If I Was a Master Thief III

24 May

dylanwoody (In Part I, instances of plagiarism in Dylan’s most recent works were discussed, plus the common practice of appropriation in the blues, folk, and jazz traditions, along with findings of similar thefts in the literary tradition. With help from Richard F. Thomas, Jonathan Lethem, and Lawrence Lessig, an examination of appropriation’s crucial role in creativity was introduced, preparing for later explorations of how to reconcile these methods with the ways writing is taught.Part II looked what Lessig calls “remix” in more detail, extending the principles into the business world, the sciences, and to Paulo Freire’s ideas on education, setting the stage for rethinking approaches in writing instruction.)

I Try My Best To Be Just Like I Am

But Everybody Wants You To Be Just Like Them

All this knowledge about how artists, musicians, lawyers, and writers really get things done fills this lowly comp teacher with acute anxiety. How can I deny my students the same methods and still claim to be teaching writing? Like Disney, shall I proclaim from on high unto to my students, “Do as I say, not as I do”? And if I say that, then what the hell am I teaching? Tidiness? I suppose I could rationalize and say English papers aren’t works of art anyway. Few would dispute me on this. And, of course, my students are not Bob Dylan. But neither was Bob Dylan at their age. And yet, even the young Bobby Zimmerman was a college freshman once. Imagine that––he was in someone’s English class. How annoying would that be? (D+. Please follow Chicago-Style documentation. Mississippi-Style is not accepted here. And quit dropping your G’s! You sound like some lonesome hobo!)

Story has it, Bobby Zimmerman rarely went to class. Thank God. Wait––did I just say that? Yet, I wonder. Are we not making room for creative types in higher education? Must they all drop out and hitch to Greenwich Village in the dead of winter? And if more of them stayed, what would they teach us?

Do art and the term paper really have nothing in common? For one thing, both are surrounded by mixed-up confusion. Yes, we like our art to be original, but upon closer inspection, it never is. The term paper is supposed to build on the work of others, yet somehow be your very own. Rarely, however, do these papers distinguish themselves from the pack. Don’t stray from the standard model and make sure to use other authors––but for support only, and not too closely! (Jeesh. Talk about anxiety.) In academic circles, there are too many people, and they’re all too hard to please. These misunderstandings, contradictions, pressures, and constraints, real and imagined, along with a flood of technological advances, create the perfect storm not only for dishonesty but also for producing papers whose real sin is their lifelessness. It’s a product of what Judge Posner calls the “cult of originality” in action, standards that by severely restricting reuse paradoxically put originality on the endangered species list. Students experience mostly the anxiety of influence in the classroom and rarely the ecstasy that fuels someone like Dylan or Lethem (or Billie Holiday or Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein). To deny artists and writing students this exhilaration is to diminish both activities, limit possibilities, and leave artists and students alike with little incentive to stick around.

No wonder Bobby Z. skipped town.

Don’t Stand in the Doorway, Don’t Block up the Hall

Just as Lessig feels that the attempt to aid commerce by imposing harsh copyright restrictions hurts the arts and ultimately commerce, businessman and former educator Jason Johnson feels that the policing of student work sabotages writing and teaching. Former colleagues telling stories about “Googling phrases from student work, searching for the suspected source of yet another cut-and-paste job” and making use of anti-plagiarism services such as TurnItIn.com make Johnson “wonder if that’s really what teachers should be doing.” He argues that the Internet/digital age has transformed things so pervasively that “the old-fashioned term paper . . . is dead.”  This is not the students’ fault, he says. “The problem is that schools have relied too long and too heavily on the paper as the most significant method of evaluating students. But that’s going to have to change” because students “are simply too far ahead of anything schools might do to curb their recycling efforts.” Teachers, despite their arsenal of the latest weapons of mass detection, remain helpless like a rich man’s child. We’ve seen this before. The more money you throw at War on Drugs, the more everybody must get stoned. Johnson calls for an end to the War on Plagiarism and calls instead for changes in assessment, for more in-class writing, and for an acknowledgement that some thefts involve “valuable” skills that deserve to be turned into teaching tools––not to be dismissed out of hand.

As you might guess, Johnson’s ideas don’t sit well with some. Comments on his article include a fair share of the scathing, what-is-this-world-coming-to variety so common for many of those Dylan-as-plagiarist folks. One commenter, jdresner, goes against this tide, expanding upon Johnson’s call for change, offering new possibilities and pointing out some necessary moves for teachers by saying (sans apostrophes),

Assignment design can actually mitigate the issue considerably without abandoning the principle of the research project. Requiring students to do the work in stages, for example, rather than simply having one big due date, allows you to see the learning process happening and is better for students as well. Asking original questions — instead of just saying pick a [. . .] character in Jane Eyre and write about their development — about specific components of a work, or juxtaposing works that arent usually connected makes it much, much harder to use plagiarized material. Some teachers have gone to in-class essays, though that doesnt work as well for some disciplines. Ive had to give up some old favorite assignments because of plagiarism, but Ive developed some new ones that work nicely and actually push students in new and useful ways.

Our friendly commenter focuses on architecture rather than punitive measures. Note that the burden switches from students to teachers.  Technology changes, the culture and the learning environment changes, students change, so, to remain effective, teachers also must change. In jdresner’s view, the classroom must become a Read-Write culture. Since students have become more innovative, teachers like jdresner become learners and respond with innovation rather than with traditional draconian measures. (Record companies, music publishers, Disney, are you listening?) As with Freire, roles then reverse. Instead of dictating, laying down the law, and resorting to taser-like enforcement tactics, teachers learn to craft a more intelligent response, one where students become teachers as well as students and teachers become students as well as teachers. Such collaboration will lead to more innovation.

If You Don’t Underestimate Me, I Won’t Underestimate You

Notice jdresner’s language. She/He speaks of “design” that “mitigates” problems without “abandoning” principles. What Lessig calls the “piracy” culture that surrounds music downloads also permeates college classrooms, and like in the music industry, those in power often respond in self-defeating ways. Lessig says that to treat people as pirates only intensifies the problem. “That way of thinking then bleeds. Like the black marketeers in Soviet Russia, our kids increasingly adjust their behavior to answer a simple question: How can I escape the law?” But with jdresner’s approach, those old, cynical, loveless thefts, those thankless products of a stagnant, recriminatory, watchdog environment, are replaced. The focus in the writing class returns to where it should be––on writing instead of on the “term paper” and its inbred cousin, detection. The classroom becomes a writing lab where people actually spend time writing, where they freely lend and freely borrow, where work is done in countless stages, where there is constant feedback and input from everyone at every stage (not just from the teacher and not just when the paper is complete), a place where teachers must take what they hold dear and throw it all away, abandoning “old favorite” assignments in favor of composing “original questions” and devising new “juxtapositions.” Like with Lessig’s law classes, these new tasks “push students in new and useful ways” that those old Read-Only-Banking-Concept classrooms couldn’t even imagine.

Since work is done in stages before “release” or “publication”––in what is known as “sequenced” assignments, which are constantly revised as new information is gathered––there is unprecedented freedom to experiment entirely risk-free. Student writers can be released from the anxiety of influence (and their teachers freed from the anxiety of enforcement) and be allowed to experience the ecstasy of influence instead. Go ahead––be Woody, sing his songs, stand in his boots, adopt his accent and his biography, smoke his brand of cigarettes, pose like he does in photos. That’s not theft––that’s love. It’s language acquisition. It’s Lethem’s “ad0pting and embracing filiations, communities, and discourses.” Teachers need to realize that some of the thefts they see are not thefts, but what Susan McCarthy calls “an early stage of a journey toward grace, competence, and comprehension.” Here, a common lexicon and a culture of insiders develops and is nourished. In this environment, a student can learn, in music critic Paul Williams’ words, “to reach beyond his or her present abilities, beyond what he’s sure he can do and into the unknown.” The classroom becomes New York’s Café Wha?, circa 1961, or the Mississippi Delta in the 1920’s and 30’s––a collaborative, teeming reef of ideas and creativity. Everyone gets a fishing license. All references are well understood.

Later, when the student writers have nearly finished their project, before the official release or publication or grading, they can see their work as being just like Muddy Waters’ blues. Now they can take their Alan Lomax readers on a tour of the cotton field where it all came from, the place where they heard it, learned it, made it. As with Lethem’s piece, finally, everything is revealed. Documentation now takes on new meaning and significance. Let me show you how I did this thing I’m so proud of. See? Here’s how you can do similar things yourself. Here student writers become teachers, translating for those poor, uninitiated folks who’ve never visited Gerde’s Folk City, The Gaslight Cafe, or 1920s New Orleans. Students are collaborators even at these final stages, making up a kind of community help desk where they offer advice to each other on how to use their sources more effectively and make them more open and accessible to all. Finally, they can say to each other, “I like what you did with that” and “That gives me an idea.” Students become invested in the work, not just the grade, and when you are invested in the work, the work gets better.

Assignments are no longer a pressure-packed one-shot deal. The incentives to cheat evaporate. Why sweat it? We’re going to write this again. We’re going to find new things to add, things we haven’t discovered yet. And we don’t have to do it alone. We’ll have lots of help. After we work like that for a while, our admittedly derivative work will evolve into its remixed or hybrid form, something that from there just might turn into some as yet unforeseen brand new thing, something where our originality and our appropriations can finally be as one. “No More Auction Block” recedes, and “Blowin’ in the Wind” is born.

Hey Bobby Dylan, I Wrote You a Song

This is when students will begin to learn something essential about writing: how it’s important to seek out those who came before and say, “let me follow you down,” how walking the roads others have gone down, seeing their worlds of people and things is the only way in this godalmighty world to get anywhere worth going.

Coming up —

Postscript: a tour of the cotton field, a rundown of sources, plus intertexts, and other voices


4 Responses to “If I Was a Master Thief III”

  1. Dan Fram November 19, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

    steal my wallet, I’ll be huntin you down
    steal my woman, I’ll be leavin town
    steal my heart, I’ll steal it back somehow
    steal these lines, I’ll steal you a crown

    • temporary like achilles November 20, 2009 at 6:36 am #

      Given those choices, I’d best leave your wallet alone.


  1. Higher Ed, the New Surveillance Society « Imaginary Boundaries - July 6, 2010

    […] striking that the article does not question pedagogical practices at all. As mentioned in Part III of the If I Was a Master Thief series, if there is cheating going on, it calls for teachers to […]

  2. Teaching Remix « Imaginary Boundaries - July 14, 2010

    […] and cutting and pasting that is common in college and high school classrooms. As shown in Part III of the If I Was a Master Thief Series, the burden is on teachers to come up with better, more […]

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