An Educator’s Guide to Post-Modern Authorship and Literacy in the Classroom
Blog Post Summary: Teachers hold a unique and powerful position in the debate about what constitutes authorship and plagiarism. These debates are important because they shape the future of scholarship and art. When a teacher sets an intellectual boundary for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable work, they are molding the intellectual processes of students. Educators must help students understand the rights and responsibilities of authorship while allowing for innovative acts of assemblage.
This post is adapted from a paper I wrote and presented at the Thinking and Speaking a Better World Conference (April 2008, Slovenia).
What is plagiarism?
If you search for the terms “plagiarism”, “college”, and “high school” in the Lexis Nexus academic databases, you’ll get over 1,000 article hits from around the world. The Guardian, Korea Times, the Statesman (India), the Times (London), the Independent (London), and the Sunday Times (South Africa) are just a few of the international news outlets that published stories about the issue over the past six months. Many articles sounded alarm at the incidence of cheating on high school and college campuses, by students, professors, and university leaders alike. An article in the Sunday Times titled “Institutes of Higher Cheating” lists over 80 incidents of cheating at six institutions of higher learning. Doctoral thesis were rejected, lecturers fired, degrees revoked, and students suspended and expelled because of these incidents. In “Schools Fighting Plagiarism”, the Korea Times reports that the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education will deduct points off of assignments, and seek harsher penalties for secondary students who plagiarize. In September 2003, the New York Times reports that a study of 18,000 students at 23 colleges and universities found that 38% of students engaged in “cut and paste” plagiarism during the previous year. Academic communities around the world perceive a thriving culture of plagiarism.
It is nearly impossible to come up with a universal definition of plagiarism. Buranen says that:
“One of the major problems with the word plagiarism itself is its use as a kind of wastebasket, into which we toss anything we do not know what to do with: it can refer, at various times, to outright cheating (for instance, purchasing a research paper and presenting it as one’s own work); to appropriating large blocks of text without attribution; to omissions or mistakes in citations; to paraphrasing an original too closely; to collaborating too closely—and then there is the question of intent…” (64).
In the New York Times article entitled “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Speech”, David Greenberg explores charges of plagiarism surrounding Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign speeches. Governor Deval Patrick and Obama share speechwriters. Answering a claim of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton that the Obama campaign is all rhetoric with no substance, Obama said famous political lines from history, and repeated the refrain “just words”. It turns out that the Patrick campaign used this set piece during the gubernatorial elections. Obama says that it is “silly” that the Clinton campaign would bring plagiarism charges against him, and that he committed simple citation error. In the article, Greenberg quotes Thomas Mallon, author of Stolen Words: “Political language is unusually fluid. Politicians routinely borrow from one another, especially during campaigns, when they make use of any themes or mantras that seem to work. What Democratic candidate hasn’t vowed to ”fight for working families”?”. It is common knowledge that politicians use speechwriters who borrow phrases and themes from political works. When politicians use these speeches, voters understand that the spoken words are not the politicians’ own language. These speeches influence voters’ decision-making. A good stump speech or debate performance can lead to increased support on the ground, millions dollars in new donations, and more votes on election day. It seems that voters take a post-modern view of political authorship, where candidates participate in collaborative efforts of assemblage. Applying existing ideas and texts to new contexts is an accepted practice.
The definition of plagiarism depends on the institution. Many schools have handbooks dedicated to the issue that spell out offenses and punishments.
Why should teachers care about plagiarism?
Teachers hold a unique and powerful position in the debate about what constitutes authorship and plagiarism. These debates are important because they shape the future of scholarship and art. When a teacher sets an intellectual boundary for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable work, they are molding the intellectual processes of students. Plagiarism is a moral construct that institutions use it to separate “high” scholarship from “low” scholarship. Howard believes that educators’ current understanding of plagiarism creates an intellectual class system. According to Howard, the academy views collaborative composition is “low” literacy. This is a broad category of work includes patchwriting (copying text word for word and then substituting different grammar and word structures) and purchase of term papers. “High” literacy is at the top of the hierarchy: a student exhibits high literacy when readers can identify both original and borrowed elements in writing.
These intellectual hierarchies are used to guide instruction and assessment in classrooms. For example, the California English-Language Arts Content Standards say that by grades nine and ten, students should be able to “reflect appropriate manuscript requirements” including “integration of source and support material (e.g., in-text citation, use of direct quotations, paraphrasing) with appropriate citations. Correct citation is considered to be an advanced writing skill that builds upon knowledge learned in previous years of schooling. Students must perform citation behaviors correctly to be considered “at grade level”. Students who do not perform these behaviors are considered to be a low level of scholarship. Johnson-Eilola and Selber say that “When all is said and done, teachers seem to ask students the question: After you have read all the background material and assembled your evidence, what did you, just you, produce? Show us your words; let the words of others fade into the background” (379). Johnson-Eilola and Selber and Howard believe that the original author versus plagiarist binary has overtaken the notion of hierarchy.
These pedagogical issues fit into a broader discussion of what constitutes authorship in the post-modern world. What is an author? What rights do authors have? There are no clear answers to these questions. Although modern legal frameworks are centered on the idea of an original author, post-modern and post-structural schools of thought question the existence of originality and individuality in authorship. Pennycook says that modern notions of individual creativity and originality may obscure the subjective and intertextual nature of our identities:
“If, instead of a Self or an Identity, we consider the notion of subjectivity, or indeed subjectivities (we are, in a sense, the fragmented products of different discourses), then we arrive at more or less a reversal of the speaking subject creating meaning: We are not speaking subjects but spoken subjects, we do not create language but are created by it. As I suggested earlier, the question then becomes not so much one of who authored a text but how we are authored by texts.” (Pennycook 10).
Post-modernists reject the idea that originality, creativity, and authorship resides in a divine or human creator. Instead, human identity is a web of interpretations. This shift away from “original authorship” can be seen in music, architecture, television, film, and written works. In the 20th century, one of the key advances in music was the development of drum machines, synthesizers, cassette tape recorders, turntables, and other audio mixing tools that allowed the average person to sample music from the radio and remix it, creating a new work. The hip-hop genre relies heavily on the ability of listeners to re-shape old songs into new ones. File sharing technologies and creative commons licenses give artists even more freedom. There are many classic and modern texts that are considered to be a work of pastiche rather than plagiarism. Examples include the works of Virgil, Shakespeare, and Michael Cunningham.
The concept of assemblage is an important element of post-modern authorship. Johnson-Eilola and Selber say that assemblages are “texts built primarily and explicitly from existing texts in order to solve a writing or communication problem in a new context” (381). The authors believe that the binary of plagiarist versus original author is inadequate to address issues of intertextuality, the effects of previous discourse, and the need for students, artists, and citizens to problem-solve using information that exists in the marketplace of ideas. The modern copyright and intellectual property framework is evolving as courts hear cases about process copyrights, file-sharing, and the rights of collaborators.
Problem-Solving and Acts of Assemblage
I agree with these authors and believe that teachers need to embrace assemblage, patchwriting, and other collaborative processes because they are good pedagogical practices that reflect new modes of authorship. We want students to engage in acts of assemblage: to be to synthesize information from a wide variety of sources to solve new problems. Collaboration is changing the face of communication (Web 2.0), music, art, business, and politics. We want students to have the ability to engage in acts of assemblage and new modes of problem solving. On the other hand, students need to understand their roles as readers, authors, and artists. Each of these roles comes with rights and responsibilities that change based on the context (see the political speech example above).
Educators engage in acts of assemblage everyday. They blend together research on best practices, institutional standards, lesson plan ideas from other teachers, and instructional tools in order to help students succeed in the classroom.
What should educators do?
- Examine state curriculum standards, school honor codes, and other sources to figure out your institutions’ stance on plagiarism and authorship.
- Engage in Edupunkism – find lesson plans that help students understand their roles as authors, readers, and artists (these roles change from task to task). Push students to express themselves in new ways (digital storytelling, art, etc).
- Have conversations with students about what constitutes art, authorship, and plagiarism.
- Help students understand why the rights of authors are important. Link instruction about citation methods and scholarship to real world examples (plagiarism in the news, university standards, curriculum standards, debates about art, etc).
- Research authorship, plagiarism, and copyrights and take a stance on these issues.
Works Cited (plus more sources)
17 USC Chapters 1 – 5. 2007 Ed.
Adams, Hazard, and Leroy Searle, eds. Critical Theory since Plato. Third ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.
OWL at Purdue University. “Avoiding Plagiarism.” 08 Apr 2008 <
Bellarmine College Preparatory (San Jose): Parent-Student Handbook.01 Apr 2008 <
National Forensic League. “Benefits”. 01 Apr 2008. <
Buranen, Lise. ” But I Wasn’t Cheating: Plagiarism and Cross-Cultural Mythology.” Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Ed. Lise (ed and introd ). Buranen, Alice M. (ed and introd ). Roy, and Andrea (foreword) Lunsford. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, xxii, 1999.
Greenberg, David. Friends , Romans , Countrymen , Lend Me Your Speech. The New York Times. February 24 2008, sec. WK; Week in Review Desk; THE NATION: 3.
Content Standards English-Language Arts, Grades Pre K – 12. Sacremento: California Department of Education, 1997.
Harvard-Westlake School. “Plagiarism and Tutoring”. 01 Apr 2008. <
“Institutes of Higher Cheating.” Sunday Times (South Africa) June 10 2007, sec. EDUCATION: 13.
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber. “Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage.” Computers and Composition: An International Journal for Teachers of Writing. 24.4 (2007): 375-403.
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Planet Debate. “Subscriptions and Products”. 2006. Harvard Debate, Inc. <
Pennycook, Alastair. “Borrowing Others’ Words: Text, Ownership, Memory, and Plagiarism.” TESOL Quarterly 30.2 (1996): 201-30.
Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World [Electronic Resource] / Lise Buranen and Alice M. Roy, Editors ; Foreword by Andrea Lunsford. Ed. Lise Buranen 1954-, Alice Myers Roy, and Inc NetLibrary. Albany : State University of New York Press, c1999.
Re-Tooling for the Future: 2007 – 2008 Parent/Student Handbook: Claremont High School.
Rimer, Sara. “A Campus Fad that’s being Copied: Internet Plagiarism Seems on the Rise.” The New York Times September 3 2003, sec. B; Metropolitan Desk; Education Page: 7.
“Schools Fighting Plagiarism.” Korea Times October 12 2007.
Instrument of Student Judicial Governance. “Section II, Part B: Academic Dishonesty”. Feb 2003 2003. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. <
Sonora High School. “Academic Honesty Policy”. 01 Apr 2008. <
Stearns, Laurie. “Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Property, and the Law .” Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Ed. Lise (ed and introd ). Buranen, Alice M. (ed and introd ). Roy, and Andrea (foreword) Lunsford. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, xxii, 1999.
Student, Parent, and Employee Information Handbook. San Jose Unified School District, 2007.
University of Oxford. “Education Policy and Standards: Plagiarism”. 01 Apr 2008. <
Zebroski James, Thomas. “Intellectual Property, Authority, and Social Formation: Sociohistoricist Perspectives on the Author Function.” Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World. Ed. Lise (ed and introd ). Buranen, Alice M. (ed and introd ). Roy, and Andrea (foreword) Lunsford. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, xxii, 1999.
Written by TeacherC
4 June 2008 at 5:35 pm
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