An Inclusive Litany

5/8/00

A digest of an article, from the March issue of College English, that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, March 15, 2000:
English professors are of two minds about plagiarism. They create regulations that punish students for borrowing language from another text, yet agree that no writing is fully original. Rebecca Moore Howard, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, discusses the implications of this conceptual blurring in two forthcoming scholarly books.

In a new piece, she suggests that scholars discard the term plagiarism altogether, in large part because efforts to regulate against it run counter to the political aims of their teaching. "To adjudicate plagiarism in these circumstances is to work against the liberatory, democratic, civic, and critical pedagogies that prevail in English studies," she writes. At heart, Ms. Howard's problem is that plagiarism depends on "gendered metaphors of authorship" that equate originality with masculinity and diminish the benefits of collaboration, a strategy often employed by women writers. These metaphors, which Ms. Howard locates in writing guides new and old, describe plagiarism as a kind of sexual disease that threatens the male writer and his work. Or they go further, and turn the stealing of language into a kind of rape, in which the author of the original text, and his readers, are violated. In all these cases, "'plagiarism represents authorship run amok... and thus incites gender hysteria in the community in which it occurs," she writes. As an antidote, Ms. Howard suggests replacing the term plagiarism with "more specific, less culturally burdened terms" like "fraud," "excessive repetition," or "insufficient citation." Students can and should find their grades lowered, or even be flunked, for these offenses. But Ms. Howard calls on fellow scholars to embark on the "revisionary/revolutionary" task of making room for less novelty. "Let's get out of the business of valorizing an elusive originality, criminalizing imitation, and reinforcing prejudices of gender and sexual preference," she concludes. "Let's leave sexual work out of textual work."

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