Why two teachers advocate purposeful plagiarism

The Awl | Poynter

The poet Kenneth Goldsmith talked with Mark Allen last week about his studies in "uncreative writing": His forthcoming book "Seven American Deaths and Disasters" transcribes radio and TV reports of tragedies; for another book he retyped the entire Sept. 1, 2000, edition of The New York Times. People still nursing wounds about Common, take note: Goldstein's performed his appropriated works at the White House.

Goldsmith also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he encourages students to plagiarize:

The students that take my class know how to write. I can hone their skills further but instead I choose to challenge them to think in new and different ways. Many of them know how to plagiarize but they always do it on the sly, hoping not to get caught. In my class, they must plagiarize or they will be penalized. They are not allowed to be original or creative. So it becomes a very different game, one in which they're forced to defend choices that they are making about what they're plagiarizing and why. And when you start to dig down, you'll find that those choices are as original and as unique as when they express themselves in more traditional types of writing, but they've never been trained to think about it in this way.

You see, we are faced with a situation in which the managing of information has become more important than creating new and original information. Take Boing Boing, for instance. They're one of the most powerful blogs on the web, but they don't create anything, rather they filter the morass of information and pull up the best stuff. The fact of Boing Boing linking to something far outweighs the thing that they're linking to. The new creativity is pointing, not making. Likewise, in the future, the best writers will be the best information managers.

The end of the interview includes a surprise that's worth waiting for.

Goldsmith's methods are on the far edge of journalistic education, but they don't entirely drop off the map: Poynter Affiliate Chip Scanlan wrote in 2003 that copying others' work is a "powerful and time-honored way to master the craft." When trying to cram a large story into a 2,000-word hole for the Washington Post Magazine, he retyped pieces by writers he admired, like Peter Perl and Madeleine Blais.

"The lesson I learned was this: you can discover your own voice by listening to other writers, and one of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words." Like visual artists, writers benefit from copying masters' works, Scanlan wrote.

"But when I preach this gospel," Scanlan writes in an email, "I always remind writers to put the author's byline on top before they start copying so that down the road they don't delude themselves into thinking that this was their work. One of the best ways to avoid plagiarism: Give credit where credit is due."

Related: ‘Patchwriting’ is more common than plagiarism, just as dishonest

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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