Beyond Blame: Authority, Creativity, and Plagiarism in the Digital Age

April 17, 2009

Beyond Blame: Authority, Creativity, and Plagiarism in the Digital Age

Bard College

What if we approached the idea of what constitutes plagiarism from a different perspective? Students now have widespread access to vast quantities of information on the Internet, and many teachers see plagiarism as a fast-spreading, uncontrollable epidemic in schools, colleges and universities. Increasingly, schools are turning to software like to help monitor what students are presenting as their own work. Access to information is only going to increase, so rather than trying to police it, shouldn’t we consider a new approach and fresh problematization of the issues? 
At our annual conference, IWT invited teachers to think creatively about plagiarism and move towards a better understanding of the 21st century’s shifting definitions of creativity, originality, and authorship. Instead of starting from a negative premise of how to prevent undesired behavior, the conference  considered ways to reframe the issue:
How might questions surrounding ownership and writing present teachers with opportunities to create better assignments and provide occasions for productive conversations with students and colleagues?
As preoccupation with plagiarism is in fact a luxury not available to many schools—especially those struggling day-to-day to help students discover their voices and the world through writing—how might teachers there convey a sense of creative ownership, when getting students to feel comfortable putting pen to paper is first and foremost the goal? 
The conference began with a small group workshop focusing on plagiarism and the Internet, cultural differences in understanding and defining plagiarism, and new understandings of creativity. In the two workshops following the plenary session, participants wrote to articulate ideas and visions for a framework that might guide students to be owners of their own writing. An aim was to help teachers create more focused assignments connected to the texts, documents, and discussions used in class.
Plenary session panelists were:
Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, will introduce a plenary panel discussion inviting deeper reflection on the ethical, intellectual, and rhetorical dimensions of plagiarism with Ray Peterson, principal and English teacher at the Bard High School Early College, New York, Jane Cadwell, dean of academic affairs and English teacher, Phillips Exeter Academy, Margaret (“Ranny”) Bledsoe, principal, Charlestown High School, Boston, and Thomas Bartscherer, associate director, Language and Thinking Program at Bard. The panel considered a range of questions: What do we consider plagiarism, and why does it matter? What approaches to thinking about it have resulted in positive outcomes for students, teachers, and schools? How are notions of authority and authorship changing in the digital age?
Following discussion and lunch, small groups met again for two sessions in the afternoon.
For further exploration of the topic, participants were encouraged to read the following:

Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." The Atlantic Monthly July/August 2008

Malcolm Gladwell, "The Picture Problem: Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your  Life?” “Annals of Culture,” The New Yorker November 22, 2004.

Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Harper’s Magazine February 2007.

Richard A. Posner, The Little Book of Plagiarism. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007.



Conference Audio

Hear audio of the plenary panel.