plagiarism, ethos, surfaces

Inside Higher Ed reports on a CCCC's panel on the issue of plagiarism in first-year composition research papers, specifically a Citation Project undertaken by Becky Howard and Sandra Jamieson. The research seems thorough if not exactly surprising. Essentially, first-year students struggle with incorporating research into their writing. Only about 9% of the students were able to really digest the material they read and summarize it. Most students fell somewhere between exact copying and paraphrasing without demonstrating a substantial understanding of the text. One of the reasons suggested for this is that students do not appear to spend much time with the texts they cite. Often the choose short texts (fewer than five pages) for citations and/or cite material from the first few pages. 

In a brief twitter exchange I had with Becky, she indicated how she did not want people to think about this as an ethical question but rather as an intertextual one. I understand what she means: it doesn't necessarily do us much good to continue to propound this idea of plagiarism as a moral failing. However, typically, I think want to think about ethos in a different way here. So here's my take on this situation.

The first question is one of reading, which is largely separable from the tasks of research and writing. Can the average student in this study read the text s/he has selected and summarize it? It's one thing to teach "summary" as a rhetorical mode/genre. It's another altogether to help students develop the cognitive skills that underlie summary. What exactly to we think that skill is? It is not creating an outline of a text one has read, which might be useful but is not summary. Summary involves interpretation, though perhaps to a minimal degree. Does it require having some complete representation of the text, in miniaturized form? I think not, at least not exactly. Summaries are constructed, composed. Back to this later.

The second question is the "research process," by which I mean, in this case, using library databases. I know I find it a challenge to uncover good articles and essays to read in a composition course. The primary reason we pay for those composition textbooks is because that editors have done the hard work of finding appropriate material for class discussion. What chance to inexperienced students have when the sweet spot is so small? They are more likely to select something too simple (a reference text like wikipedia or an news or popular magazine article) or too difficult (a scholarly article). I think of the sweet spot as characterized by smart, researched, extensive feature articles (e.g. in the New Yorker, Atlantic, Wired, etc.) or certain kinds of nonfiction texts/authors (e.g. Clay Shirky, Howard Rheingold, David Weinberger). And yes all my examples are tech-related by hopefully you get the idea. However, I think there can be a deeper problem in students not understanding the motives of research (beyond "you must cite five sources" or whatever). 

That leaves the third question regarding writing itself. The student's question here is "Why am I including this research?" In my experience, students develop a thesis and then go looking for research to support it. Disturbingly this process is sometimes built into their courses. How can you know what your argument is before you've done the research? Sigh. The result is that one goes looking for "quotes" that support one's claims. Indeed, there are larger questions of exigency and kairos with research papers. There are ways to discuss these issues in class, make them visible, but actually creating exigency is more difficult. Ulimately it falls upon the writer to discover a reason to write.

Looking at these three questions, I believe they are bound together by ethos. Not ethics in the sense of a morality of citation in the traditional prescriptive sense as it is often taught, but an understanding of the relations that develop in the network of composition (which includes the various elements of the course, as well as the writer and the texts s/he's read). Through these relations agency, affect, desire, and thought are developed. A state of interdependency adheres as well, and it is here that we enounter ethos. I would say that all relations include ethics, though perhaps not the ethics that we expect on a social level. 

As the Inside Higher Ed article suggests, part of the problem may be that students only skim the surface of the texts they research, looking expediently for a usable quotation. My initial response is to wonder if their own texts are read in a similar way–with a quick scan for surface errors. However, I believe an object-oriented response is more useful here. Here we might observe that all encounters are only ever with surfaces, with withdrawing objects. The construction of summary or critique or other forms of textual engagement valued by our community does not reflect going "deeper" into the text. Instead, it is a demonstrate of our ability to bring other objects (tools, methods, rhetorics, etc.) into the network of relations. A dead frog is just a dead frog. All I can see is its skin, unless I can use a dissecting kit to cut it apart, which doesn't get me any "deeper," it simply creates further surface relations. Even then, I'm just making a mess unless I can also bring some skill to the process and some knowledge. Only then am I dissecting the frog. I am still working with surfaces but I am constructing something more disciplinary because I am employing assemblages that help me to territorialize my enounter within biology. In other words, the compositional process that Latour discovers in the laboratory is not unlike the compositional process of constructing knowledge from research.

In the end, a research paper really demands the following:

  1. One has to have a question one really wants to answer.
  2. One has to have a reason for writing about what one discovers. There could be many reasons, starting with wanting to share one's new understanding with a particular audience.
  3. One requires access to and facility with a range of tools and methods (some abstract, some quite material) that participate in the construction of knowledge in the surface encounters with texts and other research materials.

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