Friday, August 2, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Collaboration and Plagiarism, the Tangled Webs We Weave

In Methods and Methodology in Composition Research, Duane H. Roen and Robert K. Mittan have an article titled "Collaborative Scholarship in Composition."

It was an interesting read because I am intensely interested in collaborative projects in my personal, professional, and scholarly life.

Personally, every day is a collaboration. My husband and I work hard to equally share our household and child-rearing duties, which I've droned on and on about in several posts, so I won't bore you will all of the details again here.

Professionally, a colleague and I collaborate on my other blogging project, Something's Developing, where we are still feeling out how we want to shape our discussion of developmental education, writing pedagogy, and the in-the-trenches look at community college teaching.

Scholarly, I am excited about the possibility of future co-authored articles, collaborative conference presentations, and my fast-growing community of thoughtful, intelligent writers to bounce ideas around with me.

Collaboration is a big deal for me. It underpins my belief in agonistic rhetoric and that multiple voices lead us to deeper knowledge. The micro-negotiations that take place in figuring out the layout of a co-authored blog or determining who is going to shop for dinner mirror the macro-level negotiations that take place in figuring out our larger conflicts and differences.

I love collaboration.

Group Hug 

But it's not all group hugs. 

Roen and Mittan warn that "every collaborator must genuinely believe that everything generated--whether theories, questions to be tested, or words on a page--is collective." 

We can't, in other words, quietly weave our own ego into the work and expect that it get coddled on the other side. If we go into it as a group, we must come out of it as a group. When we rise, we all rise; when we fall, we all fall. 

This was on my mind recently as I read about a controversy over plagiarism on Twitter. 

Writer @thewayoftheid did a series of tweets aimed to satirize how ludicrous the framing of "black violence" is by treating white violence the same way. Her words are powerful and impressively situated within the micro-blogging setting of Twitter, which you can see for yourself in this Storify

A few days later, Cord Jefferson wrote this piece on Gawker that operates from the same basic premise and talks about a recent riot (done by white people) in the same way that major media outlets often talk about any violence done by black people. 

When some of @thewayoftheid's followers pointed out the similarities between the two pieces, Jefferson reacted very unprofessionally, ultimately accusing @thewayoftheid of plagiarizing (when her piece was clearly published earlier) and deriding her for not having enough followers for anyone to care about. She's got nearly 3000; that's nothing to sneeze at, but the size of the audience does not the importance of the message make, so his response was immature and unacceptable across the board. 

Still, you'd be hard pressed to call Jefferson's piece plagiarism. The words aren't the same. The format's not the same. The style's not the same. The general premise is definitely the same, but it would be equally hard to argue that satirical treatment of a privileged group by casting them through the lens of an oppressed group is a new idea.

As Roen and Mittan explain, we're always (whether we admit it or not) working collaboratively:
[W]riters cannot claim sole ownership of ideas that they record on the page . . . [W]hen any of us write we have others' voices running through our minds. We draw on these voices freely when we write--even though we may not have explicit awareness that we are doing so. 
We do not live or exist in a vacuum. We are constantly influenced by the push of internal forces and the pull of external ones. We are shaped by the world we live in, the books we've read, the movies we've seen, and the people we interact with. Your thoughts are not yours alone; they are an aggregate of every piece of social fabric you've come into contact with throughout your life.

In some ways, we're all plagiarists. 

And this is where the Gawker/@thewayoftheid debate gets really dicey.

If we take Jefferson at his word that he had never seen @thewayoftheid's tweets, that doesn't mean that he wasn't influenced by work that wasn't his own. In fact, he most definitely was influenced by work that wasn't his own. His work, though, got the benefit of mainstream media. This is where any notion of collaborative knowledge begins to break down.

@thetrudz outlines the problem in her Storify on the topic. She notes that we have "top down" journalism that often depends on the content of voices that are marginalized. People allowed access to the more powerful media outlets often seek out ideas from people who are not allowed that access. They then repackage the ideas and get them amplified as their own.

Jefferson's piece was recently featured on MSNBC.

I don't have any evidence that Jefferson read @thewayoftheid's tweets and stole her ideas. In fact, if you asked me to guess, I'd say he probably didn't. However, his anger and unprofessionalism at the mere suggestion tells me he's not being very honest with how his ideas are gathered, either. We are all collaborators. Every piece that we write has the influence and impressions of a hundred tiny pieces of culture, and the impression of their influences, and the impression of their influences' influences.

To not question why some voices get heard while others do not, to not question how systems of power, privilege, money, and prestige decide who gets credit, that is to fall into the trap that Roen and Mittan warn against.

If we are all collaborators, we must all "genuinely believe" that our work is collective. Once we reach that point, perhaps we can realize that we all rise or we all fall.

Another Brick in the Wall


  1. Thanks for this nuanced thoughtful approach to collaboration. Wish others could think about the power structures in which we *all* collaborate, so that these conversations might proceed with less vitriol.

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