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Originalty: A Figment of Our Imagination

tgarber's picture

Tyler Garber

Professor Dalke

Non-fictional Prose

17 September 2010 

Originality: A Figment of Our Imagination

            Students are conditioned to cite sources to avoid plagiarism. They arrive to college with the mindset, “When in doubt, cite”, but “Who owns the words?” (Shields 209). Does citing sources really matter? Plagiarism is defined as taking someone else’s words, thoughts, or ideas and using them as your own.  In the digital age, we are inundated with information and ideas that help shape our own stories and beliefs.  With a limited amount of words in the English language, there are few combinations of words to create without knowing if someone else has already combined them. The need to acknowledge the owner of original thoughts or ideas (citation) is superfluous because thoughts and ideas are recycled and reused from daily observations and encounters.

My professor for my Emily Balch Seminar, a freshmen writing course at Bryn Mawr College, handed me a thin book called Writing With Sources: A Guide for Students. This book contains 80 pages of proper citation formatting, a tutorial on how not to plagiarize and why plagiarism is “bad”. In the third chapter entitled Misuse of Sources, plagiarism is characterized as not acknowledging, “a careful distinguishing between what is yours and what is another’s”. The chapter later explains that, “Plagiarism is the act of passing off information, ideas, or words of another as your own, by failing to acknowledge their source- an act of lying, cheating, or stealing”(Harvey 29). But, my entire paper is based on the information of others. I characterize this paper as my own despite it being the compilation of the thoughts of my classmates and professor. Does this mean I am lying, cheating, or stealing? If I were to cite every idea that I had expressed as my own, but I learned from someone else, it would be an impossible task. Citation is needless because our ideas and thoughts are a collection of what we have heard, bits of pieces of the knowledge that we have gained from others.

When we quote an author, a musician, or anyone for that matter, we are saying that this person I have quoted owns these words that are fashioned in this way. But, if we say the same words without citing them, are we “stealing”? David Shields’ “novel” Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is a compilation of quotes, yet when you read the novel, you have no knowledge of this. You have to read the entire novel to figure out that the words David Shields is saying are not “his own”. He writes at the end of the novel to tear out the appendix that cites the quotes. He only cited for legal purposes. If he was not obligated to cite, he would not have cited because “Reality cannot be copyrighted”(Shields 209).  I equate reality with truth. The truth is not applicable to one person and should not be credited to only one person. It is a shared value and a shared intellectual medium. Based on Shields’ book, I believe he would concur that citation in its form to attribute credit to ideas is an unneeded pedagogical tool.

            Instead of being handed Writing With Sources: A Guide for Students, incoming freshmen should be handed Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Despite my frustrations with the fluidity of the novel, Reality Hunger allowed me to think in a different perspective and allowed me to question the truth and facts that we decide as a society to believe. Real writers do not just know how to properly cite, they know how to question, where to question, and to think outside of the normal. When dwelling on proper citations and issues of plagiarism, students lose the essence of their writing. They lose the "realness" of their topics and are distracted by the consequences of being accused of plagiarizing. 


Works Cited

Harvey, Gordon. Writing With Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008. Print.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York City: Knopf, 2010. Print.




Anne Dalke's picture

"A careful distinguishing"

You really bring home the argument of Shields' book, here, by pairing it with the text required of all our first-year seminar students. The contrast between Harvey's argument, buttressed by the Balch Seminar Program, that “a careful distinguishing between what is yours and what is another’s” is essential to being  scholar, and Shields' insistence that all we write is a compilation of others' work--so let's celebrate our connections, rather than police our differences--couldn't be more stark.

What really interests me in this contrast you develop is the implications of the two positions for how students think about their writing. You say that "
Real writers do not just know how to properly cite, they know how to question, where to question, and to think outside of the normal." I'd agree that beginning college students' writing careers by telling them to be very, very careful about sources doesn't encourage them to question, or be creative; rather, it encourages them to watch very carefully--and document even more carefully--where their sources come from. Taking Shields' counter approach--we're all recycling all the time, so let's get on w/ it--might well free a young writer to do more interesting work, confident that she is working within a cultural commons where we all share ownership of ideas.

I paired the covers of the two books here as a way of imaging this contrast: there's a stiff correctness to the cover of Harv
ey's book, more exuberance (and words! and color!) in Shields'.

A number of your classmates have written about copyright questions, which are certainly related to the issues of plagiarism you begin to explore here. See, for some alternative points of view, ckosarek's Copyright Law & Fair Use: Who's Stealing?, platano's A Copyrighted Manifesto, and Smacholdt's Music, the Creative Process and Copyrights.

You call Shields' compilation a "novel." Although it is certainly "novel" in its new approach to a very old topic (its refusal to distinguish --really, the insistent collapse he reinacts--between his words and those that originated with others), but it doesn't have the fictional quality that distinguishes a novel from nonfictional prose.