Friday, September 26, 2014

Patchwriting 2: Definition and Policy Proposal

As I understand it, Rebecca Moore Howard would prefer that we dropped the notion of plagiarism from our vocabularies for talking about academic writing. Her most forceful argument appears to be a 2000 piece in College English, in which she says plagiarism is an inherently sexual and sexist notion. You can get a pretty good sense of her (more moderate) views on patchwriting and plagiarism by watching the videos on her website. And here is the patchwriting section of the plagiarism policy she proposed in 1995:

Writing passages that are not copied exactly but that have nevertheless been borrowed from another source, with some changes—a practice which The Bedford Handbook for Writers calls "paraphrasing the source's language too closely". This "patchwriting" is plagiarism regardless of whether one supplies footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical notes that acknowledge the source. However, patchwriting is not always a form of academic dishonesty; it is not always committed by immoral writers. Often it is a form of writing that learners employ when they are unfamiliar with the words and ideas about which they are writing. In this situation, patchwriting can actually help the learner begin to understand the unfamiliar material. Yet it is a transitional writing form; it is never acceptable for final-draft academic writing, for it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source from which he or she is patchwriting. Because patchwriting can result from a student's inexperience with conventions of academic writing, instruction in quotation and source attribution and a request for subsequent revision of the paper may be an appropriate response for the instructor. But because patchwriting often results from a student's unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text, instruction in the material discussed in the source and a request for subsequent revision of the paper is even more frequently the appropriate response. Patchwriting can also be the result of a student's intent to deceive, in which case the minimum penalty is an "F" in the course and the maximum penalty, suspension from the university. (Howard 1995: 799-800)

On the plus side, it's good to see that she characterizes it as a form of plagiarism and says that it is "never acceptable in final-draft academic writing". That is, she does not suggest a lowering of the bar. But I'm uneasy about the decisive role she assigns to intention. Not only does she allow that it is "not always a form of academic dishonesty", she proposes severe penalties only in cases where the "intent to deceive" is present. There are at least two problems with this. The first is that intent is notoriously difficult to prove. The second is that if patchwriting is what Howard says it is, then it is, actually, always deceptive. Let me explain why I say that.

Howard tells us that patchwriting is a way students deal with their "unfamiliarity with the words and ideas of a source text". Indeed, she says that "it demonstrates that the writer does not fully understand the source". Obviously, however, it can only "demonstrate" something if is caught by the teacher. Until then, patchwriting actually fakes familiarity with the words and ideas of the source. In other words, patchwriting is done with the intention of deceiving the reader about the linguistic and intellectual competence of the writer. For this reason I think it is very important to call it plagiarism. The student must be told that what they have done is more like cheating than it is like learning. In the end, I don't think patchwriting can help the learner even to begin to understand difficult notions. All it does is to open the possibility of getting away with one's ignorance.

It gives the teacher a lot of unnecessary work to do, treating students who are taking an easy way out, half-hoping to get away with it, as though they just well-intentioned learners. Students must understand that a certain amount of care is required of them. Under those conditions, catching only the odd patchwriter/plagiarist will suffice. They have to realize that it's much better to use a concept in their own perhaps misunderstood way than to "patch" in a sentence or phrase that (presumably) uses it correctly but for no reason the student is aware of.

Next week I'm going to present an example of patchwriting by a high-profile academic that appears in a widely used textbook. I'm going to be very curious to hear what my readers think of it, i.e., how bad it is.


Jonathan said...

I've read most of Howard's article. How profoundly stupid. The word plagiarism is tainted by sexual metaphors, so let's use different words, like fraud. If I found that sexist writers in the past had associated fraud, repetition, or whatever word she wants to use with femininity then those words would be tainted too. At once point, she says she doesn't like "cheating." Isn't she aware that the that term is tainted by its sexual connotations too?

Thomas said...

The article surprised me. Most of what Howard writes is much more reasonable, if still to my mind wrong. I found that article because of her own references to it in pieces where she expresses indignation at those who ridiculed her views. See this one, for example. Here she talks about "a 2000 College English article, one in which I argued that the discourse of plagiarism participates in the discourse of compulsory heterosexuality, seemed to variously intrigue and bewilder my colleagues in composition and rhetoric, who responded with varying degrees of skepticism and who then, to all appearances, forgot about it. / Or would have, had it not been for the public media." It seems Jonah Goldberg and Tucker Carlson found it ridiculous too.

She says that they misunderstood her, and implies that they had an interest in doing so, but she doesn't quite say where, especially Goldberg, got her wrong, or whether she still feels her analysis is basically right. In what I quoted, she hints that the piece is perhaps better "forgotten", which suggests that it's just an idea she was trying out and would prefer not to talk about anymore. For my part, I find her argument completely unconvincing. If she has a case for dropping the idea of plagiarism from our assessment of student writing, it has to be found in her work on patchwriting. The gender politics argument doesn't work for me at all, and (as she discovered) makes her position a bit harder to defend, because it suggests that her issues with plagiarism come from a somewhat strange place.

I think I would also have responded like her colleagues back then, i.e.,
with a degree of skepticism and, yes, bewilderment. (Especially if I had been moving towards her patchwriting argument at the time.) I'm not at all surprised at the media's reaction. I think she opened herself up to a number of perfectly clean jabs from Goldberg. I can't really figure out why she did.

Jonathan said...

It's interesting, because there are antiintellectuals who will ridicule people like Howard, but there are also times when the anti-intellectuals happen to be correct. Composition and rhetoric can be a "bullshit field" when it applies concepts from literary theory that it doesn't really understand, with predictably disastrous results.

For example, Howard's misuse of Harold Bloom. Or the idea that, if true originality is impossible, then we can't define plagiarism any more. The mistaken notion that if we ask experts to define something in their own field in a theoretical way, and differences emerge, that means that there is no consensual definition. What that means, for me, is that experts simply like to problematize definitions and over-think things a bit when asked to do so. The terms she suggests, like "fraud," are probably just as hard to define.

Thomas said...

Yes, especially since she wants some categories of (the transgression formerly known as) plagiarism to be define by intention. I've never found the concept of plagiarism very hard to define. The main problems arise when someone of presumably high integrity gets caught doing it, and then doesn't just want to own the mistake. That's when the experts usually rush in and help by "problematizing" what plagiarism even is.

Which bizarrely even happened with Zizek's double plagiary--using something he though was written by a friend as his own not knowing his friend had copy-pasted it from a published text. Predictably his defenders started talking about "the very idea of authorship".

Howard seems to be doing something similar, but for her students. Much as I hate to say it, Tucker Carlson isn't totally wrong when says he's there's a bit of an "apologist" in Howard.

As I said in my post earlier today, the cases that worry her seem cut and dried to me. They don't draw our definitions of plagiarism into question at all.