More on Authorship, Intellectual Property, "Templates," and Student Writing

This will probably be my last post about the Kelly Ritter article; that seminarnival never did seem to take off, huh? Anyway, recently Prof. B. posted a To-Do List for September. The whole post is great for its general agenda-setting, but I was struck by this part for another reason:

coming up this week, Congress is still going to vote on permanently repealing the estate tax. Also on the agenda: cutting capital gains and dividend taxes even further, and cutting entitlement programs. The fiscal irresponsibility here is just mind-boggling: we're running a huge deficit, we're fighting a war, and we've just had one of our major cities and several minor ones wiped off the map. And they still want to cut taxes?!?!? Call your congresspeople and send them letters telling them (politely, but firmly) to get their heads out of their asses and run the country responsibily.

Here's Landismom's letter re. the estate tax, if you want a template.

To refresh your memory, Ritter points out the use of the terms "template" and "model" in everyday practice, using teaching materials as an example (p. 614-615, emphasis in original):

In my own discussions of teaching materials and research findings with colleagues, particularly those new to the teaching of first-year composition, I often hear queries such as "Can I steal that assignment?" or "Do you think I could use that syllabus as a model (or a template)?" In creative-writing courses, teachers often encourage students to "mimic"canonical authors so as to internalize traditional styles and to understand the value of voice and poetic form. These are only select examples of how the creative, collaborative notion of intellectual production in the humanities often leads to "borrowing" ideas back and forth, between complicit and entirely well-meaning individuals.

Remember that last part of B's post: "Here's Landismom's letter re. the estate tax, if you want a template." Nothing out of the ordinary, right? Activist organizations offer templates for us to edit and send to our representatives all the time: at NARAL, NRDC, the Sierra Club, and the Feminist Majority Foundation, just to name a few. In fact, you can go to just about any advocacy organization's site and click "Take Action," which is usually on the main menu of links, and it'll take you to a template letter like any of these. You're welcome simply to sign your name at the bottom and click "send," or to make a few changes to the template, or erase all the text in the box and write your own letter.

When I was six years old, my parents were watching a documentary on public television that showed men with clubs beating baby seals. They were so cute, with white fur against the white snow, but then when they were beaten, splotches of red spread out over the snow. I was absolutely inconsolable. I cried and cried, on and on until my dad, who I imagine was really at a loss here, said, "Well, write a letter to the governor!"

The governor at the time was Fob James, a staunch conservative who probably cared not one jot about baby seals but whose staff was obviously touched enough by my letter, scrawled in my six-year-old hand with crayon ("Dear Fob James. Tonight I saw baby seals getting killed on TV and it made me cry." etc.), to write an personal reply to me which is now in my parents' safe deposit box. When I go home next week, I'll see if I can get both letters out and scan them.

I said all that to say this: In a representative democracy, writing letters to elected officials is one of the most meaningful rhetorical acts one can perform, at least as important as writing an essay for a composition course*. Yet what essentially amounts to plagiarism -- passing off something someone else wrote as one's own -- is perfectly acceptable in such letter-writing for expediency. No one so much as bats an eye at it. Students do get mixed messages about authorship; the same teacher who'd turn a student in for plagiarism if he or she used someone else's essay as a template wouldn't think twice about using one of these templates for an action letter. I'm not teaching this academic year, but Ritter's article has given me so many ideas for illustrative cases to bring into the classroom to discuss authorship and plagiarism in a more sophisticated way.

I'll end with Using virtual lectures to educate students on plagiarism, by Laura A. Guertin (via Tracy). She makes a case for using these virtual lectures, which didn't seem that compelling at first, but in the article she points to the fact that with prerecorded lectures, students get a consistent message about plagiarism that's the same no matter how many times you replay the lecture. Sure, no one can anticipate every problem that may arise, and I doubt I'll try this in my own teaching, but I still think the article is worth a link.

* And yes, I know audience is a factor here; those template-driven electronic action letters rarely, if ever, actually get read by elected officials, or even by interns. If we're lucky, they at least get counted.


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Geeky Mom Tangent: I wrote a

Geeky Mom

Tangent: I wrote a whole report about the baby seal beatings. It was my first research paper--5th grade.

I, too, think writing a personal letter is better. Yes, it takes more time, but I think if you really care about something, you should take the time to write something personal. I try to do so whenever I can. Of course, I'm writing to Republicans. Even personal letters may fall on deaf ears.

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