Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Against Patchwriting

I've decided to confront the issue head-on, if only for the sake of clarity. So I'll just announce straight off that I am against patchwriting. I use that term in the sense coined by Rebecca Moore Howard: "copying from a source text and deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another" (Howard 1999: p. xviii). And when I say I'm against it I mean that I refuse to "celebrate" it as some writing instructors do:

Describing the textual strategies of Tanya, a student who in traditional pedagogy might be labeled "remedial," Glynda Hull and Mike Rose celebrate her patchwriting as a valuable stage toward becoming an authoritative academic writer: "we depend upon membership in a community for our language, our voices, our very arguments. We forget that we, like Tanya, continually appropriate each other's language to establish group membership, to grow, and to define ourselves in new ways, and that such appropriation is a fundamental part of language use, even as the appearance of our texts belies it" (152).

These and other studies describe patchwriting as a pedagogical opportunity, not a juridical problem. They recommend that teachers treat it as an important transitional strategy in the student's progress toward membership in a discourse community. To treat it negatively, as a "problem" to be "cured" or punished, would be to undermine its positive intellectual value, thereby obstructing rather than facilitating the learning process. (Howard 1995: 788-9)

I believe, in short, that patchwriting is a problem that should be addressed, even a disease that should be "cured", and in some cases a crime that should be "punished". Though I don't think it really is a "punishment", one simple technique here is to ensure that patchwritten work receives a lower grade. But this is where the "criminal element" comes in, because, like classical plagiarism, it is often not immediately apparent on the surface of the text. The first problem with patchwriting, like other kinds of plagiarism, is that it must be detected. Patchwriting conceals the relationship between one's own writing and the writing of others, and that alone should dampen any possible "celebration" of the student's accomplishment in this art.

The toleration—and encouragement, if that's what "celebrating" can be taken to imply—seems to be founded on a fundamental misunderstanding about scholarly writing, which is clearly on display in the passage I've quoted. It is simply not true that "we forget that we ... continually appropriate each other's language to establish group membership". Good scholars are constantly mindful of these acts of appropriation and therefore continually acknowledge their sources. There are acceptable ways of appropriating the work of others, namely, through paraphrase and quotation, always with adequate citation. There is no mystery (though there are of course a few subtleties) about how this is done, nor when it is done right.

I'll be writing about this in the weeks to come, mainly as a way of reflecting on the work of Rebecca Howard and Susan Blum, both of whom I've written about before. Like I say, I'm going to be taking a hard line on this, mainly in the interest of being clear. Let there be no doubt that I think patchwriting is a problem, and one we need to do something about. It is no more "an important transitional strategy" toward mastery of scholarly writing than any other form of plagiarism, nor does it have "positive intellectual value". True, like plagiarism in general, it does offer a "pedagogical opportunity", or what we also sometimes call a "teachable moment", but only in the sense that it provides an occasion to talk about intellectual honesty. Patchwriters are faking their linguistic competence, and they must be told that that is what they are doing, and that that is the opinion competent scholars form of them when they discover the real source of their language.

It's not, I should add, just a problem among students.

Update: it's not a coincidence that I'm returning to this subject today. Andrew Gelman had warned us that a post about this was "on deck" today. And sure enough: here it is.


Presskorn said...

This made me think, somewhat unrelated, whether or not patchwriting from *ones own* previous notes or prose, is a viable or recommedable strategy for producing texts? (This a just a question to question to the writing consultant or perhaps a suggestion for a future post)

This association of mine arose, since I just came from a Kant seminar, where a Kant scholar argued that the immense impression of unity that the Critique of Pure Reason gives might be something of an "illusion" and that it might rather be a "patchwork": There is some nachlass and historical evidence which suggests that Kant just scrambled together his notes from ten years, gave them a slight re-write, an edit and a hasty introduction. Et voila: Critique of Pure Reason.... The other critiques, however, were written more systematically once the framework (or patchwork!) of the first critique was secured.

PS: I should add that this thesis of the genesis of the first Critique is not uncontroversial. Other scholars loudly objected...

Thomas said...

In many ways self-patcherism (if you will) is my complaint against Zizek. And if it's true about the Critique of Pure Reason that does explain some things. Don't we think it could have been "thought through" and reduced to something like the Tractatus? Yes, that's what we think.

In general, discourse would be a lot more tolerable is there was an easily definable category of "serious" writing, consisting only originally and carefully composed representations of what authors actually think.

Anonymous said...

Thomas, how vivid is the boundary that separates self-plagiarism and auto-patcherism from acceptable behavior? As you address this in the coming posts, I'd like you to show the distinction -- if it exists -- between what one should refrain from doing and what may happen naturally in the writing process. Today I am thinking about the argument I am making in a paper and the next 5 or 6 paragraphs that I will write tomorrow. I am reading some prior work (and smiling at passages that I remain particularly proud of), recalling conversations and lecture notes on the subject, and otherwise mixing words, phrases, sentences, anecdotes, and explanations of my own device with "new-ish" insights. When I write tomorrow, how will I discern the line I must not cross?