CCCC 2006 in Review
This was a lively session with a decent-sized audience-perhaps 35 people in a room that would have held 60. The overall focus of the session was on how our construction of plagiarism both relies on and informs particular notions of community. Two questions recurred throughout the three papers: (1) Who is the "we" raising alarm in the warning that plagiarism is a violation of our community's values? and (2) How do our ideas about ownership and originality prevent students from joining "us" in this community of scholars? The order of papers allowed an argument to almost develop over the course of the panel (although the panelists later clarified that this was a coincidence). Speaker 1 used visual images to mark the usual "us" and "them" invoked by anti-plagiarism rhetoric; Speaker 2 looked at university statements on plagiarism to identify the dominant notions of community at work; Speaker 3 offered a very different paradigm for understanding the "crime" of plagiarism, one that brings violators into the community rather than excluding them.
Fountain presented an analysis of the photographic images that illustrated the Turn-It-In.Com website during its first five years of operation. As Fountain demonstrated, the vast majority of these images featured white American college students from the 1920s and 1930s, usually in some carefree, out-of-class activity. Combined with the site's explicit language about the crisis in plagiarism occasioned by the Internet, the implicit message of the imagery seemed to be that fair and honorable college students existed only in the past. But this rhetoric, as Fountain pointed out, strongly suggests that it was the white, elite, and primarily male student body that produced conditions of integrity. The natural conclusion is that today's rash of cheating is an unhappy consequence of loosening the gates, letting the "wrong people" join the college crowd. Only Turn-It-In.Com, the website argues, can arm teachers against the corruption of this more unwashed student body. Fountain's reading of the images was trenchant and hilarious, and he was especially strong in revealing the undocumented assumptions about the alleged rise in plagiarism, as well as its specious link to technology.
Fitzgerald presented a study of the rhetoric of plagiarism as constructed by campus statements designed to prevent plagiarism, deter plagiarists, or define the punishment that offenders face. Noting that many colleges' statements are so similar as to suggest that they've been plagiarized from each other, Fitzgerald challenged the "ownership" model of intellectual property, pointing out that students are supposed to take and use what they learn, and to share what they create. She challenged us to move away from a notion of preventing crime to a practice much more consciously steeped in the wide range of source uses outside of school settings: corporate language is collaboratively created and often presented as un-authored; much research in the sciences and social sciences focuses on testing or replicating other people's findings; government and NGO policy briefs make deliberate use of pastiche. Drawing on the work of Rebecca Moore Howard (all three speakers invoked Howard, often more than once), Fitzgerald suggested several models of source-practice that can help demystify the notion of originary authorship, helping students to see it as variously appropriate in different contexts-one example is deliberate use of "patch-writing," where students cut and paste acknowledged quotations with the briefest of transitions between them.
A former intellectual property lawyer, Wharton urged us to focus on the place of "harm" in any legal formulation of plagiarism. If the crime of plagiarism is theft-as it's often defined by universities-then the harm should be to the original author. But cases of school plagiarism nearly never cause harm to the author, who expects no royalty for reference in a school paper, and seldom even knows that the incident has taken place. In keeping with the focus on community throughout the panel, Wharton offered as an alternative a sense of plagiarism as causing unfair competition among students-proffering other students as one potentially injured party, since cheating students may receive inflated grades for passing off professional work. But even more intriguing than this note of competition, Wharton explained how judicial treatment of unfair competition suits also test for injury to consumers, who give consideration for work expressly because it's presented as the creator's own work. (As an example, imagine upper West Siders who pay for "Alfie's home-made root beer" when they're only getting rebottled A&W.) In the school setting, teachers are potentially harmed by expending time and energy reading work that has been misrepresented as originating with the student. The conceptual genius of this approach is that it shifts students from consumers (who might argue that paying for a downloaded paper can hardly be counted as stealing) to producers, whose actions must be fair and transparent, lest they corrupt the market. (One more note about presentation style: Fountain and Fitzgerald both primarily spoke their papers, rather than reading them, with reference to notes or images on an overhead. Fountain's images were compelling, and Fitzgerald had an easy command of the audience. Wharton read her paper, which is sometimes a drawback, but her voice was especially strong and her physical energy was substantial, and the three different styles of presentation made the panel overall more enjoyable and energizing.)
During the post-paper conversation, the presenters were especially agile in reframing questions about "preventing plagiarism" into discussions of "advancing authorship"; in other words, they skillfully reminded an audience that had perhaps become dulled by criminal and invasion metaphors that the best defense is a proactive one-to engage students in a range of source uses, teaching them the range of practices appropriate to different writing contexts. As such, the panel overall exemplified the deep knowledge that arises when a mundane thing is recast at an angle, allowing us to see anew a thing we'd stopped looking at.
— Alfred E. Guy, Jr.
Editor's Note: Guy's example of "homemade root beer" is a pathetic attempt to repackage a Wharton example—of homemade lemonade—and pass it off as his own. He's been sentenced to reread the Yale College statement on academic integrity 10 times.
For more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.