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.


Intellectual Property and Plagiarism

In the NCTE piece, the writer quotes Michael Day of Northern Illinois University: “Many of our students are first-generation college students and are somewhat clueless about plagiarism and intellectual property issues. Still others have been raised in the era of the free Napster and other music-downloading programs, and come to us with the attitude that if something is available on the Web, they have every right to use it in whatever way they see fit.” The first part of this statement assumes a relationship between social class and knowledge of academic dishonesty. Whether it’s true, it’s a loaded claim, and could stand for a more concrete study. I’m more interested, however, in the second part, and assumptions about how students relate to information in the age of the Internet.

This article is admittedly a little outdated. There’s the Napster reference and the use of the word “cybrarian.” I do think, though, that Day’s comment marks a perception that’s intensified over time, even as the Internet’s become commonplace. The “sharing economy,” social media, and streaming services have no doubt blurred ideas of who owns what. People take credit for other people’s work all the time. But Day’s point strikes me as alarmist insofar as it suggests students no longer possess a workable concept of authorship. The “in whatever way they see fit” implies a disruption of both quantitative and qualitative notions of value. A student might illegally download an album, but it’s unlikely he would say to a friend, “Hey do you want to hear my new song?” That is, it may be true that this generation of students feels “every right” to what they find online, but the concept of ownership is complicated, and we’re doing students a disservice when we conflate the financial and, say, ethical aspects of intellectual property.

I know students cheat, and it’s easier to cheat than ever before. I think teachers and administrators need to develop clear and non-negotiable guidelines about plagiarism. But I would never say that students should ask for permission to use a video in their PowerPoint presentations. Even if I had a class blog, I’d refrain from Ted Nellen’s suggestion—also in the NCTE piece—that they’re producing “published work.” That not only seems occasion to psych the students out or create an illusory sense of stakes; it also inculcates students with a notion of ideas-as-property that we should, in the classroom, be addressing from a critical perspective. I appreciated Shih-Chieh Chien’s piece because I’d never quite thought about plagiarism in a cross-cultural context. For our purposes, such an approach could invite self-reflection about the meaning of intellectual property—what about it we should value and what we should consider with scrutiny. We all scan and send articles. This alone could be grounds for a conversation with students about the complexities of citation and copyright. Students are perhaps better prepared than ever before to consider the way ideas circulate, as well as the nuances of credit, in both the citational and financial senses of the word. After all, JSTOR is just like Spotify, only it costs a lot more.


Approaching Plagiarism

Plagiarism has been on my mind a lot recently. As I grade, I find that most of my students are plagiarizing, and they don’t even realize they are doing it. Quoting the source isn’t the problem. The problem comes in with paraphrasing, which is hardly discussed in these articles, especially in “Cultural Constructions of Plagiarism in Student Writing” which discusses Chinese teachers’ concepts of plagiarism. All the professors related plagiarism to direct quoting, but they neglected to address the type of plagiarism that occurs when students read an article online (and by “an article,” we all know they’re really reading Wikipedia) and reword what is being said without citing the source. While not stealing the words, the students are stealing the ideas, which is a form of plagiarism, a concept the students (and apparently the majority of these professors writing about student plagiarism) aren’t really acknowledging. Luckily, I am able to know, for the most part, when this is happening in my classes. A student who said they never read a comic before who suddenly becomes an expert on the backstory of Harley Quinn probably had to look it up.

From these articles, I feel like defining plagiarism becomes difficult, and reliant on intention. The WPA definition, for me, is really wonderful because it includes room for plagiarism beyond direct quoting: “Definition: In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its sources” (“Defining” 1). Including definitions like this on the syllabus would be helpful, but I feel like definitions without examples causes problems. When I first introduced integrating sources, part of the lesson was the three major ways to do so: summary, paraphrasing, or direct quoting. Part of the lesson was giving the source the proper citation. I found that students understood the concept with scholarly sources, citing paraphrasing of articles, but failing to cite online or quickly googled ideas. Granted, the lesson was not directly about paraphrasing. However, I wonder if using a similar exercise when discussing plagiarism initially would have been beneficial. In “Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism,” Rob Jenkins discusses the importance open dialogues about plagiarism with the students, and I wonder if part of that open dialogue could include explicit examples that coincide with the definition.

Further, I like Jenkins idea of “making plagiarism difficult.” He suggests in-class writing assignments, but he quickly points out that he finds in-class writing problematic, using drafts instead. Taking it a step further, the initial discussion of the papers could include an in-class brainstorming session where the students are forced to pick their texts and begin drafting observations, with the ultimate goal of finding an argument to make in their paper. I suggest this over just drafts for one main reason: my roommate was recently telling me of a friend who would pay someone to write their paper before the initial draft was due and create a really crappy version of it to turn in for a draft. While brainstorming might not completely get rid of plagiarism, it might be a step in some direction.

I guess, my ultimate questions are: can we expand the definition of plagiarism to be more descriptive for students who aren’t from the Western culture to fully grasp the concept? Is there a way to standardized the process of “punishing” plagiarism without biases? Or, is a bias an integral part of dealing with plagiarism because it allows professors to be more lenient, understanding, and willing to accept second chances?


Error, A Longer View

Teaching in this classroom setting, I find myself attempting to mediate between two related approaches to grammar (both identified in the Mark Blaauw-Hara thesis and mentioned in the thoughtful responses above: sentence construction as a foundation for “critical thinking”; and (does a semi-colon go there? help!), “correct” grammar as one of many available dialects to be used with discretion in context. That said, I’ll admit that I’ve built my career, livelihood, sense of community and impulse to public action thus far around an investment in “error” in writing. Why? Because I do not think we can so easily brush past the history of writing instruction in this country, with its foundations in “socializ[ing] the new working-class student body into a bourgeois sensibility,” and worse. Blaauw-Hara alludes to this history, but does not “dwell” on what is honestly a much darker history than the management of class-affiliation.

If we take US colonialism seriously, we might need to begin with a history that begins with stripping large groups of people of language, culture, sense of identity, and not least, land. Blaauw-Hara cites Tchudi and Mitchell in stating, “language instruction has been consistently linked to morality … with English teachers perceived as defenders of the language against the onslaughts of ‘barbarians,’ including their students.” Can we so easily brush by this quote to debate the merits of grammatical instruction? Beyond re-considering the distinction between “correct” and “incorrect” grammar and thinking in terms of dialect, how do we begin with an acknowledgement that the goals of teaching composition, beginning with grammar, may still be bound up in this ‘moralizing’ (‘civilizing’) impulse? To a certain extent, I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I’d like to push myself at least to think beyond the seemingly-clear aim of “teaching [our students] the linguistic landmarks of the culture of power, thereby enabling them to chart a safe passage through it…” (Blaauw-Hara).

Is the critical thinking offered by the kind of instruction necessary to “chart safe passage” through power offering as much as it promises? Blaauw-Hara writes, “As Tchudi and Mitchell write, ‘correct’ grammar can ‘provide students with access to higher social levels’ (253). This gives us a rationale for teaching it, and it provides reasons for learning it students can understand–if they learn to influence readers positively, it can pay off with better grades, a better job, and a general improvement in socioeconomic status” (169). Perhaps other kinds of thinking are necessary for building networks that can resist power, beginning with different objectives. Charting safe passages through power may not make anyone any safer, it seems, and in the meantime these objectives are producing the kind of back-to-work mentality that keep all people, including instructors, from actions beyond their circumscribed circumstances.

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Don’t tell them they’re wrong…

As I’ve been reading and coming to an understanding of the placement of demographics of students in academia, it becomes more and more necessary to discuss and place at the forefront the issues with curriculums and literary canons. In reading Mark Blaauw-Hara’s article, “Why Our Students Need Instruction in Grammar, and How We Should Go about it”, highlights how socioeconomic statuses for students is reflective in their understanding of proper grammatical usage and academic eloquence. He states, “our students need to be able to adhere to standard English to succeed in their other classes and to get jobs at the end of their schooling” (166), however, it contradicts with “students’ native dialects with notions of correct and incorrect” (168). I found this to be pertinent especially when dealing with the various demographics that I, myself, educate. In one class, the student population are upper middle class, where their education background and upbringing is reflective in their writing and understanding of the syllabus, assignments, and overall expectations. On the contrary, my secondary class are mostly minority, where they contend with lower income statuses, English as a second language, and subpar reading levels, as a reflection of the education they have received thus far.

However, I find that when educators find themselves nitpicking at grammatical errors, and devaluing the information that the students have provided to meet the criteria on a certain assignment, the double edged sword of grading fairly based on content versus correcting the issues that need to be addressed become ever pressing. I am learning that I need to find one particular area that should be focused on when grading papers so as not to overwhelm students with what they’ve done wrong, rather highlighting what their strengths are and where they can expand. This normally leaves me to believe that I am shortchanging them in someway by not elaborating and making it known that they do need extra assistance in basic grammar. What do I do?

This I believe is the problem with academia. Instead of acknowledging that the students contending with socioeconomic issues have already broken through a glass ceiling of being in a prestigious learning environment (albeit community college or a four-year institution), instructors are quick with red pens to highlight and correct all of the things that they need to focus on. However, when students that do contend with stereotypes, but actually excel in English criterion, it becomes hard to believe that someone with that background and upbringing could produce something at an A-grade level. This, I believe, is where the Tiffany Martinez blog post explored the problems with academia and minorities, the students with the assumed lack of knowledge of the English language. We as instructors need to do more to inspire students to push forward, break these stereotypes, and highlight their excellences, rather than degrade the ironies of their presence in the classroom.

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Academia, Love Me Back

This blog post is making the rounds. Tiffany Martinez, a McNair scholar and undergrad, who writes about how a professor commented “This is not your word” when she used “hence” in her essay. Her story seems to being together some of the threads about language and commenting that we’re discussing right now so I thought you’d be interested.

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Thoughts on Evans and Micciche

Can writing be taught? It’s a cliché question that comes up often in creative-writing circles. My own answer goes like this: Writing can be caught, insofar as teaching is largely the facilitation of situations in which new experiences are possible. A poetry class might not offer a blueprint to writing a good poem, but it can provide an occasion for making connections that might not otherwise be made. I’m interested in this week’s readings because they ask a corollary to this question: Can writing be taught systematically? And if so, what place do the rudiments—semantics, syntax, morphology—have in the process? Of course this has much to do with the meaning of a “system” and the taxonomy of values that underpin college writing. Argument is rightfully at the top (in my limited consideration), but I’m curious the relationship between “higher-order” concerns and the nuts-and-bolts that make them possible.

Evans, I think, provides tangible suggestions for substantiating certain commonplace assumptions about good writing. I’ve always struggled with the idea of the “active voice”—not because the concept itself is hard to grasp, but because it implies a kind of narrative position when really it refers to a grammatical issue. If there were a way to convey the effects of an SVO, and not just the structure, then students might better grasp the connection between mechanics and meaning. Evans is very good at presenting language as almost like a game, a puzzle with interchangeable parts. Linguistics can seem abstract, even disorienting, but I think the exercises she highlights might serve as points of access—brief interludes in a composition course that don’t derail the more essential focus. Even the terms—morphology, etc.—arcane as they are, might empower students. It’s always enjoyable to learn new words and be on the inside of a professional discussion, especially when that learning is grounded in applicable techniques. I’m not going to have the students in my class underline morphemes on Monday or anything. I will, however, consider how grammar relates to sociolinguistics, and sociolinguistics relates to rhetoric, and rhetoric relates to what we want to say, how we want to say it, and why.

Micciche puts a finer point on the social dimension of teaching grammar. I liked this quote particularly: “The chief reason for teaching rhetorical grammar in writing classes is that doing so is central to teaching thinking” (719). It’s a grandiose sentiment, but it imbues something so often conceived as drudgery with an ethical purpose. In this sense, Micciche sees writing as entirely systematic—the fundamentals undergird each and every structural layer, defining positionality from the linguistic ground up. I’m not sure I agree with this conception of language as structurally unified. I suspect there are aspects of communication that complicate the “ground-up” approach. But I appreciate the attempt at navigating between “the binary that defines grammar instruction in opposition to composing and thinking.” As Micciche points out, grammar seems especially significant when considering discourses of power and persuasion. If grammar is overbearingly rule-based, then it only stands to highlight the ways language invokes conformity, and its capacity for regulating public discourse. Looking critically at grammar, Micciche argues, offers a window into the subtleties of a system—political, this time—and a method for broadening what constitutes “acceptable” language.

I feel some degree of personal investment in this conversation. I worked for years after college as a copy editor at magazines, moving commas around and the like. I’ve never been much of a prescriptive-grammar person—seems stressful—but the job required an exacting set of standards. Glossy magazines are themselves case studies in rhetoric and the dissemination of texts, considering their reach and the precision with which they identify and address their audience. The role of “correct language” seems paramount to an authoritative posture. (I think I once heard the voice described at one of these publications as that of the average reader’s most impressive friend.) Having had this experience, I feel intuitively drawn to the discussion of rhetorical grammar, and arguments for the persuasive potential of the building blocks of speech.


Pushing the limits of classroom discussion with regard to Martha Marinara

In teaching two courses at Queens College, each vastly different in population and the style in which I teach each course, I could not help by find many of the points that Martha Marinara discusses in her article, “Bi: playing with fixed identities” relevant to my experience. My 110 course, a general/mainstream class, is filled with students who have mostly come from private education or from upper middle class neighborhoods where they are used to hearing praise about their works. They do not take to criticism or feedback lightly, and gasp when I respond to their statements with questions of rebuttal which they mistake as attack. On the other hand, my 13o class, a SEEK funded course, has a population of solely minority students who juggle personal issues with simply making it to class everyday. They embrace being in the classroom as a privilege and escape from the turmoils they have to once again face upon dismissal. In fact, they relish at conversations that challenge their thinking, and take my criticism and feedback as leverage to do better and better, not just as writers and thinkers, but in their day-to-day lives.

Marinara brings about the phrase “structure and definition” (71) with relation to “cultural context” and “social identity”, concepts that I could not help but relate to each of my classes and my style of teaching based on the needs and wants of the students. The way that students produce work and thoughts are much reflected through their upbringings, social status, and culture. Having less opportunity causes students to have less of “structure and definition”, resulting in an outside-the-box way of thinking and writing. The routes of production are vast and zig-zaggy, yet much more expansive. On the contrary, the students with “structure and definition” are linear, have a limited thought process, and remain on the surface. These two contrasts in classes places me in the position of “the cold porridge” and “the hard pea”, the rock and the hard place. Where being unbiased and treating all of the students and lessons the same, it becomes difficult to not feel as though my appearance has much to do with the way the students respond to me as an instructor. Rather, I find that these circumstances with which I am faced with when dealing with students undoubtedly places me in a constant binary of being a professional and a minority, similar to Marinara’s bi-sexuality obligating her to be placed in “straight and professional” (72). The response of the students from my 110 course leaves me to believe they are in awe that someone like me is teaching them. However, my SEEK students view me as an equal, someone who they can relate to and learn from simultaneously.

Marinara’s statement, “no one can be both professional and working class” (73) resonates with me as no one can be both professional and minority. This constant tug of war that I struggle with more than enough sounds in my mind causing me to lose trains of thought, control of the discussion, allowing my students to feed of the fact that I feel like an imposter. However, I use this as fuel to be creative with class discussions, assignments, and group work. It allows for headway where I am able to gain control of the class by placing my fear at the center, and allowing students to place themselves in hypothetical situations of being outside their comfort zones. Their linear way of thinking now becomes jogged and rattled, where they find critical ways of finding solutions to those scenarios. They learn to see things from multiple perspectives, creating well-rounded individuals inside the classroom as well as outside.

Martha Marinara places her identity in conversation and allows it to be at play for her students to remove themselves from their comfort zones and jaded ways of thinking, keeping her in charge of the class while remaining true to her identity. In fact, her openness with her students proves to be effectual. I now relish in the fear that stepping into the classroom gives me, for it gives me room for personal growth as an instructor and especially raises the thinking and writing bar for the students.

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Creative Writing / College Writing

I’m a “commenter” not a “poster” this week, but being in an MFA program and having spent the last couple of years off and on thinking about the ethics of “creative writing,” I’d like to address Renee Delong’s section in the “Risky Business” piece. I agree that creative writing as a discipline is fraught with unremarked-upon assumptions about race, class, gender, etc. The idea of the “writer” as this essentialized, embodied figure is of course charged with a civilization’s worth of problems. When I imagine “the writer,” I think of John Updike smiling self-satisfied in press photos, or the portraits of poets of centuries ago puffed up and absurdly stylized. This likely speaks to my position, as a white male “writer,” who has become uncomfortable with the historical weight of his chosen pursuit. Even the term “creativity” is troubling, sentimental as it is, drawing to mind the entitled subjectivity of the privileged few. My sense is that Delong takes issue with the creative-writing degree at her college because funds might be better used elsewhere, and because she sees the discipline, if the word applies, as ideologically charged and acritical. As I said: fair complaints. However, I also think there is value to providing students a space to write in a different, non-academic way, to approach literature as a free-floating pursuit, where texts from here and there might talk to each other, a la comparative literature, and the discourse in the classroom is devoted to the complex subjectivities of students’ “authentic” voices. (I use that term ironically, if only to comment on the pedagogical problems of identity, the way it’s malleable and imprecise, and yet, on a day-to-day level, manifests fairly consistently.)

I wonder if “creative writing” is a straw man (straw person?), an offshoot of English education that most clearly (i.e. most reprehensibly) typifies the structural failures of academia. Ideas of argumentation and criticality are themselves governed by a barrier to entry. Even if the methods are sound, even if there are useful theories that can help offset the inborn bias, there is still a rhetorical gap in academia that promotes exclusion. I don’t think that conversations about “point of view,” “characterization,” and so forth serve as a stand-in for rigorous training in composition. But I do think they bring certain important rhetorical issues to light, and invite exploration in a way that is both low-stakes and generative. The danger of university education as vocational training is always looming. I see the high stakes of preserving, and furthering, a broadly accessible and demanding writing curriculum. I just think a hybrid approach could help illustrate notions of audience and intent—and perhaps engender a sense of personal connection—that might strengthen college writing as a whole.

As a disclaimer, I am not a banner-waving “creative writer,” but rather someone with a set of tasks this semester who is trying to reconcile their responsibilities and incongruities. I write fiction and poetry because I enjoy it, and it feels like a useful means of investigating my assumptions and blind spots. Maybe it gives rise to even more assumptions, but it’s not as if these discussions ever resolve, nor should they. My goal this year is to figure out how I can accommodate and challenge at once, include and complicate. Whether that’s possible in a creative-writing class, I don’t know. But I’ve enjoyed working with the students so far, and I’m optimistic about where things are going.


The Risky Business of Spreading Awareness

Since I began my career as a doctoral student at CUNY I have learned extensively on the history and the current state of higher education in the United States and its many contradictions. Yet, I still find it difficult and perhaps a bit arrogant to express an opinion on such topics, due to the fact that – luckily – I have not experienced them firsthand. So I will try to give authority to the critical claims coming from an outsider that follow by making use of a widespread remark credited to John Culkin and employed by both Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, and Jean Baudrillard in America: “We do not know who discovered water, but we are certain it was not fish.”

While reading The Risky Business, I couldn’t help but thinking of the paradox that arises from the clash between the centrality of the humanities in the development and history of the nation on the one hand (as argued by a text in a comment I mentioned a few weeks ago, Geoffrey Harpham’s The Humanities and the Dream of America), and the capitalistic and exclusive nature – often at the core of the discipline’s critique – of its higher education system, the very institution that is supposed to carry on its mission. This idea of being able to serve only privileged portions of the social stratum – leaving out those who would benefit the most from it – is itself in contradiction with the democratizing function of the humanities.

Some inspirational considerations on the topic come from texts Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, and from Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things. The piece reminded me how crucial introducing these texts in English classes can be, so as to raise awareness among both white students and students of color. Here are some of the questions that they raised for me, as an educator – how do we distinguish ourselves from the very economic system and structures of power object of our critique? How do we escape the daunting scenario of being nothing but a cog in the machine – in other words, how can we differentiate ourselves from those who say that “slavery was a long time ago”? Does working in an elitarian system produce a negation to our values? From this perspective, is teaching nothing but a service we are providing to customers? If so, how do we reconcile with the fact that we are failing to provide our services to a certain category of customers who are paying for our services with the same currency as other students? In addition to the “customers” we are not serving right I am also concerned about those who are left out altogether. Is there a way for us to reach out to those who are left out from the academia? Finally, how do we reconcile with those questions and contradictions when we engage in academic research?

Both Harney and Moten’s and Fergusons texts offer, if not answers, then valuable insights in regard to the problems that arise from living within the system and dismantling it – or at least attempting to do so – at the same time.  Both texts deal theoretically (and with different levels of explicitness) with the emergence of a sense of frustration caused by the impossibility to change the system, and to make an impact on society at large that goes beyond the circulation of one’s idea within the academic context. My personal take is that these goals cannot be reached on the part of the academia alone, in other words, I see the theoretical as in need of being strongly and necessarily tied to a too-often deaf political dimension. Ideally, the academic world should be able to act in synergy with other social institutions to achieve its goal. In other words, the outcome of academic research should inspire policy makers and mold the structure of powers.

To make room for the “postcolonial university” invoked by Gutierrez, we first have to make room for it by dismantling the old one. This process beings by spreading the word of books such as The Undercommons and The Reorder of Things and familiarizing ourselves and our students with theoretical frameworks such as CRT to “disrupt dominant racial narratives by “analyzing the myths, presuppositions, and received wisdoms that make up the common culture about race and that invariably render blacks and other minorities one-down.” (347)