questions of degree, or a space for clemency. What I am saying is that we should treat it, precisely, as fakery.* We should not grant that patchwriters work "without an intention to deceive". They're coming off as smarter and more articulate than they really are. Consider an analogy. A student at the conservatory playing a digital piano figures out (at great effort) how to program in certain difficult passages of the music she's practicing for an upcoming exam. During the examination she shifts back and forth between live and playback, not wholly seamlessly, but well enough that it sounds like she's just in the early stages of mastery. Would it not be more honest, and more teachable, for her to struggle through those difficult passages, rather than glossing over her incompetence by pre-programming them?

These are my initial thoughts. I'm looking forward to hearing what others think. I'll put some examples on the table this week.

*Update: I may be overdrawing my disagreement with patchwriting theorists. "Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard said. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself. ... At the very least, patchwriting is bad writing, she said." (Kelly McBride at Poynter.org) These are all attitudes I would endorse. I guess my issue with the concept of patchwriting is that it gives plagiarists a word that's not as loaded for something that's just as bad. I think we should just call it plagiarism, because that is actually what it is.

**What a weird slip! I meant simply that people are suspecting that scholarly writing is more often than not pretending to be something it's not, not that its "rewriting" (whatever that might mean) is some kind of pretence.