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Nov 2004  Vol. 8   No. 3  

........   TEACHING METHODS   ........
Using Sources Critically; Or, Avoiding Plagiarism
Assistant Professor Lo Mun Hou
University Scholars Programme

It was one of those moments that warmed many a pedagogue’s usually-cold heart. For a writing exercise, I had asked my students to compare two paragraphs, both of which grapple with a complex essay by a philosopher who I will, for the sake of convenience, call X. Since we had read and extensively discussed X’s essay in the module, I didn’t have to familiarise my students with it. In giving them these two paragraphs, which essentially made similar points in different ways, I posed the following two questions to my students. Firstly, which of these paragraph writers is guilty of plagiarism? (At this point, the students are already familiar with Harvey [1998] who explains plagiarism systematically and lucidly). Secondly, which of these writers has done a better job of ‘working critically with the source material’?

To each ‘individual’ question, all the students in my class gave the correct answer. This really wasn’t that difficult, since, of the two paragraphs, one was discernibly using X’s ideas without proper credit and citation, and that same paragraph also fumbled when it came to expressing its own relation to X’s work.

No, what gratified me was the fact that many of my students noticed that my two queries were really one, that the answer to the first—and the reason for the answer—was also the answer to the second. For instance, a student wrote:

I feel that Writer #2 not only does a good job [of] avoiding plagiarism, but she also has done a very thorough close reading of [X’s] paragraph. She makes close reference to the text and exemplifies [X’s] ideas by the analysis of her own examples…Further, Writer #2 expands upon [X’s] argument. [An example follows.] Here, we see that Writer #2 does not merely refer extensively to [X’s] ideas, but she formulates her own as well.

In other words, Writer #2, as my student points out, (1) cites (“close reference”) and rigorously analyses (“close reading”) X’s work, (2) then builds upon (or “exemplifies” and “expands upon”) those ideas, thereby “formulat[ing]” new ones, and because of this approach, (3) avoided plagiarism. Another student responded along similar lines, ending with this observation: “The irony is that although the second essay has quoted and used much (sic) of [X’s] ideas and key phrases, the fact that it gives acknowledgement clearly aids the argument to be more credible and convincing.” The writer that my students preferred avoided plagiarism precisely because he or she worked critically with the source material.

I did this exercise for a class I teach for the University Scholars Programme, UWC 2101N “Writing and Critical Thinking: Clothing Identities”, in which I insist that “using sources critically” is inextricable from any effort to “avoid plagiarism”. By “using sources critically”, I mean that students should first seek to understand the materials and figure out how their ideas are related to these sources (hopefully, of course, they differ in some ways; otherwise, as I tell my students, there is no reason or motive for their essays). Conceived this way, the important job of getting students to understand the concept of plagiarism is no longer, or at least not merely, a technical matter of making sure that students know where to put a footnote or how many quoted lines need to be indented. Instead, plagiarism becomes the rewarding by-product of being able to think critically and clearly about where you stand in an original relation to an existing body of knowledge (i.e. your sources).

Achieving this objective can, of course, be difficult, but having this aim in mind has helped me develop ways of teaching that guide students towards this goal. For example, earlier on in the module, I lay the groundwork for the above-described assignment on plagiarism through a close reading exercise. Since I see plagiarism as best avoided when a student (1) comprehends and can delineate his or her source materials, (2) then is able to comment on or rethink the source material, it makes sense to prompt students into writing and thinking this way. Thus, in the initial close reading exercise, I ask students to pick out a very short paragraph from any essay we have read for class, transcribe it, and then do two things. Firstly, I ask them to write a short section that effectively, concisely and accurately summarises what they have just transcribed (i.e. quoted). This segment tells their readers what the quotation is ‘about’. Secondly, they have to write a separate section that offers a gloss, an explication or an interrogation of the quoted passage. Here, I emphasise, they should be analysing, interpreting or close-reading the passage, showing something in it that isn’t immediately apparent. This gloss, in other words, should not repeat what their quoted writer had just said. Obviously (and perhaps even simplistically), this exercise tries to get students to make a distinction between grasping an existing idea and providing a take on it. Equipped with this skill, my students are later able to recognise, when we get around to doing the above-mentioned plagiarism exercise, when someone doesn’t engage well with the material, and when someone plagiarises as a result.

The better a student is able to rigorously understand and express someone else’s ideas, the better he or she will be able to say what he or she is adding to them. From this, almost incidentally, guarding against plagiarism becomes paramount because no good writing and critical thinking is possible without it. In short, I have been arguing that “using sources critically” and “avoiding plagiarism” are two sides of the same coin, and recognising this has helped me tremendously in my teaching.

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