Because information and ideas are now so easily accessed and shared, it should be expected that we will be influenced both consciously and subconsciously in everything we create. Yet, there is still an expectation of originality in what students are expected to think and write about. And, yes, this expectation should exist—but I believe that we need to help students see the difference between the originality of coming up with an idea all on their own (spark of genius) and the originality of finding their own something to say based on what others have said before them.
Essentially: crowdsourcing their argument.
And sometimes the crowdsourcing that we do isn’t common knowledge or our own experience…sometimes it is something someone else developed or argued. It is in this context that plagiarism lives, but it is also in this context where student understanding needs to be enhanced and nurtured.
I think there are two things happening in this scenario:
- Students do not have a positive relationship with the use of another’s work due to a lack of understanding of how and why we do it
- Students are not given opportunities to practice using another’s work to transform their own work
Yes, plagiarism is bad—very very bad.
The stealing of another’s work is not something to be taken lightly and therefore the seriousness of it is drilled into students early on in their academic lives.
And if I were still in the classroom, I would definitely continue to discuss the gravity of such an infraction. However, I also think there is room to reframe this conversation with students…to shift it from a purely discipline focused conversation to an opportunity focused one.
Disclaimer: This post is about the discussions I would have with students when the plagiarism infraction is unintentional or minimal in impact. If the plagiarism is blatant/intentional, the student would face school wide disciplinary action.
Shifting the Conversation
I don’t think we are going to get away from the immediate sweating, heart palpitations, and nausea that the word “plagiarism” induces in students any time soon. And I think it is important for them to feel these heightened emotions to create an association with the event that deters them from doing it in the future.
But too often the conversation around plagiarism begins in fear and ends in discipline.
And there is an opportunity here that I wish I would have implemented while I was still in the classroom. An opportunity to help students understand that yes, plagiarism is off limits ALWAYS…but that doesn’t mean they can’t and shouldn’t still borrow other’s ideas. It is just how they do it that matters.
Some thoughts on the “How?”
In an interview about his essay The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem discusses the line between stealing/plagiarizing another’s work and borrowing ideas: The former reduces the original and the latter enlarges possibilities. He asserts that “misrepresenting someone’s else’s work as your own without any imaginative, transformative work on it, and eradicating the transparency [of the borrowing] is deplorable.”
Transparency (where does the original work come from?) and Transformation (how is the original work used?) are the significant points here.
Lethem also discusses the “the myth of naturalism” and “that all art is crowd-sourced”. In helping students to see the benefits of digging into research and life around them when coming up with lines of arguments, we can take some stress off of the creating process. Because as long as we are TRANSPARENT with where the information/ideas come from, we can use it to help discover new ideas and push our argument forward. Because, at the end of the day, students are not in an English classroom to just regurgitate information—they are there to develop their own something to say (the whole point of critical thinking!).
And we do this by gathering and curating—we discuss ideas with others, we read what experts have to say, we research real life examples, we look at a variety of perspectives, and we dig into our own lives and contexts. We do all of this so that we can come to our own understanding about something. And then we TRANSFORM them into something new—this is the art of critical thinking!
In this way, the borrowing of ideas becomes an essential skill…and one that can lead to another learning opportunity.
Whose voices are we borrowing?
When we have the discussions around the gathering and curating of ideas, we need to also dive into the arena of voice amplification. Whose voices are we choosing to reference? Whose voices should we be referencing? Whose voices are typically amplified? Whose voices come up in a Google search most often?
Let’s look at gender for a moment. A 2020 report by Elsevier cites that
I am well aware that a grade 10 student writing an argument paper that might only be seen by their teacher is not going to have an influence on women being cited more in academia. But it might have an effect one day—who knows what that student will go on to do.
Ultimately though, it will have an effect on a student’s:
- understanding of the lens they are viewing something through,
- choice in whose narratives they are choosing to tell, and
- choice in whose voices they should amplify for a given topic/issue.
It is through these conversations and skill development that students will become more critical thinkers who are not only able to discern when, why, and how to borrow other’s ideas, but also be able to contribute to the common good in whose work they choose to borrow.
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