Thursday, May 3, 2007

Content Matters

The first time I discovered plagiarism in a student paper, I was pretty shook up. This student was making a D in my class and had gotten an F on his latest paper. But it hurt me when a sentence sounded off and I had to check Google. Now that was my first semester teaching, so Sara Biggs Chaney might have been a bit more hardened against the experience, but in her case she had high hopes for the paper and the A student who had written it. Where my student may have been desperate or confused about using sources, Chaney's student was likely expressing a disrespect for academic writing and Chaney herself despite being quite capable of handling the assignment (31).

In composition, we tend to focus more on presentation than content. This makes sense, because writing isn't really a content course. We need to help students work with whatever content to produce good essays. But Chaney felt she'd made a mistake by ignoring the content of Amber's paper about the irrelevance of paper writing. She felt that Amber could become academic by going through the motions of academic writing (30), but Amber still believed paper writing was not important. And Chaney didn't really listen to her ideas. She was interested in the paper, but only formally. She wanted to see the moves of academic writing, but basically ignored the content.

I'm writing a paper in another class in which I connect this deemphasis of content in composition classes to the Foucault's author function, as explained by Gail Stygall. That is, while it makes sense in a composition class to emphasize the form of writing, to talk about the moves of academic writing, we really can't neglect the actual content if we want our students to be real writers. Real writers and readers care a lot about content. If we start ignoring the actual content of our students' papers, we're basically dooming them to perpetual student-hood. I can imagine where Amber's beliefs about the irrelevance of paper writing were only strengthened by the fact that her writing teacher thought she could write a great paper which condemned the entire process--writing, then, is just an act. It doesn't do anything, it doesn't say anything, and it certainly doesn't prove anything. In the real world, Chaney would likely have made her actual disagreement with Amber's content central to her evaluation of the paper. She might have conceded that the argument was well made, but she'd have given center stage to the fact that it just didn't hold up.

Now we can't grade our students' papers on how well they fit the beliefs we already have, but we can be a little more honest about our subjectivity and the role content plays in good writing.

Works Cited

Chaney, Sara Biggs. "Study of Teacher Error: Misreading Resistance in the Basic Writing Classroom." Journal of Basic Writing 23.1 (2004): 25-38.


Gabe Isackson said...

Wow! Well stated.

Viking Girl said...

I can't imagine catching a student plagiarizing. I'm not sure how I would handle it. Switching gears as bit, I do agree that in the classroom we have to teach form and presentation more than content, but it seems almost like a crazy paradox. We tell our students that the course they are taking will ultimately make them better writers in other courses, and then they get little to no instruction on content. It is hard to force content on a paper in such a class as this. Should we force our students to write about writing (Ok, a bit exaggerated, but valid nonetheless)?

Amy said...

I think it's very good for students to write about writing in a writing class--the reflection helps them learn more than if they just blindly did assignments. A lot of the material we've read (Discovery of Competence, "Government of da Peeps") uses reflective writing to help students come to their own conclusions about writing instead of feeding them the information.

A lot of the writing done in 110, 210, and 310 is research based anyway. The papers I've seen in the writing center for 210 and 310 are usually assigned with the instructions to write about something in your major in the style of your major. In 110 the students may not have majors, and we only teach MLA style, so they just get to pick a topic that they like, which may or may not be relevant to their future studies. But picking a topic they like does give them an opportunity to think about what they're saying instead of just how they're saying it.

wildcat007 said...

Content is so subjective, that it does make it easy to want to focus on other aspects of the paper. Some students, being aware of this subjectivity, will plagiarize because they figure if someone else wrote it, it must be valid.

Amy said...

I don't know if it's the subjectivity, but I will agree that plagiarism has to be less likely if the student knows the professor is interested in their ideas.