“The Preservation of Essayism” and “The Gray Area”

Rubana Islam
Faculty Instructor: Jeff Johnson

The Preservation of Essayism: A Patchwritten Piece

The first time I wrote an essay containing analysis was in the seventh grade. The History and English teachers teamed up to teach us how to properly write and cite research papers. Throughout the rest of school, teachers and SAT tutors alike stressed the five paragraph structure. They constantly told us that the key to a successful paper was a clear argument with no disagreements. Come senior year, the tables turned. We were taught to write whatever we thought was appropriate. In order to succeed as a writer, you must take initiative and control; it is your writing, so it should emulate you.

Year after year, grade school teachers push students to honor the five paragraph structure. We are taught over and over again that an essay is no good without arguments that fully backs up a thesis. The essay becomes so mechanical that we often find ourselves trying to pick the easiest topic just to get it over with. We make our writing noncommittal; our own writing is not reflective of our actual thoughts. Essayism has become more of a machine-like completion of assigned work rather than the creation of new ideas from the preexisting. In reality, it is up to teachers and professors to reeducate their students about the true art of essay writing.

In order to properly teach the art of essay writing, it is more important to promote freedom over structure. It is important to acknowledge writing is not only the conveyance of information, but also for self discovery and growth. One way to do so is to have teachers share their personal experiences with writing. Most of the time we have teachers telling us how to write, but we do not see their own work. Even if a teacher and student are unable to see eye to eye about the subject matter or structure, sharing their writing and insights may be a learning process for both.

In order to succeed in writing, it is important to read as much as possible. The more you know, the better you can serve your growing intellect. In order to push your own capacity to comprehend, it is essential to take risks while reading. Words strung into sentences, strung into paragraphs, strung into a piece of writing. There is still a bigger picture to an author’s writing. By challenging your own mind, you will better understand how you can develop your thought process.

Many times we keep ourselves from taking risks in reading and writing. This keeps us from growing intellectually. If we keep writing five paragraph essays, we will be stuck in a world of structure. It is also important to keep in mind that it is impossible not to use others’ ideas in order to accomplish our own aims. Considering the number of sources that are available to us, it is inevitable that many ideas will resonate with us. The ever-increasing availability of electronic material is making plagiarism easier for students and may also be contributing to its prevalence. However, it is inevitable that ideas will be recycled and reanalyzed. By rewriting the “rules” for essay writing, a writer has the ability to grow and become an independent thinker.

Works Cited

 Goldsmith, Kenneth. “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age It’s ‘Repurposing’.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 11, 2011. 

Hooks, bell. Engaged Pedagogy. Praeger, August 27, 1998.

Moure, Erin. “Reading Never Ceases to Amaze Me.” The Unmemntioable. February 14, 2012. de Montaigne, Michel. “How Our Mind Hinders Itself.” The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne. January 1, 2010.

Power, Lori G. “University Students’ Perception of Plagiarism.” The Journal of Higher Education. Ohio State University Press, December 2009.

Wampole, Christy. “The Essayfication of Everything.” The New York Times. May 26, 2013.

The Gray Area: A Slightly More Original Piece

The previous essay is an example of a patchwritten essay; I used other writers’ words to convey my own argument about the preservation of essayism. Patchwriting has enabled writers to think in new ways. However, many times it is misconstrued as laziness or lack of creativity. In a university setting, this is considered plagiarism. Educators stress the importance of academic honesty and integrity. Although it is important for a student to complete work with these two traits, plagiarism policies can make a simple essay much more complicated. Such policies at universities may keep students from blatantly turning in another person’s work, but the strict rules can get a good writer in a lot of trouble.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines plagiarism as “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person”. There are many very obvious cases of plagiarism; copying someone else’s work or having another student write your essay are blatant violations. Then came a time where teachers had put in place rules for “over-tutoring”. “Over-tutoring” was one of the biggest trends in the high school I attended. Students would go to tutors their parents had paid for a few days before a paper was due. The tutor would then give them a thesis and outline their essays for them. Although the student would end up writing the content of the paper, the ideas and thoughts were from the tutor. These are all cases of violation according to the definition above. However, not all cases are so easy to judge.

It is now common for students to use the same paper in two different classes. It has become an ethical issue, and in many cases it is grounds for expulsion due to violation of plagiarism policies. In the last ten years, archiving technology has further enabled this practice.

I remember, during my senior year of high school, finding a research paper on my computer that was three years old. I recycled sources, and even sampled a few a paragraphs. Of course, I did not cite myself. Addressing this phenomenon in his New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column, Chuck Klosterman notes that many people may refer to it as “self-plagiarism”. However, if plagiarism is using the ideas and thoughts of others, it should not be an issue to reuse your own thoughts. It is not an act of laziness to work and rework your ideas. Rather it is an act of growth and critical self-reflection.

As technology has progressed, more issues have arisen. Students have learned how to repurpose their writing and other works from existing sources. This process is aided by the vast amount of information online. From Wikipedia to databases, the options are endless. As more resources have become available online, professors have become increasingly assertive about policing plagiarism. Lori G. Power writes that universities have noticed that availability of online texts has been “contributing to its prevalence” (643). Students have almost an infinite number of sources to choose from. Search engines, like Google and Bing, have enabled students to sift through this information with ease. However, with the increase of online sources, the bigger the gray area of plagiarism has become. Power continues to note that “students have such a confused notion of what actually constitutes plagiarism”.

In his essay, “The Ecstacy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem discusses how certain music genres, like blues and jazz, allow for “‘open source’ culture” (69). Musicians would essentially repurpose preexisting beats and melodies to make them their own. When done successfully, the new song can be a hit. This is quite similar to writing. When a writer takes preexisting ideas and connects and repurposes them, they become their own. This idea of repurposing was itself repurposed from Kenneth Goldsmith’s “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age It’s ‘Repurposing.’”. This does not make my essay any less valid. It just goes to show that what we believe to be an original idea is simply our own thought process and analysis of existing texts and ideas. It is inevitable that we pick up bits and pieces of every text we read. How we eventually output it is what sets us apart as individuals. As for trying to create a successful piece of writing, success can be defined in two ways. Either the student is trying to get an A on the paper or they are trying to comprehensively convey their idea.

Goldsmith also discusses the use of patchwriting in text. He alludes to Lethem’s essay and calls it a patchwritten piece. Patchwriting, which is Goldsmith defines as “a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole”, “is considered an offense equal to that of plagiarism”. However, Goldsmith discusses how Lethem’s piece was not an act of laziness, like a student rewording a Wikipedia article, but “a brilliant work of art” (Goldsmith). By acknowledging his plagiarism, Lethem had brought forth an entirely new concept: the public acceptance of using other people’s works. He reworked already existing, put them together, and developed a new concept. He even goes as far as saying that “we in Western society are going through a period of intensifying belief in private ownership, to the detriment of public good” (Lethum 67). From a broader standpoint, he is commenting on how inventors are more concerned for taking credit than the actual progress of society. This can also be applied to writers. Plagiarism policies are so concerned with writers creating their own original pieces, that they are fail to notice that the abundance of existing material can nourish a growing writers mind.

By reworking existing material, as in patchwriting, students are forced to look at texts in new ways. In my patchwork essay I use a line from Power’s essay that I also used in this essay; same text, two different ideas. Below is an excerpt from my patchwritten piece:

Especially with the number of sources that are available to us, it is inevitable that many ideas will resonate with us. The ever-increasing availability of electronic material is making plagiarism easier for students and may also be contributing to its prevalence.  However, it is inevitable that ideas will be recycled and reanalyzed. By rewriting the “rules” for essay writing, a writer has the ability to grow and become an independent thinker.

The line in italics was directly copied from Power’s work. The next excerpt is from this essay:

Lori G. Power writes that universities have noticed that availability of online texts has been “contributing to its prevalence” (Power 643). Students have almost an infinite number of sources to choose from. Search engines, like Google and Bing, have enabled students to sift through all this information with ease. However, with the increase of online sources, the bigger the gray area of plagiarism has become.

Again, the line highlighted in red is the same line used from the patchwritten essay. The same line, used in two different works, is applied to two different scenarios. It is clear that patchwriting is not necessarily an act of laziness or lack of creativity, but it allows a student to look at the same words in different ways.

As technology and culture continue to evolve, universities will have to take a close look at their plagiarism policies. Many new policies will have to be instilled, while many may no longer apply. Plagiarism is no longer a black and white issue; a zero tolerance policy may not even be possible due to the number of gray areas resulting from the abundance of resources students have to work with. Although patchwriting may not be an effective way to write a research paper, it is still a concept that should be explored by students. Students in first year writing programs will be able to explore concepts that they never would have imagined staring at a blank screen. Finding patterns and connections between others’ writing will further develop the critical thinking of students.

Works Cited

Goldsmith, Kenneth. “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age It’s ‘Repurposing’.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 11, 2011.

Klosterman, Chuck. “Can I Use the Same Paper for Multiple College Courses?” The New York Times. May 31, 2013.

Lethem, Jonathan. The Ecstasy of Influence. Doubleday, 2011.

Power, Lori G. “University Students’ Perception of Plagiarism.” The Journal of Higher Education. Ohio State University Press, December 2009.

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