But I Wrote It Myself

DeVoss and Rosati, providing background to the study of plagiarism, place it in the contexts of the modernist belief in individual authorship and the postmodernist understanding of authorship as collaborative (“’It wasn’t me, was it?’ Plagiarism and the Web” 194). Johnson-Eilola (“The Database and the Essay”), taking a postmodern approach, points out that writing is largely a social, not an individual act, and asks the key question, “Where does writing come from?” (200).

That question reminds me of Smagorinsky’s discussion of the experience of reading (“Toward a Cultural Theory of Reading”), in which he asserts that “[j]ust as the mind extends beyond the confines of the skin, textual signs extend beyond the cover of a book. During a reading transaction, reader and text conjoin in an experiential space.” In other words, the meaning we get from reading doesn’t arise only in our heads. It arises in the amorphous physical/mental space that includes both us and the words on the page. By analogy, we may say that if mind isn’t confined to the head, then ideas don’t arise in (or only in) our heads when we write. They arise on the page, too, as we write.

In what sense might we say that this shared mental/physical space is ours? We may say that it is ours in the sense that our cultural worldview tells us it is ours. In the modernist cultural vision, we claim that space as our own. It is private property.  In the postmodernist cultural vision, we hand over that space to some larger identity outside our heads, ceding our intellectual property rights and creativity to the common good. As Bartholomae puts it, “A writer does not write but is, himself, written by the languages available to him” (“Inventing”).

When I ask myself where my writing comes from, I usually think in terms of this polarity between the individual and society. To what extent do ideas come from me and to what extent do they come from others/the culture? And I experience this question in my own life as a tension. Part of me recognizes that the culture speaks through me and likes that, and part of me recognizes that I have an individual perspective and wants the words I speak to be mine and mine alone.

The academic obligation to think in terms of plagiarism pushes me in the direction of individual accountability, both for myself in ‘my own’ writing and for my students in ‘theirs.’ But even when students have written their essays themselves, the modernist definition of plagiarism and what is ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ can be complicated. This term three of my students, all international, submitted papers they had written themselves. But they had originally written them in a previous class. They had borrowed from themselves. I had the hardest time explaining to them that this was (or was it?) a form of plagiarism.

“But I wrote it myself!” they each asserted. The words, they said, were theirs.

“Yes, but the definition of what constitutes your words applies only to words you have written this term. It has to be original work.”

Oh dear…

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3 comments on “But I Wrote It Myself

  1. I appreciate you bringing in some more theoretical groundwork on how we make meaning. Plagiarism is confusing and muddled and, in my opinion, difficult to draw a line in. I think this becomes even more muddled when we bring in the basic theoretical underpinnings of how we interpret texts and talk about them. By reading a text am I making a new text, so who owns that?
    Either way, thank you for bringing up the complicated issues of ownership and interpretation.

  2. I laughed a lot at your “but I wrote it myself” moment… I have often wondered as I read research how people feel about citing themselves and their private work. I have also become incredibly irritated when I feel like students are turning in work from another class. They do it shockingly often.

    I remember getting a job on campus a long, long time ago, and having to sign a waiver saying any work I published automatically became property of the university. I laughed at first because I was getting a job in food service. Then, I started to feel a little strange about the implications of the contract, like my mind was in some way property of the university. In retrospect, I suppose I do owe my ways of thinking to that school. How far does that ownership extend, I wonder?

  3. That is interesting. I didn’t expect students to come up with an “excuse” like that. I never thought that students would take plagiarism so literally. This may be a slightly different topic, but your post reminds me of the notion that nothing is truly original. After a certain point, it is technically somebody else’s idea. We’ve just reworded it or better disguised it as our own. It’s what I felt like writing Shakespeare papers in undergrad. I wrote my papers based on the notes I took during in-class discussions, but I felt like I was just reworded my professor’s lecture and handing in a summary. Isn’t that technically plagiarism?

    Plus it’s Shakespeare. I feel like anything worth saying with enough textual evidence to support a valid argument/point has been said already.

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