This write-up is an articulation of an idea that I first stumbled across last spring, in conversation with my colleagues around technology and academic integrity. I am enormously grateful to Lynette Sumpter and Ned Sherrill for pushing me and supporting me and challenging me and engaging me in the discussion that led me to this idea.
Let me preface this by noting that I am not a history teacher. Or a writing instructor. Or a teacher of social studies or literature.
But, I have played one on TV. And I have spent the last few years faking it in various settings (for example, teaching Third Form Seminar at St. Grottlesex, a studies skills class thinly disguised as a history class — or my current role teaching Media Studies, which is on the cusp of becoming Mark Taylor and teaching “liberal arts” as a discipline unto itself).
Fear and Loathing in the Classroom
I have been struck by how we teach our students to take part in academic discourse. I fear that we are teaching them to be fearful, rather than confident, outspoken and — above all — well-spoken. When I work with ninth graders writing their “big research paper”, it is clear that they are already viewing the process with trepidation. Not because they are not looking forward to the work (in fact, they often become absorbed in their research and legitimately excited about their chosen topic). They are terrified that they will do something that causes me to nail them to the wall for plagiarism. They are absolutely terrified that they will screw up their citations, botch their bibliography, accidentally confuse a quotation with a paraphrase, or in some other way incur the wrath of the gods of academic integrity.
This is ridiculous. And they come to me this way, already scared.
Why Cite Sources At All?
Let’s take a step back from the panicking ninth graders.
Let’s consider how we live our lives, as adults, day to day. Consider, if you will, a conversation with your friends. Better still, a conversation with my friends (they’re loads of fun): we’re talking about something that we have to do that feels ironically poorly suited to our temperment and someone around the table mutters “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Yes, we’re pathetic tools of popular culture. But we’re also making a reference to a known source. A reference that everyone around the table recognizes and appreciates.
In fact, by making that reference, we’re using a short hand phrase to conjure up a whole idea. At the most crass level. We’re probably not going to swing into the pharaohs’ catacombs on our bullwhip, blazing torch in hand, Nazis on our tails. But we’ve connected our plight to Indy’s, in our friends’ minds. Usually, among my friends, this then generates snickers. I am not someone who would plausibly swing on the end of a bullwhip.
This, at its core, is the purpose of citing another author: to make use of that author’s ideas in support of your own. To reference a whole, complex argument, made elsewhere, by selecting a short, notable phrase that stands in for the more complex idea. When we refer to “trickle-down economics”, we’re using an opaque term to describe a whole theory of how the world works — whether or not we agree with it, this provides a shared reference point between us and our interlocutors. By providing this shared reference point, we are providing an anchor on which to build our own arguments, share our own ideas, develop our our creations — in a way that will be more easily understood. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.
When we cite other sources and authors, we select sources that lend credibility to our own point of view, by dint of the the sources’ own credibility. Our arguments are stronger when we cite well-known and well-respected sources. Our arguments are stronger when we can clearly connect them to sources that are clearly well-founded, or are clearly connected to well-founded sources.
Thus, if we want our argument to have credibility, we want to connect our argument to other well-respected sources. We want to make those connections explicit, rather than making that argument in a vacuum. We want to accessorize our argument with the respect and credibility already carried by our sources.
So, What’s the Big Deal?
The big deal is that this isn’t how or why I was taught to cite my sources in academic papers. And it isn’t how I’ve seen students being taught to cite their sources. I have seen only fear and intimidation: “if you do not cite your sources, you will be penalized for plagiarism. If you are penalized for plagiarism, you won’t get into the college of your choice or you’ll be expelled from the college of your choice or you might become Vice-President of the United States.” <shiver> I don’t see anyone making positive arguments for academic citation when we are introducing it to our students. We only threaten the students with punishment.
I don’t know about you, but I tend not to really enjoy doing things that I’m doing out of fear. I often dig in my heels (I’m an ornery S.O.B.). I certainly don’t try and do what I’m doing better because I’ve been intimidated into doing it (in fact, I’ll probably passive aggressively do it worse). And it takes me a long time (20+ years) to find any real purpose or excitement in something that I have been bullied into doing. I understand the obligation to do it. I do it. But I cuss about it. And drag my feet.
Technology has Changed Citation
At the start of every school year, one or the other of my colleagues will forward around the ever-growing list of things that our new students won’t be familiar with (the original Star Wars, Indiana Jones movies that aren’t execrable, tape cassettes, a time before white earbuds, etc.). What bears more than a little examination are the things that our students are familiar with.
I have a whole digression about the issue of digital natives, and whether or not it’s even a defensible opinion, let alone a fact of life. Let us at least stipulate that our students have a different relationship with technology and media than we did growing up, and that that relationship is increasingly facilitated by technology.
How about a bizarre mash-up video that combines clips from television shows that are, at best, unfamiliar to us with music we think is terrible? How about a collage of corporate slogans standing in for a personal statement? What are these moron kids up to now? Isn’t this entirely beneath our dignity and station to even pay lip service to the activity that’s going on here? Well, this is the students having a conversation. Their conversations are moving out of “meat space” and online (note the rise of concern about cyberbullying and sexting — these aren’t new phenomena, they’re just moving from behind the gym to the digital realm).
In fact, on the creative front (moving away from a digression on online agression), these collages and mash-ups and massively uncited multimedia conglomerations are the same kinds of conversations that my friends and I have. Only we have them in person. Where I grew up with VHS and quoting movies endlessly, today’s students are able to literally quote movies. And music videos. And magazines. And web cites. And anything else that has floated across their consciousness in the form of bits. Even their teachers (and the first time I was an unwitting component of a student video mash-up was over a decade ago).
These videos, which are clearly violations of copyright law, intellectual property treaties and, often, good taste are just our students engaged in conversation. Online and digitally.
Transitioning from Conversation to Academic Discourse
Understanding that what we see as recreational plagiarism and piracy is, in fact, informal discourse is the first step towards connecting the dots with our students. What we need to help our students do — what our role as teachers is — is to engage in code-switching: when is it appropriate to have an informal conversation? When do you start to cite your sources? What are you doing — for yourself and your sources — by citing them? What standards can we use to cite sources? When do those standards apply?
Overall: what’s the point of this exercise? Are we doing it because we’re afraid that somebody will use Google to find out that a dozen other people have had this same idea, and we want to get there first? Or are we doing it because we’ve read something powerful, insightful, revelatory… and we want to share the impact of that source with our own audience? Are we sharing our sources because if we don’t someone will accuse us of falsifying our research, or because we have come across a marvelous, well-researched data set that, with our analysis, screams in support of our conclusions? Are we citing the work of others out of a grudging sense of obligation to them for work already done, or because making reference to other works makes our own easier: we are bringing worlds of ideas into our effort through the careful selection of a word or phrase?
In the past two years, this is what I have started to try to do with my students: rather than threatening them, engage them in that part of the world of research and ideas that I find so invigorating and exciting. Rather than whaling on them for botching a quotation, explain to them why getting their quotations and citations right (for their context) is meaningful.
For the first time, last week, when I was grinding away on my students to include links in their blog entries, and I asked why, one of my students said: