I’m stealing an idea from The Happy Tutor here (though I can’t find the comment where he originally suggested it — help me with the cite, Phil?), and I hope it might make for a nice introduction to our first-year writing documented essay / research paper assignment.
Some background: as many writing teachers know, the documented essay on the topic of the student’s choosing (i.e., figure out what you want to write about, research it at the library, and support your argument with library sources) is often the easiest essay to plagiarize. In some syllabi, such a writing assignment is often placed unfortunately close to midterm exams, or — worse yet — at the end of the semester, offering stressed and desperate students yet more incentive to find ways to minimize their work. And yet it’s a genre that students need to learn if they’re to succeed academically.
Here’s one way to start. I ask students to read a couple brief sets of articles from a variety of rhetorical perspectives on a topic of of interest — topics this semester were school violence and standardized assessment — and talk about them as (Burkean) conversations. So they juxtapose Charlton Heston’s Denver NRA address with Gloria Steinem’s “Supremacy Crimes” with an article from an abnormal psychology journal on school violence in the context of Columbine, and evaluate the stances and rhetorical strategies of the articles; what gets said, who says it, and what’s not said. Then, the mission I ask them to undertake is to enter a conversation of their choosing, and to use library research to productively extend that conversation. Discussion of possible topics and angles follows, along with students’ preliminary writing charting the parameters of the already-existing discourse on the topic.
Here’s where it gets fun: after students’ small groups put some thoughts up on the board, we read through the Writing Program’s Statement on Plagiarism out loud, and discuss it, making sure everything’s clear about the policy.
And then I hold a plagiarism contest. I give students exactly five minutes to plagiarize their chosen topics as a wholly stolen essay using Google. (Yes, this is a computer lab assignment, but easily transferred to homework.) The assignment works like this: you’ve got five minutes to steal the first draft of your essay. Using Google, find and steal the three URLs (or, if you’re good, more) and copy and paste the relevant section of the document after the URL. Paste them all together into something that looks like a semi-logical sequence. Save your plagiarized first draft when I call time. For the last portion of class, perhaps twenty minutes or so, I ask students to massage what they plagiarized into semi-coherent essays, though those essays are obviously still not of their own composition.
In the following day’s class, I’ll ask them to revisit their pseudo-plagiarized texts, compose statements of how their own perspectives go beyond that of the texts, and work on using their own ideas and examples as transitions between the portions of supposed plagiarism, as well as putting together subordinating and connecting conjunctions for quotations. And from that, they’ve got the beginnings of an essay, as soon as they put in the citations, from which we’ll begin a discussion of academic originality.
What do you think?
What happens if you demand that students do the work of plagiarism up front, and then self-consciously foreground it?