Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Copying is Cool

There are a lot of double standards when it comes to plagiarism. Take two topics that are taught in schools: jazz music and writing. Jazz instructors often assign transcriptions, asking their students to learn a particular solo note for note. My saxophone teacher told me that his first conservatory assignment was to learn Louis Armstrong's solo on Potato Head Blues, including the nuanced inflections, the bends, articulations, and vibrato. In other words, his teacher had said, copy it as precisely as you can.

In writing education, there's a different story. A student who borrows even one sentence risks expulsion. What school doesn't have a strict, and oft-repeated, anti-plagiarism policy? Instead, writing instructors encourage pure originality. Write what you feel. Describe what you see. Recall an experience you had. Or, if the writing is more scholarly, a rigid structure is imposed. Write a five-paragraph essay. Clearly state your thesis. Which of the great writers, I wonder, learned to compose in this fashion?

When a music student can perfectly duplicate a solo, say the Armstrong solo on Potato Head Blues, (and I mean really duplicate it perfectly, matching the notes so a listener would hear only one instrument) he sounds as good as Louis Armstrong. But, when a poor high school kid goes through the motions of a "five-paragraph essay" it's as good as a five-paragraph essay. That is to say, it has no precedent in the real world of writing -- it's nothing more than a drab exercise.

It is doubtful that there is a pure analog to the jazz transcription assignment in writing education. If a teacher asked a class to go home and copy, word for word, a passage of Faulkner, any half-brained student would simply locate an online text, and copy and paste. Nonetheless, I think the musical exercise of transcription can offer an important lesson to writing educators.

Before moving forward, I want to make a foundational point: culture, be it musical, visual, or verbal, is passed down from generation to generation by example. We learn to speak by copying. We learn to sing by copying. How often do you see a class of art students sketching famous works in a museum? A painter endlessly glancing back and forth between his canvas and the one he is emulating?

Pure duplication is too easy to be an effective tool in writing education. But here are some ideas:

  • Take your five favorite books, all by different authors. Then write a story by arranging sentences that you copy, verbatim, from each book. Cite your sources.
  • Find an obscure short story. Continue writing where the author finished, trying to emulate the author's style as much as possible. Then, give the extended story to a classmate and see if she can identify the point at which you started writing.
  • Locate an online version of a 19th century novel, say Crime and Punishment. Choose a gripping passage, and copy and paste it into your word processor. Then, revise the text to include 21st century technology, culture, and language.
My point is, it's impossible to learn how to write like real authors without emulating them and getting a feel for the words. Would a school ever assign any of my ideas? Probably not. In the world of standardized testing and grading rubrics, there's little room for anything other than grid-like structures. Perhaps the reason that schools don't teach emulation of great authors is that such writers might not pass a modern-day test.

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