Algorithmic Grammarians and Plagiarizing Patch-workers

Disclaimer: I’m very tired and I’m having a hard time seeing what I’m writing. It just looks like a mass-y block of text and nothing makes sense when I try to pick it apart and read it back to myself. So…good luck.

Initially, I looked at both articles – Tim McGee’s “The Politics of the Program: MS WORD as the Invisible Grammarian” and Danielle DeVoss’s “’It wasn’t me, was it?’ Plagiarism and the Web” – and I immediately thought they were outdated. Both were published in 2002 and use data or research from the 90s. Knowing that technology and modes of communication are in constant flux, evolving and adapting, I thought that reading documents about Microsoft Word or “plagiarism and the web” seemed a little pointless. After more than a decade, all of this has to have changed, right?

12ofypHowever, after reading both articles, I became a little skeptical – how much has actually changed? I feel like both are exposing the same problems and the same “we ought to be doing X, Y, and Z”s as some other more recent articles. After reading them, I feel a little bitter.

From then until now, students are still concerned with grammar and style, using Microsoft Word as their dominant composition tool and utilizing the “grammar check” feature. Instructors are still concerned with grammar, but seem much more concerned with “higher order” issues. Although, I know grammar was much more of an emphasis in previous decades, but I’m fairly certain (or hopeful) that grammar has been put on the back-burner throughout the last 40-50 years. What I gather from the text, McGee suggests that instructors need to become the “authority” on grammar – taking away the power of Spell Check and the notion that writing is editing, not drafting – and teach grammar or style in a way that doesn’t showcase it as this mechanical, algorithmic, or linguistically static.  This is a great idea, but this isn’t new to me. Because this isn’t new, I assume that : 1) Students are still using MW as much as they did in the early 2000s. 2) students are still worried about grammar and expect that writing = mastery of standard language linguistic expectations. 3) Instructors are still trying to break away from skill-drill instruction. 4) Process is more important than product.

In DeVoss’s article on Plagiarism, I also couldn’t see anything different in how we teach or approach plagiarism. Yes, some students buy or download their essays off of the internet; some students throw in quotes or paraphrases without citing the source. Because it is such a simple process of “copy-paste-ing” students can sometimes be unaware of the “danger” of plagiarizing or perhaps fully aware of the risks, but do it anyways for a variety of reasons – pressure, frustration, stress, anxiety, low self-esteem concerning their own writing, etc. Like the other article, the major idea that I gather here is that nothing has really changed over the last decade. Plagiarism is still an issue.

The theories and approaches are all the same (we ought to do A, B, and C because of X, Y, and Z). I’m not sure how to illustrate this at the moment or what to even think about it, but there’s a disconnect somewhere, either way.

When I read these, they made me think of commercials or ads that create these rationally irrational slippery slopes. There’s a larger fear here that students are learning the “wrong” grammatical or writing philosophy from their computers, perhaps making English instructors feel like their being kicked to the curb, haha. Realistically, I know the fear is that by using these tools, students aren’t understanding writing as a larger process or experiencing habits that shape them as motivated and mindful writers that take ownership of their own work.

12oftvOn another note, what the hell is up with “patch-writing?” I really should have gone Jennifer’s workshop on plagiarism earlier in the semester, because based off of the description given in DeVoss’s article, patch-writing seems confusing or maybe not that bad?  – “allows students a place to borrow from a text, manipulate it, and work through new concepts by piecing their writing with the original work.” To me, this sounds like maybe paraphrasing without adding a citation…which is wrong, I suppose. However, it also sounds like what I do on a normal basis – read a thing, internalize or think about that thing, add that thing to my own ideas on things, and produce some other thing that demonstrates my new understanding of the thing. I did it in this very post while trying to articulate what I thought these authors meant and what their words mean to me. I don’t think I’m understanding what patch-writing is. I would like a model to see what it looks like, because I’m having a hard time seeing it as either negative, or positive.

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2 comments on “Algorithmic Grammarians and Plagiarizing Patch-workers

  1. Hey Ashley,

    I never would have guess this was incoherent in any manner! I think you make a really great point with your tie-ins to DeVoss and McGee. Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion against MS Word’s “grammar check” function. The more recent iterations can be really helpful and teaching students certain elements of style, or at least, to be aware of specific conventions, and the brief grammar explanations can be useful. It’s not the most reliable (it flags some words and sentences I write even though they are correct), but for students who are struggling to get a sense of academic prose, it’s not bad. The problem is when students use spell checks and grammar checks as crutches and are not internalizing the grammatical concepts and logic behind the suggested corrections. On the other hand, don’t we struggle with this as teachers? Sometimes we give students feedback repeatedly, and they don’t “soak in” the suggestions, whether it’s grammar, developing topic sentences, integrating quotes, etc.

    As you say, I certainly agree with you that I would hope that “higher order concerns” have overruled the lower order concerns of surface errors and grammar/mechanics, but at the same time, I must come out and say that there is a kind of hypocrisy in the field in regards to the genre. We tell students that we value the content and depth of their ideas more than anything else, and yet we are still grading them based on grammar/style. It’s definitely a “thing,” as much as we don’t want it to be. So if it is indeed a “thing,” is it so bad that students use these tools intelligently? Is MS Word’s spell check/grammar check radically different from us marking up their papers, or them getting assistance from a tutor on campus who will point out the errors and mistakes anyway? I don’t know the answer, but these are questions we all contend with as current and future teachers of writing.

    On another point, you’re right when you talk about plagiarism and patch-writing (patch-writing seems to be a form of plagiarism the way I understand it, rather than something separate) and how much hasn’t changed. It makes sense — the things that stressed students out 50 years ago aren’t that different. Our students are still writing papers, there are still word count minimums, deadlines, specific conventions we’re looking for, etc. Every single time I teach a class we have to have a conversation about how paraphrases STILL need to be cited parenthetically, and there appears to be a “struggle,” so to speak, about understanding why that is, or how when we “borrow” others’ ideas, we need to account for that in a way that’s considered acceptable in the academy.

    Anyway, I loved reading your post and enjoyed all the memes you put up, especially Zoolander, who is the definition of a postmodern hero. BOOM! *cue million-dollar pout*

  2. You have some very valid points for the dated material, unfortunately, it is still relevant.

    I think of writing as an ever evolving process with time and modifications in culture. We changed writing for the “Sons’ of Harvard” and have recently included things like LOL into our proper lexicon. Nevertheless, we can be irate or just learn to accept these changes.

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