Patchwriting: Part of the Process

While reading “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences,” I realized that I am absolutely guilty of patchwriting, probably as recently as my blog posts for this class. I definitely patchwrote as an undergraduate, and I felt at least somewhat comforted, in reading this essay, by the acknowledgment that “Howard (1993) argues that patchwriting should be considered a transitional stage in writing from sources, rather than plagiarism, and the Council of Writing Program Administrators (2005) labels patchwriting a misuse of sources rather than plagiarism” (187). I would agree with the notion of patchwriting as a stage undergone by students who are just starting to acquire specialized knowledge in a particular field, particularly because the notion of a transitional stage indicates development and process, and because it directly opposes the common view of patchwriting as “malfeasance committed by ignorant, indifferent, or unethical writers” (189). I’m hesitant to view patchwriting that way partly because of my own use of patchwriting, and partly because I’d rather not think of my students as ignorant, indifferent, or unethical. I’d rather think of them as developing writers who are attempting to accomplish something difficult (comprehending and summarizing a complex argument, drawing from research in a new field) and who are having mixed success.

I have consistently noticed patchwriting in my students’ essays (without knowing that it had a name), especially instances of citing sentences rather than sources, and in doing so, misrepresenting the larger source, but also a few instances of direct copying without quotes but with page citations (which made no sense to me whatsoever) and copying non-common knowledge without citing. I noticed these things but felt unsure of a) how to investigate the issue without at least doubling the amount of time it would take to comment on all my students’ papers and b) how to confront it or especially how to combat it. Because patchwriting seems to be represented, at least in this essay, as a part of the process of learning to understand and use sources, and because the root of patchwriting is at least related to, if not always totally caused by, lack of full comprehension of the source and how to apply the source to the assignment, the problem of patchwriting felt, as I was commenting on and grading student work, unwieldy and large, too large for me to know how to intervene. In some cases I would push the student to make a more meaningful connection between the source and the assignment, or to offer a more articulated summary of the source as a whole, but the revisions would often still lack these changes, or offer an incomplete connection or summary. It still feels unwieldy and large after reading Howard et al, in no small part because their conclusion poses further questions and underscores the need for further research. I feel, at the very least, that the underlying causes of patchwriting are something I want to think more about as I continue to teach, and that I want to find ways to alleviate those underlying causes for my students.

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