Russell Hunt
St. Thomas University

Whose Silverware Is This?
Promoting Plagiarism through Pedagogy
(or, Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Purloined Passages)

[as published in Plagiarism: Prevention, Practice & Policy Conference 28-30 June 2004 Proceedings,
ed. Andy Peden Smith and Fiona Duggan (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Northumbria University Press, 2005), 265-274.]


A few weeks ago plagiarism was, yet again, headline news in Canada. This wasn't one of the frequent stories about how the Internet is a moral sinkhole and lazy, reprehensible students are cheating naive professors and teachers with impunity, nor about the most recent university adopting or setting up a plagiarism tribunal or an honour code. No, this was on the front page.

The premier of the Canadian province of Alberta, the populist conservative Ralph Klein, had tabled in the legislature a paper he'd submitted for a communications course he was taking at a local university. He'd offered it as support and elaboration for his most current political gaffe. He had made an unfortunate reference to the Pinochet regime in Chile -- saying it was evidence of his contention that socialism just gets you in trouble, that the Pinochet coup had been a reasonable response to a deteriorating situation. Unfortunately, plagiarism gets you into even more trouble than saying nice things about Pinochet and the fall of Allende. The university was quickly flooded with calls complaining that large portions of the paper were copied straight from the Internet. The media, of course, jumped with glee on the story of the respectable politician plagiarising a term paper. About five pages of the 13 page essay, the Edmonton Journal said (and many other media outlets repeated the charge -- often verbatim), were without "proper annotation to distinguish the premier's words from those of his sources." While the story conceded that "he followed his 'lifted' passages with the word Internet in parentheses," the paper reported that he "didn't provide a footnote that named or credited the websites he took the excerpts from." A day later, Klein explained: "I did the paper according to the instructions received, submitted my paper, it was marked by a university professor, end of story. What is the big deal?"

Klein's paper is titled "Allende, Pinochet and the Chilean Media," and it's pretty much what you might expect from a not particularly stellar fourth-year student. What is especially interesting here, however, is the way he's handled his "documentation."

The CBC quoted  a "science professor" at the University of Alberta as saying that "professors require more information about sources from students so that the credibility of the sources can be scrutinized," and observed that "On the last page of the report, the premier lists his sources, including 10 websites. Word for word passages from the essay are found on those sites and a count found 58.7 per cent of the lines in the essay are the same as those on the websites listed" (CBC Edmonton News, 13 May 2004).

Klein's practice will be familiar to nearly everyone who's asked undergraduates for research papers in the last decade. Under the heading "End Notes" at the bottom of his paper is a list notable primarily for its lack of information. It looked pretty much like this:

End Notes

Gilbert, Jorge. Reading File (RF). Athabasca University, Athabasca, Ab, 2000

Young, Gordon; Mobley, George. Chila-Republic on a shoestring, National Geographic, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 1973.

Internet Sources,ca

Other sources

Felicia, personal interview (PI), 2004

Soto, Diego, personal interview (PI), 2004

Unnamed diplomat, personal interview, (PI), 2004

There are in fact no notes in the body of the paper. At the end of paragraph nine is the laconic notation "(Internet)." This occurs again after two other paragraphs, apparently at random; there are also two notations of "(PI)" and one of "(RF)." There is no way to identify exactly what came from any particular source. In the list, as is often the case, Web sites are listed as bare URLs, with no indication of what they actually are: the two print sources are useless as listed; and the three "other sources" are indications that he'd interviewed someone.

Under some pressure, the school initiated an inquiry. As it turned out, Klein was eventually exonerated of the charge of plagiarism -- and his instructor of the implication that he'd been soft on intellectual crime. You could, it appeared, actually make connections between Klein's words and the listed sources. There was, the inquiry concluded, no intent to deceive. What there was, of course, was a complete and profound ignorance of what citation and quotation are for (beyond fending off accusations of plagiarism).

What is particularly important here is that Klein is just like most of my students. He differs, of course, in that he may be politically astute, and he's certainly politically powerful, and he clearly has at least some of the social moves that allow him to get along with a pretty wide spectrum of the electorate (well, yes, okay, it is the Alberta electorate . . .), but, like them, he's as far as you can imagine from being a member of the artificial society that we've constructed for our students (we call it "academia," but it's a peculiar version of the discourse community scholars inhabit ). Klein doesn't speak the language, he holds no currency. Maybe it's his first time around. It's not an unusual position for a student.

I remember running across a similar instance of this sort of cultural ignorance -- what the Romans called "barbarism" -- on a electronic list I regularly participate in, one for specialists in the eighteenth century, in the spring of 2000. The poster said, with some amazement, that she had a student who had "plagiarized from the textbook I had assigned to the class (the Norton Anthology of American Lit)."

It seemed to me utterly inconceivable that this student's notion of what she was doing had anything to do with something we might call "plagiarism." This was made even clearer in what the writer had to say about it:

my student . . . showed absolutely no remorse. When I told her I knew she had plagiarized every word she turned in as her own, she (an Ed major, graduating senior) said, matter-of-factly, "I know: I knew you expected a good paper, and I didn't have time to write one." (Barton, 2000)
This, I said when someone asked me about it at a conference, is someone who, after dinner, stands up and gathers up the silverware and puts it in her pocket as though it were hers. This is someone who doesn't know about ownership. This is someone from another culture.

What that student was doing, and what Ralph Klein was doing, was providing "a good paper." The whole question of "ownership of text" -- and especially the complex issue of how citations and quotations allow a reader to infer things about the writer's knowledge and understanding and ability to marshal and reformulate ideas -- is entirely foreign to both of them. (I had a student, many years ago, say, "But why should I rewrite it in my own words? The author's a much better writer than I am, and knows much more about the subject.")

What's the difference, after all, between those students and the reporters copying each other's paragraphs about Ralph Klein's plagiarism problems -- or between them and the social worker boilerplating a case report, or the lawyer cobbling together a set of precedents?

The difference, I would argue, is mainly a function of where the reader's focus is. As a reader, a teacher isn't using such a document in what we might call an instrumental way. She's not reading it to be informed about the role of the media in Chile, or the novels of William Faulkner -- or to make a decision about whether a welfare mom is going to get more support, or for deciding on the merit of a lawsuit. She's reading it entirely for evidence about the writer -- about her state of knowledge of the subject and about her skill as a writer. And however elaborately we construct simulations or pretexts, that's the sole function of that text, and deep back in their lizard brains both the writer and the reader know it.

We're usually not aware of this, because we tend to assume, being so firmly and deeply enculturated in the assumptions of academe, that producing text is pretty much always about demonstrating our expertise. But we need to remember -- and we hardly ever do -- that almost no one else in the world has such a view of text. The overwhelming majority of the non-fictional texts our students will have read consist of transplanted chunks of language from other sources. The authors of those texts -- newspaper and magazine articles, textbooks, popular factual books -- weren't in a position where the main point of the text was to demonstrate their own expertise; the point was to generate a text that gets done what needs to get done. You want a "good paper" on Chile, or Faulkner? Here's one.

Whether you're likely to have seen any replication of a phrase or an idea you've seen elsewhere as plagiarism or not is almost entirely a matter of the social relationship between writer and reader. Consider the phrase I used earlier: "doesn't speak the language. He holds no currency." It's a quotation from a Paul Simon song. I doubt that most people recognized it; even more, I doubt whether it would ever occur to anyone who did to think that I was plagiarizing: anyone who recognized the allusion would know it for such, mainly because you know what context the phrase occurs in -- a public venue, a text by an English professor, and one who's writing for an audience he expects to be engaged, knowledgeable, skeptical. The language event is what Thomas Harris (remember I'm OK, You're OK?) used to call an Adult-Adult one: we're equals, roughly.

But suppose a first year student did it? How many teachers -- of those who, in that case, took the text seriously enough to recognize the phrase -- would think that first year student likely to use a casual allusion in that way? Is it so unlikely that we might conclude that the student didn't know how recognizable the phrase was, ran across it in the liner notes to Graceland, and decided to appropriate it to her own use, to offer it, as the OED phrases it in its definition, "as one's own"?

Of course, anywhere but in a classroom, this would hardly matter. But the social situation in which class-based writing is written and read is a radically peculiar one, and the relationship between reader and writer, normally, is what Harris would have called Parent-Child. One of us has all the power, the other has none; one of us has virtually all the knowledge, the other is presumed to have far less; one of us knows a lot about the social situation we're in, the other doesn't. Or, maybe I should back off on that last one: my experience is that in academia almost no one reflects much on the social situation around student writing.

The fact that we don't think about that situation much allows us to assume, as we regularly do, that at bottom this is primarily a moral matter, a question of ethics. The language we use in talking about this issue (in my experience, 90% of the time) , assumes that plagiarism is cheating; that plagiarism and cheating are crimes, and should be punished, in part for the deterrent effect; that the most humane method of prevention is education as to what the crime consists of and how to avoid it and the least humane method is draconian warnings and "honor codes" to be signed (almost never in blood) at enrollment and weighted with horrific punishments. The following was posted to a composition teaching list in response to a plagiarism story:

To motivate my students to avoid plagiarism, I take students through a visualisation in which they have to imagine they are a student who has been caught plagiarising. I include concrete details of the whole process that they would have to go through (getting an official letter, being called to a meeting with the Academic Manager, being kicked out, having to explain to their parents why they had been kicked out...). Before the visualisation, I ask students to pay attention to the emotions and physical sensations that their imagined student would experience. Afterwards, we discuss those emotions and physical sensations, and how undesirable it would be to have to go through that stress and trauma. (Rachel Smith, November 2003)
My response to this, on that list, was to propose that we imagine working on fielding practice by inviting you to visualize how horrible it'll be when you make that three-run error in the bottom of the ninth, how everybody will laugh at you and your teammates will shun you and you'll be dropped from the team. That, I suggested, should certainly create inspired fielding.

More dispassionately, I'd like to raise a more general question: whether the focus on not plagiarizing (making it the subject of so powerful an aversion strategy -- and this one is hardly unique) doesn't actually redouble the focus on a model of education and learning that's really about testing and challenging rather than learning and creating.

I also wonder whether making "dishonesty" a central focus of a student's life is likely to make her more aware of the possibility, and even the attractions, of it . . . and, maybe even equally important, of the potential for scandalizing the establishment? If I took-- signed! -- "an oath" not to smoke, or engage in premarital sex, or shoplift, as part of my first week at university, guess what I'd be thinking about a few months later while I was having my nose pierced?

And finally, I wonder: doesn't asking students to focus first on the ownership of ideas and texts instantiate a profoundly static, accumulative, building-block notion of what knowledge is (what Paolo Freire called "the banking model" of education), and one that supports a sort of neo-capitalist notion of scholarship?

There's another reason I'm hesitant about making the issue of integrity central here. Our thoughtless equation of plagiarism with cheating and dishonesty puts all of us in a position that's not very useful. I think we need to make, and hold to, a firm distinction -- one the media never makes, and academia almost never -- between "cheating" and "plagiarism." When we talk about these phenomena, the two terms tend to be conflated, and discussions of "plagiarism" often include, or merge into, lamentations about the increasing frequency of clever forms of cheating -- pagers in the exam room, answers in the lining of ball caps or recorded in the cassettes or CDs playing in the Walkman.

But this, of course, is not plagiarism. In general, these are ways of extending the technology of memory. Is it a great deal different to memorize a few hundred lines than it is to write them in your hat, or burn them onto a CD? Memorizing wouldn't be called cheating, of course, but perhaps it should be. And it's important to bear in mind that what's memorized probably will last a shorter time than the CD -- or even, maybe, the notes in the hat.

It's important, then, not only to recognize that not all cheating is appropriation of text. It's even more important to see that only an extremely small proportion of the text appropriating that actually occurs is cheating. The more common instances of what gets called "plagiarism" -- almost exclusively, in the production of term papers, research essays, etc. -- are mostly matters of ignorance rather than the deliberate, "let's buy this term paper" dishonesty that we see reported in the newspapers (even when, as in Ralph Klein's case, that's not what actually happened).

In the world beyond the campus, as James Kincaid pointed out five years ago in a brilliant New Yorker piece about this phenomenon, it's pretty rare for anyone to call such replication of existing text plagiarism. In most cases, as Kincaid says, it's a perfectly normal way of proceeding. Newspaper writers and editors "boilerplate in" paragraphs lifted from the AP or Reuters wire and produce stories which are pastiches of other stories; repeat explanatory paragraphs for the sixth time (how many ways, after all, are there to remind the readers who Ralph Klein is, and why would we ask a reporter to come up with a new one?) and so forth. And in cases where writing isn't published (as, after all, most isn't), one might guess that 80% of what gets put down in businesses and bureaucracies is copied in from elsewhere -- and certainly the ease of copying and pasting the computer makes possible will not have lowered that proportion.

My own intellectual and professional life is full of what might well be called "plagiarism" in an undergraduate's work. What I'm saying right now isn't "mine," exactly; I've been stealing ideas about ownership of ideas from colleagues and friends for years, and if I acknowledge someone -- like Karen Burke LeFevre, who wrote a book called Invention as a Social Act -- it's not because I have to pay Karen obeisance or protect myself from charges that I really stole the idea that writing, at its root and beginning, is social, or avoid somehow depriving Karen of something. It's because I want to parade the fact that I know her work, and tell others about it. Her effect on what I say and think is there even when I don't acknowledge her. So how is it that we think our students have to accept a bizarrely high standard of conscious acknowledgment that nobody else accepts? Because we're only thinking of them as demonstrating what they know, rather than telling us something we need to hear. Oh, yes, I know that this issue is really all about their copying from published sources and passing it off as their own work . . . but I think all of it is very much a consequence of a situation in which we make that kind of thing possible and even unavoidable, by asking questions which we know, and they know, have already been answered, better, by others.

Further, and more important, the bizarre modern (and, it's arguable, narrowly Western) emphasis on "originality" in utterances runs counter to most language practice. It's not only Bakhtin who's pointed out that most of what we say is put together from scraps and rags of other people's utterances. This is perhaps the most radical part of the argument against the hysteria over plagiarism.

It's easy to say that "everybody knows" what plagiarism is; unfortunately, there's lots of evidence to suggest some pretty deep-seated confusion, among scholars, faculty, administrations, and students, about what's happening when people engage in the interchange and exchange of ideas that is the lifeblood of academia.

Here's a diagram which I offer as a way of thinking about the situation of discourse and the distinctions among "cheating," "plagiarism," and ordinary discourse.

I've offered there some illustrative examples of each -- except what I've called "normal discourse," since I assume in that case everyone can supply her own. The crucial point here is that the categories overlap: there are times when plagiarism is clearly cheating on the same order as copying answers on a test. The typical occurrence is the purchased term paper -- or, in the "good old days," the one retrieved from the frat house files. Similarly, there are times when plagiarism and normal discourse overlap. The usual classroom lecture or textbook chapter, for instance, is full of ideas and phrases which owe their origins to others -- and which, were they in a student paper, we'd probably insist be "acknowledged" or "documented" or "cited" -- but which, in such situations, we take it for granted are more like the usual discourse all of us engage in and so don't need to follow some abstract rule of attribution.

Typically -- indeed, almost universally -- the plagiarism which is the subject of ominous and threatening pronouncements in university calendars happens when the student turns in an "essay," a "research paper," a "term paper" -- and we find in it those telltale rhetorical moves that signal, "this writing was not produced by an undergraduate doing an assignment." And we tend to react like this:

Stopped by Plagiarism, on a Snowy Evening

Whose words these are I think I know
(They're surely not this student's, though).
Apparently his time's too dear,
And composition far too slow.

The little jerk may think it queer
That I would have a problem here
And ask for work that's sure to break
His comfortable routine this year.

Another painful call to make
To ask if there is some mistake.
Will he deny, or maybe weep,
And threaten then his life to take?

This unclean harvest I must reap
For I have deadlines I must keep;
And piles to grade before I sleep,
And piles to grade before I sleep.

-- Dallas Sommers (Posted on "C18-L" by Susan Sommers, St. Vincent College, 26 November 2001)

That was posted to an email list concerned with the study of the eighteenth century, after a Thanksgiving weekend which the list member had spent marking papers. Her husband wrote it while watching her suffer through the "English teacher's burden" -- the endless grading of piles of paper. It's clever, even brilliant, as a parody of the Frost poem, and it made me laugh out loud when it was posted. But it's also an example of a mindset I think unfortunate, one all of us tend, at times at least, to bring with us to student work (clearest in the phrase "the little jerk").

Anyone will be able to call to mind instances where teachers have triumphantly -- and, of course, with profound regret -- caught the plagiarist with her hand in the cookie jar . . . but where the student seemed to have thought the cookie jar was a serving plate.

It seems to me that this fundamental miscommunication is pretty central to our mission as teachers. These days I spend much of my time as a teacher working on helping students understand how text works, when texts "belong" to someone and when they don't, what the point of using sources is, and how to weave someone else's language into your own voice. I spent two or three decades as a teacher ignoring the fact that students didn't know this, though. I now think that very often what I was actually doing -- what our profession is regularly doing -- was punishing people for not knowing what it's our job to help them learn.

This is a central characteristic of what might be termed the institutional writing environment -- the sort of thing characterized by the "research paper," the "literary essay," the "term paper." Our reliance on these forms as ways of assessing student skills and knowledge has been increasingly questioned by people who are concerned with how learning and assessment take place and how they can be fostered -- and particularly with how the ability to manipulate written language ("literacy") is developed. The assumption that a student's learning is accurately and readily tested by her ability to produce, in a completely arhetorical situation, an artificial form that she'll never have to write again once she's survived formal education, is questionable on the face of it, and is increasingly untenable. I've argued elsewhere that if the fact that it's almost impossible to escape the mass-produced and purchased term paper leads teachers to create more imaginative, and rhetorically sound, writing situations in their classes, the advent of the easily-purchased paper from is a salutary challenge to practices which ought to be challenged.

But effective, workable responses to this challenge -- whether you see it as purely a matter of pedagogy or as a way to make plagiarism less attractive -- aren't all that easy to find, or implement. The usual suggestions don't in fact change the actual underlying rhetorical situation. I'm not convinced, for instance, that it's of much use to assure students that "they are real writers with meaningful and important things to say," or to invite them to revise their work where we can see the revisions. We still haven't changed that fundamental situation, and thus we're really continuing to give them what are, and are usually treated as, decontextualized and audienceless writing exercises. I would argue that having something to say is -- for anybody except, maybe, a Romantic poet -- absolutely indistinguishable from having someone to say it to, and an authentic reason for saying it. Without the latter, we can't give them the former. To address this problem, I believe, we need to rethink the position of writing in student's lives and in the curriculum. And it's not a trivial observation that one strong pressure to do that is the increasing likelihood that empty exercises can be fulfilled by perfunctory patch-written or entirely borrowed texts.

The existing situation, of course, is pretty resistant to change. One reason lies in the institutional structures around grades and certification. University itself, as our profession and our society has structured it, is the most effective possible situation for encouraging taking shortcuts to produce texts that serve the immediate purpose (the purpose being to get a grade and certification). If I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, or improve my golf swing, or write HTML, such shortcuts would be the last thing that would ever occur to me. They would be utterly irrelevant to the situation. On the other hand, if what I wanted were a certificate saying that I could pick a jig, play a round in under 80, or produce a slick Web page -- and never expected actually to perform the activity in question -- I might well consider pasting in someone else's text. And as I weighed alternatives I would consider it primarily a moral problem. That is the situation we've built for our students: a system in which the only incentives or motives anyone cares about are marks, credits, and certificates. We're not entirely responsible for that -- government policies which have tilted financial responsibility for education increasingly toward the students and their families have helped a lot. But the crucial factor has been our continued and almost universal assumption, as a profession, that the only motivation we can ever count on is what is built into the certification process. When students say -- as they regularly do -- "why should I do this if it's not marked?" or "why should I do this well if it's not graded?" or even "I understand that I should do this, but you're not marking it, and my other professors are marking what I do for them," they're saying exactly what educational institutions have been highly successful at teaching them to say. And when we ask, "how can I expect students to do good work if it's not graded?" we're participating in the maintenance of that situation.

They're learning exactly the same thing, with a different spin, when we tell them -- by asking them to sign academic integrity pledges -- that plagiarism is a moral issue. We're saying that the only reason you might choose not to do it is a moral one. But think about it: if you wanted to build a deck and were taking a class to learn how to do it, your decision not to cheat would not be based on moral considerations.

There's an even more important issue here, though, and it has to do with the model of knowledge held by almost all students, and by many faculty. We tacitly assume that knowledge is stored information and that skills are isolated, asocial faculties. When we judge essays by what they "contain" and how logically it's organized (and how grammatically it's presented) we miss the most important fact about written texts -- which is that they are rhetorical moves in scholarly and social enterprises. In recent years there have been periodic assaults on what Paolo Freire (1974) called "the banking model" of education (and what, more recently, Tom Marino has often referred to as "educational bulimics"). Partisans of active learning, of problem- and project-based learning, of cooperative learning, and of many other "radical" educational initiatives, all tell us that information and ideas are not inert masses to be shifted and copied in much the way two computers exchange packages of information, but rather need to be continuously reformatted, reconstituted, restructured, and exchanged in new forms, not only as learning processes but as the social basis of the intellectual enterprise. A model of the educational enterprise which presumes that knowledge comes in packages (one that is reinforced by marking systems which say you can get "73%" of Renaissance literature or "51%" of introductory organic chemistry) invites learners to import pre-packaged nuggets of information into their texts -- and into their minds.

Similarly, a model which assumes that a skill like "writing the academic essay" can be demonstrated on demand, quite apart from any authentic rhetorical situation, actual question, or expectation of effect, virtually prohibits students from recognizing that all writing is shaped by rhetorical context and situation, and thus renders them tone-deaf to the shifts in register and diction which make so much transplanted undergraduate text instantly recognizable. (The best documentation of the strangely arhetorical situation in which student writing lives is in the work done as part of the extensive study of school-based and workplace writing by Dias, Freedman, Paré and Medway and their team at McGill and Carleton Universities, reported in Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts).

The good news, I believe, is that by facing the challenge of this situation we might be forced to help our students learn what I believe to be the most important thing they can learn at university. That is just how the intellectual enterprise of scholarship and research really works.

Scholars -- writers generally -- use citations for many things: they establish their own bona fides and currency, they advertise their allegiances, they bring the work of others to the attention of their readers, they assert ties of collegiality, they exemplify contending positions or define nuances of difference among competing theories or ideas. They do not use them to defend themselves against allegations of plagiarism.

The clearest difference between the way undergraduate students, writing essays, cite and quote and the way scholars and others do it in public may be stated this way: typically, the scholars are achieving something positive with real readers; the students are avoiding something negative with fake ones.

It seems clear the conclusion we're driven to is this: instituting "honour codes" and inviting students to sit on Honour Councils, offering lessons and courses and workshops on "avoiding plagiarism" -- indeed, posing plagiarism as a problem at all -- begins at the wrong end of the stick. It might usefully be analogized to looking for a good way to teach the infield fly rule to people who have no clear idea what baseball is. What we need to do is get a game up.

It's often argued that people need "practice" and that that's what school provides. Batting practice, fielder's choice practice, bunting and pitching and baserunning practice -- and that school, by definition, can't provide a real game. So school writing is always and invariably stuck in the rhetorical situation I've been describing. We should, then, be happy to provide the mere practice the potential players need before the play in a real game begins.

But I think something important is lost here. All those folks working away at spring training know what playing baseball is. All the kids hanging round the sandlot with the fielding coach know what it is to win, to lose, to drop a grounder in a late inning with two on and two out.

Coming back to the classroom, I would argue that our students (mine, at least) have never set foot on the field. And I think there are lots of ways to get them out there and give them the experience that will put them in a position to understand what it's like to write for a real audience, and to want to offer that audience the fruits of their research.

Explaining that citation and quotation are necessary -- even more, that, done right, they're powerful social moves that can serve important ends, and even beyond that that they're a central component of the social fabric that makes up the entire intellectual enterprise -- is like explaining any other complex, internalized social structure. It's COIK -- comprehensible only if known. If you don't live in the culture, you won't get it. You'll be a Ralph Klein in the academic china shop, you'll be that barbarian with the guilty silverware in your pocket.

So it seems to me this is the challenge and the opportunity. How can we build, within the structures of the existing educational situation (which are, I have to concede, largely beyond our power to change, at least in time to do our students any good) a context which affords the kind of learning and development our students need?

For reasons quite disconnected from the current panic over plagiarism, I've spent a good chunk of my career banging my teaching against my theoretical conviction that my students need to live in a culture where serious inquiry and committed, engaged knowledge creation and exchange is going on, and where written language is the fundamental medium of exchange.

A byproduct of such a community would be that plagiarism would become a very different, and a radically smaller, problem. The bad news is, of course, is that it ain't easy. The good news is that you don't have to change the whole system; that, with difficulty, it's possible to create a local situation in which writing serves authentic social and real academic purposes at the same time. I'd like to offer a couple of examples, not as recipes, but as ways of rendering more concrete my assertion that we can radically rethink, and redesign, how writing is used in educational contexts.

One of the fundamental principles is to make the writing public -- to avoid the kind of secret binary communication between student and "teacher as examiner," as Jimmy Britton used to call that reader, that currently characterizes virtually all school writing. Another is that the writing should call upon the writer's knowledge and understanding and should allow the writer to believe that the reader doesn't already know and understand what she has to say. It should give the author authority, in other words.

In our first year Aquinas Program, one of the explicit, stated goals of the year-long course is to initiate students into academic culture. This goal can of course be read in many ways; it's probably not difficult to predict how we read it. Another is to give the students an introduction to writing for academic purposes.

One of the ways we address these challenges is through what we call "Occasions." During each term, students need to attend a minimum number of on-campus or cultural events (lectures, gallery openings, plays, concerts, seminars), and write a public reflection on their attendance. For the Occasion to count for anyone, a minimum number of other students must also attend, and also write public reflections (last year it was six). Further, in order for the occasion to count for you, you have to write a non-trivial response to the reflections of two other attenders. This writing is made public either by being posted on large bulletin boards around the classroom, or by being posted on a Web-based discussion board.

A second method is what we've called "feasibility studies." One of the features of this interdisciplinary three-course program is an extended exploration, by groups of 4-6 students, of a historical (at any rate, non-current) episode or event in which people's beliefs were challenged or changed. After identifying a range of possibilities, small "feasibility groups" are formed whose job it is to take one of the candidate episodes and do a preliminary exploration of whether it would be a worthwhile and practicable focus for a longer investigation. Will understanding kamikaze pilots help us more thoroughly to understand, in the words of our focal question, "how people come to believe what they do?" Are there sufficient resources to support an extended investigation of the Damascus Affair? Are there conflicting beliefs implicated in the social context of the Lourdes apparitions? The group works individually and prepares a summary report, for the rest of the class. On the basis of these reports the class makes a decision on a number of foci -- about which people will be grouped at random for a longer investigation. I hope it's clear how rich an opportunity this creates for students to grasp the power of being able to bring in, and identify, external authorities and resources, and how powerfully it supports the development of a repertoire of rhetorical strategies for placing other texts within your own.

The fact that there's no room, or motive, for plagiarism in these situations seems to me by far the least important of the benefits of engaging students in them. The situations have been created not in order to prevent plagiarism, but to afford the kind of learning which I would argue is the most important kind we can offer our students: the ability to move into new cultures of literacy, to use the miraculous tool that literacy affords, not only for thinking and learning, but for being in the social worlds that matter to us.


Barton, Carol. "Re: plagiarism policies," 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion, 24 May 2000. Online: <>

Dias, Patrick, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Paré. Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1999.

Edmonton CBC News. "Klein essay raises questions: academics." 13 May 2004. Online: <>

Harris, Thomas Anthony. I'm OK, you're OK. New York: Avon, 1969.

Kincaid, James R. "Purloined letters." The New Yorker 72:43 (20 January 1997): 93 ff. [Available online, on Ted Nellen's "Cyber English" Web site, at ]

Klein, Ralph. "Allende, Pinochet and the Chilean Media." TERM PAPER CMNS-402 Online: <>

Le Fevre, Karen Burke. Invention As a Social Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Marino, Thomas A. "Learning Online: One Year Later." National Teaching and Learning Forum 10:6 (October 2001). Online: < >

Smith, Rachel. "Re: another plagiarism story." Teaching Composition, 19 Nov 2003. Online: <>

Sommers, Susan. "It's that time of year again..." 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion, 26 November 2001. Online: <>