Some Observations on Quotation and Plagiarism at Queens College
By Roberto Abadie, Writing Fellow, Queens College, CUNY
Since I arrived at Queen¡¦s College last year, I have had the opportunity to conduct seminars in classrooms on how to write an essay. I have also worked with students who came to my office hours during which we discussed strategies for writing in their classes. In doing so, I have had an opportunity to explore faculty and students¡¦ perceptions and practices in writing, and in particular, perceptions of quotation and plagiarism.
In this space, I will advance some interpretations to account for student¡¦s use -or misuse- of quotations and possible consequences, namely plagiarism, in the classroom. One of the benefits of being able to observe writing practices in the classroom ¡Veven at such a small scale as I did- is that these observations afford me the opportunity to move the discussion of plagiarism and quotation beyond the normative or moralistic tone in which the issues are frequently discussed in academic discourse. I approach the issue of plagiarism in the classroom as a social practice, paying attention to the particular context in which a text is produced. In this sense, it becomes clear that plagiarism can not be separated from quotation practices in the classroom.
I¡¦ve done workshops in writing-intensive courses at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. As a result of my collaboration with faculty I have had a point of entree into faculty perceptions about what a good essay is and what it should accomplish. It is in this context that faculty frequently make the point that students should be able to quote and provide proper evidence from textual sources. Some faculty recognize the apparent schizophrenia in academic writing: students should be original but at the same time should be able to quote from the work of others and build on it. Students very often fail to quote or to use quotes in the way intended by faculty. Sometimes students present ideas from others without giving the author proper credit for them. Usually, plagiarism is discussed in the classroom by faculty, in terms of ¡§giving proper credit to the author¡¨ for his/her contributions. Failure in doing so ¡Vfaculty suggest- would be a case of ¡§academic dishonesty.¡¨
While there is little question that sometimes plagiarism is rooted in students¡¦ cynical, utilitarian approach to academic education, I suggest that the understanding of plagiarism needs to transcend the ideology of blaming the victim, that is, the student for their shortcomings. I am aware that this position goes against deeply embedded notions and interests in academia. The blaming the victim approach resonates with legal and property right ideologies deeply embedded in liberal bourgeois ideologies. Furthermore, this allocation of blame, to a relatively powerless group, is also functional to the maintenance of the status quo in academic life. Since ¡§blaming the victim¡¨ is almost a common-sensical position in relation to plagiarism in academic writing, this approach might leave social and structural processes that produce and reinforce plagiarism unanalyzed and untouched.
If inadequate quotation and the acknowledgement of authorship in the use of a text is not a moral failure on the part of the students, then how do we explain it and what can be done about it? I¡¦ve observed in my interactions with students that frequently students do not know how to properly quote. Very often students don¡¦t have a clear notion of the use of quotation in structuring a text and in advancing an argument. To be fair, some faculty are aware of the rhetorical functions played by quotation in structuring an argument and in providing evidence for it. However, despite faculty intentions, their advice on quotation sounds frequently like an entry for a receipt in a cooking book: ¡§not too many quotes¡¨ or ¡§you need to quote more.¡¨ While I am not denying an element of malice, cynicism or utilitarism in relation to student¡¦s plagiarizing, my argument is that plagiarism is very often not the result of a conscious choice by the student but instead the product of his or her misunderstanding of how to quote and, more importantly, for what purpose. It would be very helpful if faculty were more forthcoming in articulating for the students the concrete ways in which this end might be achieved. It¡¦s not enough to explain to the students how to make a proper quotation, or to let them know that they should advance an interpretation or argument in their writing. It is necessary to convey the idea to the students that writing is related to ways of thinking and of producing knowledge. I fear that this project is not structured in the academic curricula. Instead of adopting an ideology of blame, I suggest that as a community of practice it would be more constructive to focus on finding ways to increase students¡¦ awareness of their potential for authorship and knowledge making.