Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

We’re not really looking for originality

There was a period over at Incertus where I wrote long, blistering posts on Stanley Fish’s columns. I put in work, took them apart (to one degree or another) and got fairly worked up over them. I stopped when it became clear that it wasn’t worth it–I was getting way too agitated–and since then I’ve had a mostly hands-off policy towards him.

I’m responding to today’s piece mostly because it’s about plagiarism in the classroom, and because I think Fish is missing the point when he compares the rules of originality to the rules of golf as arcane and known to only a small group of people, unimportant to the world at large. And I think he misses it because he’s working under a different definition of “originality” than most people in my position–that is, lower level faculty who teach first and second year students–work with.

I think it’s best (I say this after having deleted a half-dozen beginnings to this paragraph) if I talk a little about what my job actually is. At this level of teaching, my job is to get my students to produce arguments and back those arguments up with evidence. I’m not asking for brilliant insight at this point, though if I get it, I’m excited. I’m asking for them to show they can think logically, that they understand the basics of argument, that they can show how they came to a position on an essay or poem or play. I’m asking them to show their work, in short.

Now, does this mean that the work they show is going to be original in some larger sense? Of course not. Very often I get multiple papers which follow the same basic thought patterns, the same arguments, the same points of evidence and analysis that I covered in class discussion. But those papers are original in the sense that the student put them together rather than cutting and pasting them from another source.

In a way, it’s like being in algebra or trig class. Getting the correct answer isn’t enough–you have to show how you got there. The difference in analyzing literature is that there are often multiple “correct answers,” but showing how you got to that answer is just as important, and a student who’s googled the subject and cut & pasted their “answer” hasn’t shown their work because they haven’t done the work. They can’t get to the point where they can argue over issues originality in authorship like Fish and others do if they don’t learn how to make an argument first.

I was talking to Amy about this a couple of minutes ago and she pointed out another aspect to this. Very often–the majority of times in both our experiences–students cheat to cover up illiteracy or sub-literacy. We make our students read aloud in class, and it becomes very clear very quickly who’s having problems. And it’s unlikely that a student who reads poorly can write well, so when said student turns in a paper which uses “affect” and “effect” in the same sentence and uses them correctly, alarm bells go off. (Amy had one of those.) And when it’s not a cover for sub-literacy, then it’s pretty clear there’s an intent to deceive, to pass off someone else’s work as their own. Sometimes it’s laziness, sometimes it’s arrogance–the latter are the most fun to bust–but the reason we do it is still the same. We’re teaching our students to make arguments, and if they don’t, they fail.

The rules really aren’t arcane, nor is plagiarism “an insider’s obsession,” at least not at this level of education. They’re a gate, and we’re the gatekeepers. (Does that make us all into Sigourney Weaver?)


August 10, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I don’t think you and Stanley are really disagreeing, Brian, party because I think you’re mischaracterizing his argument. Fish isn’t saying that cheating is unimportant to the world at-large; just plagiarism. As usual, I think he’s making this argument because he likes to attack sacred cows, winning points on technicality, while skirting what is perhaps the meat of the issue. One of the reasons that people hate Fish so much is that his arguments are usually air-tight, but they achieve that perfection by taking a short cut around the philosophical. (Because he knows, once you enter philosophy, there’s no way out.)

    I had a class with Stanley. Trust me, if you plagiarized in his class he would be tougher than any teacher you can think of. He believes deeply in procedure. “Miss class at your own peril” deeply. Why? Because those are the rules.

    Comment by P. Scott | August 10, 2010 | Reply

    • I don’t think we’re really disagreeing either–I think we’re talking about two different issues. Fish is right that for the general public, most of whom aren’t as concerned with the minutiae of authorship, plagiarism isn’t a big deal. But I’m not talking about them, nor am I talking about the wider argument about whether or not it’s possible to be original. I’m talking about how the construct of plagiarism fits into the classroom at the lower levels and how to be original in that context isn’t the same as being original in other arenas. I have a different definition of originality in my comp and lit classrooms because I have a different goal for my students there. In my creative writing classes, it’s a completely different story.

      Comment by Brian | August 10, 2010 | Reply

  2. Just reading ABOUT Fish pisses me off; much less seeing what new, insane shit he’s foisted on the world. To actually hear the echoes of his damned argument in an essay arguing for, what seems to me, the obvious–standards–is adding to my gray hair.

    I have a few white collar jobs & one thing I can tell you is that these younger college grads are disturbingly close to illiterate. Contracts are sloppy, because they are composed with copying and pasting. Memorandums with clear language are confusing to the sub-literate. This is not an academic problem, this is a social poison. But once again, Fish proves to be so far outside the real world, he has no idea what consequences his wankery has. Most wielders of power go through academia–how the hell can he argue that the concern of intellectual honesty & integrity is the domain of the doctorate class? What a fucking elitist asshole, on so many levels–made more disgusting by his expository pretense, that he’s trying to show he’s not a stuffy old professor. Does the opposite. Really rancid.

    I avoid the actual contents of your argument, because I fully agree w/ them. I am more stunned that any person who believes in standards and competence would argue otherwise. Fish is really a symbol for the Herpes that has infected academia. Fie on that motherfucker!

    Comment by Khakjaan Wessington | August 10, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] to have a more free-flowing class structure. I writing and poetry for the most part, and I teach how to form an argument. One of the main points of my class is that there are multiple ways to enter a poem, and I worry […]

    Pingback by Teaching and Tech « Brian Spears | August 16, 2010 | Reply

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