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Changing the Citation Conversation

Rethinking the ways we talk to our students about plagiarism. 

November 25, 2018
 
 

Alexandra (AJ) Gold recently completed her PhD in English at Boston University. She currently teaches as a Preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program. Follow her on Twitter @agold258 or check out her website.

Plagiarism: the word loomed on my Fall syllabus like a dark cloud. I knew I had to address it and I understood the value in doing so, but I admit that I was absolutely dreading it. I thought back to previous classes — the way the students’ eyes glazed over in boredom or rolled around in their heads, certain they would indeed get stuck that way. I thought about my powerpoint presentation on different types of plagiarism, the unconscionably dull one adorned with inane memes I’d found online in a futile (read: desperate) attempt at humor.

If there’s one thing I learned while teaching in graduate school it’s that the only thing worse than dealing with plagiarism is talking about it. Inevitably, students (the ones still awake) will dutifully nod along. Yes, they understand plagiarism is wrong. Yes, they understand they must cite their sources. Yes, they understand that passing someone’s ideas off as their own, not just their words, constitutes a form of plagiarism. Yes, they get it all. Can they go now?

Spoiler alert: they don’t get it. Trust me, I’ve had my unfortunate share of incidents to prove it. No number of memes, it seems, is sufficient to save the students from themselves.

So with the dreaded plagiarism talk drawing ever nearer, I was determined to reinvent the way I handled the conversation. In particular, I decided not to approach the conversation from an angle of fear and punishment — the traditional “do this and I will find you out (or put your work through a machine) and you will pay” — but from one of agency and enrichment. That’s not to say I didn’t still emphasize the real risks that attend violating the Honor Code (I did) or that I entirely abandoned my beloved powerpoint (I didn’t), but that I made a conscious decision to shift the larger class conversation from one about the downsides of plagiarism to one about the rewarding work of citation.

To be fair, my course topic lent itself particularly well to this shift. My current class, which examines women’s narratives across different media genres, is fundamentally built around the idea of voice: whose voices are heard and heeded and whose are forgotten or silenced. As a result, it made perfect sense to frame the plagiarism conversation around a similar idea, finding an integral link between the course content and the mechanics of research and writing. I therefore decided that I would present the practice of citation as a conscious act of collating disparate voices and perspectives and of paying homage to those who had paved the intellectual paths before us.

In this quest, I relied on two essential guides, assigning both to students for that day’s class. The first was a lawsuit that African-Canadian poet and lawyer M. NourbeSe Philip filed against another artist who had used her erasure poem Zong! in an exhibit without proper citation. I asked students to browse the website and familiarize themselves with the facts of the case. The second was theorist and scholar Sara Ahmed’s indispensable 2017 book Living A Feminist Life — the very source that had inspired the way I now think about - and want students to think about — the role of citation in my and their scholarly work and lives. I assigned a few pages from early in her book that read in part:

In this book, I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men. By white men I am referring to an institution, as I explain in chapter 6. Instead, I cite those who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism and antiracism, including work that has been too quickly (in my view) cast aside or left behind, work that lays out other paths, paths we can call desire lines, created by not following the official paths laid out by disciplines. [...] My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before...Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings (15-16).

The goal was twofold. I wanted to emphasize not only that plagiarism is an issue that goes well beyond the confines of college or the academy and happens in the “real world” but also that the choices we make about citation — not just whether or not we cite but who we cite — matters (as Philip’s case further clarifies). My task was to transform the way students think about citation, framing it less as something students need to avoid in order to appease some abstract Honor Code than as something active, purposeful, and impactful. It was less about what students shouldn’t do than what they could do. There is, as Sara Ahmed stresses and I echoed, power and potential in citation. And while I don’t insist that students, like Ahmed, adopt a “strict citation policy,” I do exhort them to be much more conscious researchers and writers. We discuss this idea and what it might look like in practice at length.

Is this shift in conversation a panacea? No, certainly not.

I’m not naive enough to believe that it will entirely eliminate my students’ inclination or impulse to plagiarize, and indeed it hasn’t. I recognize that when students plagiarize they often do so not because they have some nefarious agenda but because they feel enormous pressure to succeed or are confused, uncertain, forgetful, exhausted, or pressed for time. But I am optimistic that at least some students walked away from the class feeling empowered as scholars and thinkers, that they began to see citation as a means of bringing different voices to bear on critical conversations from which they’ve been consciously or unconsciously excluded, and that they carried this knowledge to other classes and spaces where the representation of voices is not always equitable or even. Most simply, I wanted them to leave as active participants in an ongoing conversation about plagiarism and citation rather than as passive onlookers.

While I’m not advocating that you follow my path exactly or use the same sources, I do hope my approach is something you can draw on as you discuss citation in your own teaching. There are so many interesting examples of plagiarism in the real world (I’ve offered links above), and I encourage you to think about how you, too, might change your classroom conversations about plagiarism and citation in ways that are productive for your course and students. Changing my approach has undoubtedly made the “plagiarism talk” much more enjoyable and lively for both me and my students; it’s something I now look forward to rather than dread. And hey, if nothing else, it definitely beats another lame meme.

How have you approached the plagiarism and citation conversations in your classroom? Tell us in the comments below!

[Image by Flickr user Dickinson College Library and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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