Monday, October 22, 2012


In my last post I gaily embraced the creativity of cutting and pasting summer scraps into journals to spur original writing at the start of a school year, and now, two months into the fall semester, I’m on a tirade against cut-and-paste. Must be the influence of another political season: I’ve become a flip-flopper.

I now teach in a college, so tend to feel that the issues facing the students in my current classrooms are far different than those that faced the young writers of classrooms past. Jacqueline Jules’ October post, though, contained several bits of advice that I have to admit I took right to my 18-plus-year-old students. I have a problem with plagiarism in my freshman composition classrooms. And the more I talk to colleagues, the more I see that it is of epidemic proportions. Jacqueline is right to be embracing it in the way she is, and it gives me hope that the conversation will continue to be had in these places where it so needs to be—in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and around the kitchen table at home. So, in hopes of inspiring just that, I’d like to add a few things to Jacqueline’s list of ideas to encourage the avoidance of copying the words of others:

·        Celebrate Voice! If young writers learn that personal expression is all about the uniqueness of the words they use—not only when writing poetry or other “creative” pieces, but when putting together reports or even text messages—perhaps they will take more ownership over their writing, and offer more respect to the people behind the words they read on the screen of a computer or in a book. Spending some time reading aloud and positively responding to the various ways students express similar ideas might be a step to instilling pride in personal voices.

·        Minimize Distractions! Not only does the zap-zap-zapping of computer games have a deleterious effect on brain development, as studies are now showing, the constant barrage of electronic media presents some very basic problems: it steals time from our children, and breaks their concentration. My students have to write the first essays of their college careers on the topic of plagiarism, and the ones who take the “true confessions” approach will invariably say they got into a habit of plagiarizing because of a lack of time. Some students even go so far as to villanize their cellphones for interrupting them all the time. Who owns whom? I want to ask these students. Clearly, our children need some help with this.

·        Catch Them! Sounds harsh, but I have to say that the freshmen who hit the wall on this—who sit in my office crying because they’re afraid of the possible repercussions—are the ones who embrace a new way of learning, change the way they study, and become exemplars of our honor code. They tell me, invariably, that no one taught them that it was wrong to turn in writing assignments made up of disparate sentences and paragraphs cut from Internet sources and patched into strange narrative quilts. In fact, most say they were rewarded with good grades in high school. When we see odd shifts in voice in our students’ writing, we should actively try to find the explanation. Drop phrases into Google, and you’ll see that Wikipedia and will pop up quite a bit. Put an “F” on that paper, and meet with the student. Because once he or she arrives on a college campus, that’s an offense that can result in expulsion. Catching this habit early on, and dealing with it bluntly enough to instill a bit of fear, is a good tact. Why do I think so? Because that’s exactly what my students say would have helped them.

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