Is Copying Writing? Sometimes.

I'm frustrated to read that high school teachers are assigning fewer term papers due to the prevalence of on-line plagiarism. I understand the problem: Kids cut and paste chunks of the Internet into their assignments and claim the work is their own.

It's ethically dubious to be sure. But as long as you don't plagiarize an entire work, doesn't copy/paste assembly at least serve the minimal purpose of showing a student what good writing is?

Read the biographies of our greatest writers. They all started by copying or mimicking the works of their heroes, sometimes word-for-word. They wanted to see what made their sentences sing, what made their thoughts cohere, where the rhythm of their prose came from.

Originality is an overrated attribute in students. It's sentimental, e.g. "out of the mouths of babes." Not every child is born with original thoughts or ways of expressing them. Students gain knowledge by experiencing the original thoughts of others, and will eventually develop the confidence to present their own. Or not. But by copying from well-written sources, at least they'll get a feel for the way good writers organize their thoughts on paper.

What the kids are allegedly doing is relatable to hyperlinking, no? So why not reconfigure the assignment to require hyperlinks? I think a kid would have a harder time plagiarizing Internet copy if you made them link to their research sources. Teachers could set up class blogs, where students would post their work, links and all. If anyone suspected plagiarism, it would be a simple matter to highlight a few lines of text and run them through Google.

I hate to break it to everyone who wants to think we did things the right way in the olden days, but some kids used to copy material straight from the encyclopedia long before the the personal computer arrived. They scribbled the words on 3×5 cards, and then got those same words onto the page via a typewriter (defined in Wikipedia as "a mechanical, electromechanical, or electronic device with a set of 'keys' that, when pressed, cause characters to be printed on a document, usually paper.") It was laborious work, but for some kids, it was necessary.

Schools' primary objective should be: Every student a competent writer. It's my anecdotal impression that teaching good writing is not given a high enough priority in high school.  There are virtually no careers where you can get by without being able to present and organize words to express ideas to others. In the real world, many of those words are "boilerplate," which is a non-judgemental way of saying plagiarized (sometimes self-plagiarized). Your ability to choose the right words to copy, and to put them in the right place, is part of your education as a writer.

Don't misunderstand: To present someone else's words as your own is unethical. I'm disgusted by things like Cheathouse.com, where entire papers are available at a price. But, as the Times article points out, the same Internet that makes it easy to steal someone else's words, makes it easy to detect it when you did (just ask Ben Domenech.)

Here's tonight's interesting factoid:

The school also fights fire with fire, paying more than $2,000 a year to use Barrie's Web-based Turn It In, which checks a student's paper against a database of 17 million essays and papers. (John) Barrie's Oakland-based company, IParadigms, calculates that the odds of stringing the same 16 words together in the same order as somebody else is less than one in a trillion.

Wow. All over the world tonight, people are blogging, each entry unique, like a snowflake.

2 thoughts on “Is Copying Writing? Sometimes.

  1. Mr. Stodder,
    I agree…at least from my observation of my kids going through school, too many teachers seem alternately lazy or confused about the purpose of the writing assignments they give to kids. Teachers are not thinking through what writing or rhetorical skills they hope the kids learn through the exercise, be it a term paper, book report, essay, speech (rarely tried), poster text, and so on.
    And…history is barely taught in K-12 today anyway but when it is taught, it’s really more about the agenda. The teacher is basically spouting opinion and expecting the kids to spit it back in the form of research and writing assignments. No debate. No “what do you think,” and no balanced perspective sought. The teacher this year was extremely suspicious of kids doing Internet plagiarism, and would use this accusation especially to challenge interpretations with which he didn’t agree. So, my kid was smart and learned to get a good grade by faithfully adhering to the teacher’s ideological line and regurgitating only the “facts” that he had offered.
    Anyway, I agree, the whole approach to assigning and evaluating research papers needs to be upgraded to the Internet Age. The purpose of different sorts of writing assignments needs to be clear. And teachers, at least some, also need to go back to the real purpose of their profession: teaching THE KIDS how to come to conclusions and express them, rather than use the hour to stand in front of the mirror.
    Sorry for the rant.

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