Standing in the Shadow of Giants – Rebecca More Howard

And once again, my position on plagiarism shifts. All this marathon reading makes me feel like an overused glop of Silly Putty, boneless and marred by fingerprints. But it’s a good, exercised feeling, a kind of happy mental soreness.

This 1999 text by Howard is the most sensible and sustained work on student authorship that I’ve read yet. It brings together ideas from several older articles I’ve read into a cohesive whole, and ties together two ideas that I’ve held for awhile but never quite combined – looser standards on plagiarism and the importance of good summary writing. What follows is my position through hers – an indebted reflection of the text, you might say.

In a nutshell, a hard line on plagiarism is a mockery of what modern authorship really consists of. Rather than inspired, individual genius authors, we are more like focus points, spiders surrounded by a web of information that we have constructed and yet limits our movements. This isn’t Howard’s metaphor, it’s my WWW allusion. Flies (ideas) or other spiders (authors) enter, and are either consumed or held for storage. Free will is extremely limited in this instinctual spider model (yet another place where philosophy and rhetoric meet); learning to write, then, involves Howard’s patchwork and a bit of Nietzsche’s ‘rumination’; to learn how to build the web, we must regularly digest ideas, some completely, some halfway. Failure to completely digest – to patchwrite, to borrow – is not a crime, but part of the learning process. An ideal pedagogical strategy for addressing this authorial model is to concentrate on the summary.

So, eureka! I already have a model for focusing on the summary of paragraphs; I just need to expand it beyond a day or two – make it the focus of perhaps the first third of the semester, and linger on a few pieces until they can collaboratively understand the texts in the 1010 reader. Once they can digest the texts, ‘ruminate’ upon them (a great metaphor) then we can move on to the textual analysis. Yay! Maybe I can be a decent teacher now, It’s really nice to find some support for what I’d always assumed was an old-school, backward-thinking idea of mine.

I am also cheered to see that Howard does not think, as many do, that individual authorship was somehow invented in the 18th century. What a strange idea. Cicero‘s planet-sized ego would not allow anything less; Quintilian writes in a clear tradition of rhetorical authors; the Greeks constantly refer to each other, usually unfairly; Homer and the early poets are all individuals. It’s true enough that authorship started to change from the medieval Christian model with the printing press, and before that, Christianity dueled with and then replaced the classical models of authorship, but c’mon, guys.

Howard’s heavy citing (and of her students, a nice touch) has produced a huge wish list that I will take to the library this afternoon. She is yet another author that passes over authorship/citation in the early Christian period (a slot that the dissertation will slide right into) – more puzzling, though, is her disengagement at the very end of the book with online authorship. I don’t buy her unsupported assertion that offline authorship is the same as online authorship, or that widespread digitization is not driving changes in copyright/authorship; considering how progressive the rest of her work is, this statement of hers feels short-sighted, even willfully blind. Ong is not in her bibliography – that might be why – then again, 1999 was pre-DMCA, before online piracy really went mainstream (Napster hit its peak around ’00, I think) and a hell of a lot has happened since.

Her numerous online bibliographies (which I am always stumbling onto) are a great example of the spider-web metaphor I mentioned earlier – Mark Goodacre’s NT Gateway is another, Dennis Jerz also springs to mind – authors that serve as savvy clearinghouses and facilitators of synthesis. They all play the dominant discourse game, of course, but they’re also making tacit the swirling eddies of knowledge buzzing around them. Wow, I actually worked flies into that.

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