DATE: April 21st, 2011
RESEARCH/WRITTEN BY:     Damian C. Koshnick                                          


I have always considered myself a conscientious teacher of composition. But for most of my career, I was too clever about the way in which I introduced plagiarism to my students. Because I have held adjunct positions at multiple universities, I have always been deliberate about finding and following departmental requirements for building and filing a syllabus. Often these guidelines prescribe, or even mandate particular language on plagiarism. Thinking back though, whatever form the text on my syllabus took, I had a constant spiel (as teachers do), a spoken script which I over-dubbed. During my spiel, I typically made little reference to the text. Instead, my introduction to plagiarism generally went something very much like the following:

Ok, lastly plagiarism! If you feel guilty you are probably plagiarizing [pause for laughter]. I used to think it didn’t exist in my courses, but over the years, I have gotten quite good at detecting it. So do so at your own risk. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask me, or others in the class. We will talk about plagiarism later. But, if I catch you plagiarizing, I am required to report you to the academic integrity committee; if you plagiarize you risk expulsion. You can find a detailed description of plagiarism and academic dishonesty at … [website].

After studying the literature on citation analysis, and subsequently on plagiarism with respect to composition studies, I have come to see this general introduction in a very negative way. Let me demonstrate what I hear now:

Ok, lastly plagiarism! [Unnecessarily Dismissive] If you feel guilty you are probably plagiarizing [Moral Issue]. I used to think it didn’t exist in my courses, but over the years, I have gotten quite good at detecting it [Negative Invitation]. So do so at your own risk [Threat]. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask me, or others in the class [Good Teaching]. We will talk about plagiarism later [False Promise]. But, if I catch you plagiarizing, I am required to report you to the academic integrity committee [Lie & Displacement of the Integrity of the Classroom]; if you plagiarize you risk expulsion [Legal Issue]. You can find a detailed description of plagiarism and academic dishonesty at … [Deflection].

Needless to say, I have come to recognize a considerable naivete with respect to plagiarism in my previous teaching. Given this poor introduction, and no particular follow up, I had met Kroll’s (1988) recognition that even while many colleges have very specific policies meant to avoid plagiarism, “someone still has to assume the task of explaining the nature and significance of plagiarism to students, as well as teaching them how to avoid committing it” (p. 213). Even while I had a deliberate, process-oriented pedagogy that shaped almost every aspect of my class, for a long time I continued to view plagiarism, as I would argue nearly all teachers do, through a “traditional” lens –it was a technical skill that involved knowing how to summarize, paraphrase and to follow the citation guidelines for quotation. In my previous reductionistic frame of thinking, I viewed plagiarism as either a moral decision (cheating), or as a simple lack of attention, on the student’s part, to find and follow some fairly basic structures for representing the influence of another text in a formal, academic manner. Needless to say, I did not give plagiarism much attention in my courses.

I have come to see plagiarism, as some (Swearingen, 1999) have referenced it, through the lens of a “contact zone” in Pratt’s (1994) sense –specifically as a social space “where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (p. 607). In this asymmetry, teachers typically have the power. In my own experience, although I willingly brandished the threat of the assumed cultural, moral, and legal implications of plagiarism as a convenient tool, as a teacher I was always confident that I was the gate-keeper, that I could deal with any form of plagiarism that came up in my class. And on the several occasions where I have seen fit to meet with a student who was clearly plagiarizing, they have typically been failing by other standards in my courses. What I intend to say here is that, in general, the “asymmetry” of power tends to favor the teacher. I think this experience is widely shared. That we can use the broader forces that stigmatize the word “plagiarism” in order to threaten our students not to do it, while concealing our own knowledge that reporting plagiarism is (on most campuses) at the teacher’s discretion. So that while, in many respects, we are living under the weight of the cultural and legal implications of plagiarism just like our students, we know that the classroom –our– classroom affords us leniency. Given this dynamic, it is little wonder that we, as teachers of composition may have been slow to revisit and do not feel particularly compelled to complicate this issue. Despite our noble and liberal aims, we know how rare it is to come upon a source of distinct power within an institutional setting.

This may seem a cynical way to start this narrative. But I have witnessed, over the years, many energized, inter-collegial stories about plagiarism exchanged between collegues in offices and hallways. They are, our, war-stories in a sense. We take great delight in them (at least after the fact). Even while most of us will go to great lengths (at least in the humanities) to meet with a student, to discuss and avoid such a heavy charge, there is a rush in the act of judgment, when all other means have been tried. But, composition teachers, like all others love a plagiarism story, if only temporarily, for the rush of judgment. Not long after, we focus in on the details of such stories. We want to know who did what when. We want to gather the facts, the clues, and the details. We take part in the crime, if there was one. And we will decipher many aspects of a story on plagiarism not necessarily because, in the end, we want to confirm our moral standing, but because –I would argue– that incidents of plagiarism afford us a view of the relationships between many factors that we would otherwise take for granted. As Wittgenstein (1953) said, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (p. 50). In this case, what is simple and familiar becomes, at least temporarily, less common. We see regularities infused, suddenly, with new meaning. We often recognize, in the end, that the complicating details of a particular case of plagiarism leads us less to some grand moral standing, and more toward some great conceptual thought experiment. “But what if she hadn’t given the paper to her friend who left it on the desk …,” “But what if he actually did forget that he had copied that line down several years ago, and …”. In fact, I recently exchanged such a “what if, although” dialogue with colleagues on the WPA list-serv.

In short, while plagiarism has always fascinated us, as a review of the literature reveals it was, largely up until the 1990’s, conspicuously sparse in professional composition studies literature. As Kroll (1988) noted, those articles that were present were largely about how to prevent, detect, or respond to students who cheated (Martin, 1971; Drum, 1986, etc.). This topic was, however, notably energized by the work of Howard, particularly with respect to her (Pentimento, 1993) characterization of “patchwriting,” and her later recommendation that we might benefit from rejecting the very word plagiarism (Textual, 2001) which evoked strong reaction in some.[1] Whitaker (2001), for example, responded that to reject the word would be to forgo the power we gain by having a name for it; this interestingly, was precisely the opposite of what Howard claimed –i.e. that the word was so full of metaphor and history that it has come to obscure more, in our culture, than it reveals. But my label strong for Whitaker’s response comes from her agnosiac reading of Howard’s article when she wished that, “Howard would acknowledge the possibility of a lack of academic integrity in some students’ appropriations of words” (p. 374). Howard completely acknowledged such activity, and Whitaker’s claim otherwise seems to suggest a defensive stance taken by some who know that they cannot completely discount the “construction” of plagiarism as a contextualized activity given our work in composition, but who simultaneously want to preserve the dominant view that, when it happens, it remains primarily a moral failing of students more than anything else.

I highlight this exchange which took place recently to point out that articles in our literature have perceptibly shifted, or at least are in the steady process of shifting, to an increased focus on the term plagiarism itself and the ways in which we can, and should define more refined perspectives as teachers. This ongoing shift in our literature is the exception rather than the norm; for if anything, the broader culture, and certainly representations in the media regularly describe plagiarism as an epidemic. There is nothing particularly new about this other than the fact that many worry about the internet, technological availability and the nearly instant reproducibility (cut/paste) of text (Devoss & Rosati, 2002) as a reason. Studies, though not conclusive, often show that the internet has not lead to such an epidemic (Scanlon, 2002). But it would be hard to convince many people otherwise.

But my interest here is on the classroom, and how we as teachers present and teach plagiarism to our students. And giving my introduction I, perhaps unsurprisingly, agree with Buranen’s (1999) view that plagiarism is certainly a “vastly more complex issue than we as teachers may recognize, and certainly far more complex than we customarily suggest to students” (p. 65). In fact, she captured my previous apathy, adding her view that:

too often, we tell students “Don’t do it,” and perhaps we give them some mechanical guidelines to follow, telling them where to put the commas and quotation marks, and maybe how to introduce quotes or paraphrases ‘According to …’ (or worse, simply pointing them in the general direction of a handbook). (p. 65)

Up until quite recently, most articles on citation focused on the students, and their culpability with regard to plagiarism. To turn our focus toward ourselves and the institutions in which we work represents a significant and uncommon shift in perspective. As of 1999, as Howard noted (Cultural, 2001), she and Buranen were “the first two books that theorize[d] the discursive construction of student plagiarism” (p. 475). Her third section in that “discursive-construction” publication Giants (1999) focuses on precisely that perspective-shift –i.e. looking toward the teacher/institution as the title indicates –Collaborators: How can we get out of this mess?

As a teacher of writing, I tend to agree with Howard (1995) and Price (2002) who point out, there are many reasons to assume that plagiarism is “inherently indefinable” (p. 473). And I agree with their pragmatic response, as teachers, to this dilemma. If definitions of plagiarism are at best socially-constructed and context-specific one of the most actionable responses is to engage directly with local constructions/definitions, and to confront the assumptions that define belief about plagiarism with our students. In separate articles, they both recommend engaging students in dialogue with the language of official documents that outline plagiarism at a given university. Based on my assessment that both Price and Howard are at the relative leading edge of this issue, I was fascinated with their solutions –specifically the exercises they proposed to enact better understanding in their classrooms. My interest was piqued for two reasons. First, because given my previous approach, there is room for improvement in my own instruction. But second, because even amidst these progressive voices who promote specific kinds of construction/deconstruction and dialogue on what most consider a punitive issue, there is yet room for improvement in the types of instruction we can offer. There is an important dialogic move that they have largely overlooked. Through the perspective that I have gained in my recent research in a parallel field –citation studies– I intend, here, to add to their excellent suggestions for improving the ways we address plagiarism with students in our classrooms. The level of detail with which citation studies treats “what is a citation?” has helped shape some of my thinking, and may be of use in this broader discussion.

Looking out from citation studies

Over the last several years, when I have tended to tell colleagues that I am doing research on “citation studies,” they do not necessarily understand what that entails. And before I set off on my accidental journey, I would have had no particular idea what that meant either. There is an assumption cued by the term “citation” that makes most of us assume that someone in “citation studies” must literally be studying the technical, textual forms that we, as teachers of writing, typically associate with APA and MLA formatting guides. Anecdotally, I have had several very thoughtful academic friends respond with a great sense of mocking, “Ooh, how exciting! You put the date there, the author name there, and no, in APA you put the period after that, but you do not …”.

But citation studies, as a particular branch of bibliometrics within the information sciences, is a fascinating field which uses these overt textual markers with which we are so familiar not as ends in themselves, but as symbols to investigate and measure the trajectory and structural histories of specific disciplines and knowledge domains. If gathered and organized by a schema, these citations-as-symbols can reveal patterns of information overlap and exchange between thousands of articles over time. The virtual structures of a field can be (re)constructed and visually represented for interpretation. Garfield’s (1960; 2000) work and subsequent development of HistCite, which is an online tool that has automated these procedures, is a perfect example.

However, others in citation studies use this same bibliographic data to analyze the associated content of the articles in which those citations are embedded. This is typically referred to as a “content” analysis of citations. And given a particular set of citations to a book over time, patterns in that content, once coded, can reveal the ways in which certain ideas and their authors have been put to “use,” generally valued, and described. My work has been with the latter, wherein, I tracked the uses and descriptions of one book, and its author in the citing literature over time. My ongoing work to interpret the content of 122 distinct citing articles has offered a unique set of data through which to interpret the perceived and applied contributions of that book and that author in the subsequent literature and within discursive intersections of the field itself.

It is my work in reviewing the literature on citation studies, and in coding and developing a method to make use of aggregated citation data from which I have come to some unique insights –held generally by those who study citations– that seem, now, applicable to the discussions on plagiarism discussed above. Before outlining the distinct connections between these two fields –composition studies on defining and teaching plagiarism, and citation studies on the rich, symbolic value of citations– let me share five distinct functions of a citation that will help to me to make my case. Some of these functions will be familiar to composition instructors; others, in their details will offer a unique perspective through which I will build my argument. Briefly, from an information scientist’s perspective citations function in at least five inter-related ways (Koshnick, 2010):

1. A citation and its associated “signaling content” can be studied as a textual unit with an integrity of its own. The formatting elements of a citation are generally embedded in content, with adjectives, reporting verbs, etc.

2. A citation symbolizes the cited work. The text, or wording of each “unit of expression” can be analyzed for its explicit and implicit methods of representing the cited work (Small, 1978).

3. A citation expresses a perspective on a particular topic. The content associated with each citation can be analyzed for its dominant rhetorical purpose.

4. A citation commits work to presupposed networks of knowledge. In citing a particular author, a writer is making a political decision to align, or deny association with a relevant figure in the field.

5. A citation corresponds to the writer’s intentions adding rhetorical conceptual weight to a claim, and reward value through which “credit for achievements is allocated” (Cozzens, 1989).


Although all of these functions are potentially relevant to this discussion, I want to highlight three in particular:

1. A citation and its associated “signaling content” can be studied as a textual unit with an integrity of its own. The formatting elements of a citation are generally embedded in content, with adjectives, reporting verbs, etc.

2. A citation symbolizes the cited work. The text, or wording of each “unit of expression” can be analyzed for its explicit and implicit methods of representing the cited work (Small, 1978).

5. A citation corresponds to the writer’s intentions adding rhetorical conceptual weight to a claim, and reward value through which “credit for achievements is allocated” (Cozzens, 1989).

Taken together, these functions reveal the fact that the final published form of a citation corresponds to not just to textual and ideational, but also to the symbolic, and political motivations and choices made by a citing author. Given my emphasis in the previous sentence, I intend to suggest here that for those of us who do teach the academic conventions of summary, paraphrasing, and quotation to our students, we primarily do so only within a limited range of the functions listed previously. Specifically, we tend to focus our attention, like most of the textbooks in our field, on the textual and ideational functions of a citation, but not the symbolic, nor the political functions –at least not with our students.

Citations as the symbols and political fodder for “authentic” academic exchange

When I first started studying citations in some detail, I was fortunate to immediately come across an article central to the field. Henry Small (1978) is cited as the researcher who first pointed out that referencing/citing is a form of symbol-making. This passage in particular, helped me gain critical insight into the way in which those in the field view citation:

In the tradition of scholarship, the references are the ‘sources’ which the author draws upon to give further meaning to his text. Reversing this view, as I am suggesting here, the author is imparting meaning to his ‘sources’ by citing them … Referencing viewed in this way is a labeling process. The language pointed to by the footnote number labels, or characterizes the document cited –or, in other words, constitutes the author’s interpretation of the cited work. In citing a document an author is creating its meaning, and this, I will argue, is a process of symbol-making. (Small, p. 328)

When we, as scholars and researchers write, we are certainly aware of this symbolizing action, though our most common perspective is to think about the way in which a citation either does, or does not correspond to the arguments/ideas, etc. of our own paper. Although we may edit, revise and thoroughly rework the scope and introductory phrasing of a citation, we usually do so amidst our purposes. But, for obvious reasons, a citation studies expert views citations typically through Small’s-reversal; it is precisely the way in which a citation gives meaning to the cited source, and not necessarily the writer’s citing article that is paramount.

While doing my own research in this respect, I found myself recording the details of a citation –documenting, for example, the manifest structure of a given citation alongside the proximal citation signals (or “units of expression” as I termed them). Without getting lost in technical details, I was also careful to document reporting verbs (when present). This created a series of entries that looked something like the following. In this example, Connors’ (2000) is citing Moffett’s (1968) book, Teaching the universe of discourse:

ArticleNumber Year Author Article length Location of citing page Title
C13:1 2000 Connors 96-128 110 The Erasure of the Sentence
 Content of citation:
The first exposition of this point was by James Moffett in his classic 1968 book Teaching the Universe of Discourse,

At this point, you may be anticipating my intent. By isolating the text of a citation and pulling it out of its context (at least temporarily) some of the symbolic and political commitments that we make come into sharper focus. As Bazerman (1993) neatly described it, citations are the “sites at which communal memory is sorted out and reproduced” (p. 20); but even more specifically, they are also the places at which we often label, refute, criticize, agree with, praise, etc. As academics we know, if often at a subconscious level, that citations are valuable sites where many of our commitments are made either with, or against each other. Put more generally, citations are not only the places where we reference the ideas of others, they are also the places where we describe those ideas and each other; these are the symbols of a field, and the fodder of academic exchange. This kind of material is rarely explicitly taught to our students when we cover summary, paraphrasing, and quotation. Why not?

Although the reporting verb in this example is not very descriptive, the content at the citation carried some other rhetorical markers such as first and classic.

Content of citation: The first exposition of this point was by James Moffett in his classic 1968 book Teaching the Universe of Discourse,

These kinds of politicized, rhetorical intentions are very rarely communicated to our students; and certainly the potential weight that even small descriptors can carry within a professional academic community is typically not explained. The primary method of teaching citation (and by obvious extension summary and paraphrasing) is to focus only on the ideational integrity of the material. As teachers, if we teach it at all, we are generally concerned about:

-their technical formatting of a citation

-note-taking: their skill in maintaining the integrity of the ideas associated with a source,

-and then in helping them to incorporate those ideas into their own work.

We rarely -if ever- mention the symbolic and political aspects of “academic” citations. If as Flower put it, “rhetoric and composition exist in a world of rhetorical purpose” (1988, p. 530), we are only teaching half of the rhetorical value of a citation to our students.

I propose that we teach these additional realms. These are some of the things that we, in the “expert” academic community truly value. The rhetoric of reward, the gritty realm of giving, or taking away academic authority from those that we cite. We should teach about the maintenance and integrity of ideas, but we should also move on to teach the inter-personal rhetoric. After all, the power of good academic writing, of insider academic writing requires that one focus on the relative, shifting perspectives, and the amount of power we decide to give to a “name” through the careful choice of words with which we introduce the source. As professionals, we are all too aware that our discourse communities do not just weigh and evaluate the value of a contribution based in the ideational realm, but also in the inter-personal realm, or the rhetoric of reward (Cozzens, 1989).

As an undergraduate, I was never given the opportunity to know that the people who published these ideas, were in fact people associated with contexts. Even more simply, I would have benefited from more explicit instruction about chronology, and how ideas are not “free radicals” but theoretically build upon each other, come in contact with each other, etc. Although Price (2002) did not explicitly recommend such an idea in her work, I think she would see value in the notion. I assume so based upon her recognition that:

As writing teachers, most of us (whether we are graduate students or faculty) have been in the water of academe for a while. Plagiarism is an area where students need access to our experience, not just the speakable rules of citation we know but also the more ineffable tendencies and conventions. (p. 110)

If we isolate and study the citations in whatever literature the students happen to be incorporating into their work, in many ways, the give and take –a great portion of the power associated with citation– becomes less ineffable; in fact, it can become, if we want it to, part of our discussion on the practices and purposes of citation. It would, of course, be unreasonable to assume that our students could familiarize themselves enough with a particular field of study to begin to set forth a hierarchy of theories and theorists in the span of a single quarter. There are forms of knowledge that only come through time in a field of study/discipline. However, simply humanizing the subject in this respect could, theoretically, help build cognitive and emotional bridges to material that is never as innocent as it seems. Published ideas, after all, are spoken in the public arena. Perhaps, as Price suggests above, we could impart some of our experience through simple story-telling. Perhaps too, there are exercises that would sharpen such interests.


Politicizing citations in the classroom: opportunities and challenges

In my opinion, even as professionals we under-value citation as an act of power. When we write and read scholarly work we tend to forget, or to only subconsciously process the judgments made in citations not just with respect to ideas, but also to and for the era from which a source was published, its chronological order as status-rendering, or the judgments we adhere to the motivations (even the character) of the published figures in a field. In a sort of Beireter/Scardemalia move, Hull and Rose (1989) explain that:

We academic writers internalize rules and strategies for citing source texts, for acknowledging debts to previous scholarship, for separating what we can claim as our own ideas from the intellectual property of others. And we do so, once we have learned the tricks of our trade, almost without thinking, producing essays that seem to mark clearly where other people’s ideas end and ours begin. Such clearly documented writing may let us forget, or even camouflage, how much more we borrow from existing texts, how much we depend upon membership in a community for our language, our voices, our very arguments.

As a result, addressing citations in this multi-dimensional manner would likely also heighten our sensitivity to the intent associated with them. But, perhaps, more importantly engaging with citations on this level conveys aspects of some of the most compelling and complex theoretical ideas of our time –discourse community, inter-textuality, the discursive nature of knowledge construction– in organic ways. No explicit instruction of any of these theories must attend to even a passing analysis of a citation. Of course not all citations are created equal. A great many of them are dull reportage, without much associated inflection, or intent. And yet, even dull citations carry with them meanings that can be undervalued. The example highlighted previous –first and classic– convey complex notions about how Connors’ was valuing that text.

A comparative discussion of the sorts of citation signal phrases used by students after they had drafted significant portions of their research essays could help them revisit the way that they had decided to convey evaluation, give status, etc. in their own work. My assumption is that many of them, most of the time would use familiar, stock phrases like “he noted,” or “she said,” perhaps “they argued,” etc. But a well-timed mini-lecture with examples, and one that incorporated discussions on the type of signal phrases that they had incorporated into their own work at the tail-end of a quarter would accomplish several things simultaneously. From a punitive perspective, for the purposes of this discussion, it would certainly convey to the students that I, as the instructor, was sensitive to their use of sources; it would convey a level of engagement that may give a potential plagiarist pause. But more importantly, it would treat the incorporation of sources as a meaning-making, power-giving, dialogic activity.

In a detailed article on the “closed” versus “open” rhetorical research and composing strategies of students Kantz (1990) noted that, “many students do not understand that facts are a kind of claim and are often used persuasively in so-called object writing to create an impression.” And, as Kantz continued, “students need to read source texts as arguments and to think about the rhetorical contexts in which they were written rather than to read them merely as a set of facts to be learned” (p. 78). By this assessment, it may not make sense to wait until the end of the composing process to introduced students to the ways in which citations, both through their rhetorical and their manifest markers, create windows into the contextualized nature of knowledge construction. The right kind of discussion, on this topic, could lead to improved reading strategies as students collect and begin to evaluate sources.

I am thinking, here, that even a discussion of chronological markers, the paratextual indicators of date and journal title do carry content that situates a work. As scholars we know this; as an undergraduate I did not. Given some of the research that I have done, I am thinking it could benefit students to give a presentation/discussion of the ways in which one book, or source, can be cited and described multiple times and for years within a specific community of scholars. I have, for example, created a pop-up chart organized by chronological, and journal markers that would give students a longitudinal view of the variable descriptions and uses of one book over forty years. Such a discussion would demonstrate the discursive nature of citations.


A brief return to Howard & Price

A great portion of such an approach to source identification/incorporation might counter-act the consistent notion that accuracy is the key to summarizing, paraphrasing and quotation (SPQ). I want to suggest that these SPQ research and reading tasks should never be taught as isolated skills to master; they almost always are.

I found it curious that particularly Price (2002), after having promoted a very progressive method of making an official plagiarism document a source of “dialogue” in the classroom, went on the describe innovative, but fairly non-dialogic methods of SPQ source evaluation. She described her method of incorporating official documents on plagiarism in the classroom thusly:

The policy [on plagiarism] that I hand out includes blank lines placed at strategic intervals with prompts for students to write in ideas or questions. After a statement such as “Plagiarism can be the result of using not only others’ words, but also their ideas,” students could be asked to fill in a statement that explains this concept to their own satisfaction, then to share it with the class. This exercise would encourage students to clarify these ideas. (p. 107)

So, this dialogic document on citation becomes a work-in-progress that Price intends keep open for discussion, as necessary, throughout the quarter. However, when it comes to more concrete practices that help students engage with sources (and therefore variously avoid plagiarism) Price’s subsequent exercises tended to return to more traditional assumptions, emphasizing note-taking and accuracy while teaching SPQ. Her additional pedagogical move was to, as she put it, also include work on “contextualizing” quotations:

Contextualizing a quote, as I explain to my students, means including information about (1) what a quote is saying (a paraphrase), (2) who is saying it, and (3) how it relates to the paper’s main point or purpose. (p. 107)

But this whole dynamic rests on the accuracy/incorporation model. Certainly accuracy and close-reading of sources is a valuable skill to promote, but if this is all we teach when we talk about SPQ, this fundamentally misrepresents the dynamic of earnest, “professional” research. This accuracy first, incorporation second model is a great place to start, but if this is the only way we approach the subject then we may be inadvertently over-emphasizing the unified authority of an individual text. The source becomes the focus, and the dialogue in as much as there is one is only between that source and the student’s paper. But would it not also make sense to take an additional step? Why don’t we teach summarizing and paraphrasing as a hierarchical exercise, whereby two sources in some relation to each other are summarized in an integrated manner? The move becomes less one of note-taking, and more one of dialogic representation –or capturing the imagined, interpretive spaces between multiple perspectives. Then no singular source is given too much authority. And it might be, in fact, conceptually easier for a student to incorporate such source work into their own research because they would intuitively recognize that all knowledge is dialogic, not authoritative. Accuracy in SPQ note-taking should be supplemented with dialogic representations. This seems much more in keeping with the kind of resource work that I do as a professional. This would, theoretically, emphasize the ways in which we frame and rhetorically situate our own work against and alongside others. Information by this frame is only valuable when introduced to some friction, or counter-force.

In an analysis of student motivation when explicitly taught to do open-ended research, Kantz (1990) noted, that the “complex indeterminacy of such a task may pose an intimidating challenge to students who have spent their lives summarizing main ideas and reporting facts” (p. 85). This would certainly be true too, if we added the additional burden of the rhetoric behind a hierarchy of chronological, or socio-conceptual ranking of sources. It would not be critical for students to perfect the subtleties of such cues; the key, however, would be to introduce them to the “units of expression,” the malleability of a “signal phrase” that introduces an author, and sets up the material of a quote. As a teacher, I would rather see some experimentation with bold language in source-attribution (even if inaccurate) –to forgo a bit of accuracy, for a gain in power.



In her work, Howard repeatedly suggests that the very skills that those of us in the academic-setting value, are the ones that we can teach to help students avoid plagiarism; and yet, we tend to under-sell these positive, teachable characteristics, in favor of a moralized, punitive, stand-alone frame. As she put it (Giants, 1999), “let us respond pedagogically to ignorance of citation systems” (p. 166). And as Bazerman (1997) demonstrated, citation is in fact a system. It developed over time through advances in science and the need for a society to organize and communicate those accumulations of knowledge in more precise ways. These systems are not entirely intuitive; they must be learned and maintained. By extension then, they should presumably be teachable. At the very least we must try to teach the explicit, and even as possible the more “ineffable” aspects of these systems that we are introducing to our undergraduate writers.

For years, I did not understand the way in which plagiarism is connected to issues far more interesting than a first-day warning and maybe some exercises on the differences between summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. As I was, most teachers of writing have been taught highly prescriptive methods for teaching citation. These are by and large practices that they would never attend to, nor replicate with respect to other aspects of their pedagogy in the writing classroom. Citation is like the vestigial tail of writing instruction; it has not received much attention. And certainly traditional notions of “process” teaching have not particularly changed the ways we tend to teach SPQ, nor by extension to explain how to avoid the misuse of sources.

There are many reasons for this, not least because teaching a course in writing is a very difficult thing to do in a typically condensed amount of time. There are real constraints, and not everything can be addressed in detail. But over time, I have come to see that the overt, textual features of a citation mask a highly complex and symbolic world that would fascinate these same teachers, and by extension our students, if they had occasion to reconsider their assumptions. But if plagiarism is ever to be a useful part of the classroom, it needs to be clearly woven into the larger fundamental interests of a class in writing. I am beginning to see how this might be possible.

I agree whole-heartedly now with Price (2002) who noted that “Far from being a one-day issue –the day the policy is handed out– plagiarism, attribution, and authorship should be an ongoing topic throughout the semester, to be revisited from many different angles” (p. 109). Given my argument above, I wonder if there is a similar intermediate method that we could employ for more than the textual, ideational realm, but also the political and symbolic realm. When Howard (Plagiarisms, 1995) talks about her notions of “patchwriting” she focuses on the cognitive demands of ideas. As she puts it:

Patchwriting, for example, though unacceptable for final-draft academic writing, is a technique that learners typically employ in their early encounters with unfamiliar discourse. Because patchwriting represents a blend of the learner’s words and phrases with those of the source, it is a valuable strategy for helping the learner appropriate and learn to understand unfamiliar words and ideas. (p. 801)

Maybe the same kind of intermediate step could be applied to improvement on not just the unfamiliar words and ideas, but also the world of unfamiliar symbolic and political posturing made in academia. The subtleties of language and “turns of phrase” while describing and introducing the authors, sources, and ideas we cite in our published work is, after all, at least half of the currency in professional discourse communities.

Concluding: Conceptual Outline of a Corresponding Exercise:

In Flower’s (1988) The construction of purpose in writing and reading, she theorizes about the construction of purpose based on her protocol-analysis data, her years of listening as authors speak aloud while constructing their texts.

In it, she mentions “miniature docu-dramas” where “readers are trying out alternative hypotheses about the text by assigning intentions, roles and statements not only to the writer, but to potential readers and to other people quoted in the text.” She calls these moments “docu-dramas” and they typically involved talking out multiple scenarios, or simulations. As she put it, the writer is asking: “If I interpreted the text his way, what would happen?” As she described it:

Creating scenarios is a rather complex problem-solving strategy. … These scenarios let readers do a difficult thing: they allow people to represent to themselves a complex logical and rhetorical situation in which there are a number of forces and constraints at work. Moreover, these forces or variables interact with each other –one interpretation only makes sense if two other points are true, unless, of course, there is another explanation for the first fact, and so on. (p. 545).

Such writer simulations could be applied to the way that we teach SPQ, especially if we ask students to take notes, to summarize and paraphrase while “weighing” their perspective between multiple sources at once. In such an exercise, we could ask students to compose multiple formulations wherein they would have to SP, or Q from at least two sources. The goal would be to help them write out complex, and competing notions in an integrated, hierarchically arranged manner. But they the writer would have to “shape” the material according to their interests, or to the topic of their paper. This dialogic mode of teaching would, if we constructed the assignment right, lead students to produce multiple dialogic summaries, or multiple options from which they could choose as they revised toward a final draft in their own work. In the inchoate phases, this exercise would be its own sort of specific kind of patchwriting –an intermediary stage with relaxed expectations on the way toward an improved final draft.


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[1] Prompting Welch (1996) to write in response that if reading “patchwriting” instructors “should gag” (p. 857).


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