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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4 Responses to Patchwriting: Part of the Process

  1. Frankie – some comments on patch-writing:
    I do agree with Rob Jenkins’s two main points: 1) being a plagiarism detective takes away considerable time from us that could be used to improve students’ writing in more productive ways. I may have been lucky, but in neither of my classes have I yet suspected that my students were guilty of other than “improper citations.” I would certainly investigate otherwise, but would not lose sleep over it. 2) I also think the reason plagiarism is so pervasive is the same reason why when asked to formulate a thesis to respond to a reading assignment students often just restate in different words the thesis of the author. In addition to laziness and overcommitment – just like they don’t know how to use MLA, students often seem to lack the skills to tackle the assignments in the way we expect them – in other words, critical thinking – and thus, fearing a bad grade, they “borrow” from those who “know better”. Ever worse, sometime they are not sure what it is that we are asking them, no matter how clear we try to make it sound. At times, Jenkins’s article reminded me of one of the first readings we did for this class, Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University”.

    Going back to laziness and patch-writing here’s a short anecdote from my personal experience. When I was getting my M.A. in Naples I was writing a proposal or a term paper and although my argument was completely different from that of the sources I used, I remember my professor (whom I greatly admired and respected) called me on it and I felt horrible for letting her down.I was very well aware of the online tools that could be used to detect plagiarized material, and I was accustomed to using them myself before turning in a paper of any kind to make sure all sources have been properly cited. That is to say, were my intentions to plagiarize someone else’s ideas in a paper, I’d make sure to at least paraphrase them or at the very least not to mention their work in my bibliography. I took one of my sources analysis as a useful example for my paper in terms of structure, rather than ideas, some of which I did not agree with at all. I also plead guilty for my laziness in terms of language and lexical choices, but the argument I had in mind, as well as the evidence to prove it, little or nothing had to do with the original essay. All of my professor’s comments referred to factual statements and premises, rather than ideas or arguments – factual statements that I absolutely should have phrased in my own words and I didn’t because I thought the goal at such preliminary stage of the project was to just convey an idea of what we were planning on doing. Not in a million years would I have thought of doing this in the actual paper, but I owned up to my mistake, apologized and was grateful that my professor understood, after explaining how overcommitted I had been (I was in New York doing research for my M.A. dissertation and trying to decide if I wanted to accept CUNY’s admission offer). She agreed that it was an instance of laziness, considering how different my argument was from that of the sources I paraphrased. All of this to ask you and myself – what do we do in cases like this? Are there instances where plagiarism should be called something else?

    Finally – I want to throw a question out there, hoping we can discuss this further in class – how does the idea of intertextuality (as defined by Roland Barthes) fit in a discussion about plagiarism? I was surprised not to see it in any of the articles (or did I miss it?)

  2. Sarah says:

    In your response, Frankie, as you unpack patchwriting within your framework and within the theoretical framework of the readings, you bring up the idea that the key reason for patchwriting is an insufficient understanding of the source material. As I was reading the Howard, et al. article, I squared and starred those moments in which they articulate the same idea. It seems clear to me that plagiarism, while linked to laziness, is not a laziness of writing but a laziness of reading. A part of me would say a simple lack of comprehension, except for my experience teaching a few chapters of Berger last week. After reading the two clearest and most fundamental sections of *Ways of Seeing*, a populist text that originated as a television series, students could not even articulate a general idea, let alone a main point or definition of a key term. However, I know after working with these students for half the semester that this is not for lack of language or comprehension skills. Rather, they simply aren’t used to paying attention. It became apparent that these students still thought that if they had looked at the words they had read it. They haven’t been forced to think sentence by sentence and try to rearticulate internally (as we likely do by rote or as an automatic and unconscious function) as they read. I could go on about the “writing from the sentence” that I saw in so many drafts of the second essay (complicating an argument with a source), but I won’t ramble on. Suffice it to say, I see the only way forward is to provide worksheets and reading questions for all assigned readings AND make that count toward their grades. That’s on my spring syllabus!

  3. Daisy Atterbury says:

    “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences” helped me understand the value placed on summary in academia, and reminded me that summarizing is a skill I’ve had to develop on my own. To summarize the main ideas of an article or essay is to understand and rearticulate the idea: it seems almost as valuable as generating a new idea. We place an emphasis on this in speech in the classroom, but less so in writing. I think a number of useful points have been raised on the topic of plagiarism, including Stefano’s point about focusing on the motivations, impulses or issues outside of laziness that open up the temptation. I spent a class session earlier talking about plagiarism and circulating an essay by Kenneth Goldsmith from UPenn (I feel I have to add that he’s a problematic thinker and person on other accounts, but don’t want to take the time to contextualize here) on the topic of appropriation and copying in the “internet age,” and we debated the notion of plagiarism in a very candid way. We asked, is there any such thing as an original idea? I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it somehow became a kind of confessional: people “admitted” to their different strategies for writing and developing ideas, from reading Wikipedia to repurposing writing tutors’ ideas and suggested edits. Writing itself seems to be an activity that is fraught with fear anyway, but a huge part of this seems to be around the emphasis placed on “originality” without clear guidelines about what “original thinking” means for teachers. I wonder if emphasizing the development of students’ own voices, or personal style, will also be a way to reduce the temptation for plagiarism. I found I didn’t have any good activities for considering the idea of “summary” or “repurposing” in the context of discussions about plagiarism, but Mark Gaipa’s illustrations are useful for providing visuals for concepts like “piggybacking” on someone else’s argument. I like Sarah’s suggestion to provide reading questions for assigned readings!

  4. for providing visuals for concepts like “piggybacking” on someone else’s argument. I like Sarah’s suggestion to provide reading questions for assigned readings!

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