Posted by: Ellie Kutz | October 19, 2010

Finding New Metaphors: Appropriation and Remix

As a listener and a blues-educated musician, I am familiar with the folk/blues worlds and how most new works borrow extensively from what came before. Not only am I not troubled by such appropriations––I consider them indispensable. Yet, worlds collide: I also teach freshman English. In that setting, undocumented appropriation is the third rail. It’s a capital crime. What’s a poor composition teacher-slash-musician to do?  (Wayne Rhodes)

One way of gaining a new perspective on a familiar but perplexing concern is to try out a different point of view.  Wayne Rhodes of the English department, a writer, musician, and long- time composition teacher, has done that in a recent series of entries on his blog Imaginary Boundaries, where he draws on the world of music to resee and explore the issue of plagiarism.  His three part post, “If I Was a Master Thief, Perhaps I’d Rob Them: Bob Dylan, Plagiarism, Freshman Composition, and the ‘Cult of Originality’” made him a finalist for the 3QuarksDaily 2010 prize for the best blog writing on arts and literature, and I urge you to read all three parts, from May 21 to 24, 2009, which you can find at http://imaginaryboundaries.wordpress.com/2009/05/24/if-i-was-a-master-thief-iii/ .

Wayne begins by imagining Bob Dylan’s situation:

After spending many years among the has-beens, a once renowned performer releases a series of well-received albums. Before long, amid the new rave reviews, reports surface that some lines from these new albums have been stolen from an obscure nineteenth century poet, a Japanese gangster novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, old films, and a number of blues songs. Talk of plagiarism emerges.

He continues:

I am at ease with appropriation as long as it is used to create rather than duplicate. I’m not alone. If members of the blues/folk/jazz cultures hear something familiar, they might say, “I like what you did with that.” When something “new” turns up, these people already know its genealogy to the letter. (The documentation is “embedded,” you might say.) When you are just copying (i.e. the Elvis version of “Hound Dog”), rightful owners deserve acknowledgement and proper compensation.

In a rich exploration of the ways in which creativity, appropriation, and remix have worked together in the work of Bob Dylan, of Muddy Waters, of Andy Warhol, drawing on the perspectives of a range of writers from legal theorist Lawrence Lessig to blog commenters who offer their own teaching suggestions, he offers his own remix and juxtaposition of a rich panoply of work as he moves toward his own conclusions:  that what we need at this point is not better ways of policing the work done in response to our old assignments, but rather, the shaping of new classroom practices.  He imagines assignments being the classroom as a “writing lab where people actually spend time writing,”

where they freely lend and freely borrow, where work is done in countless stages, where there is constant feedback and input from everyone at every stage (not just from the teacher and not just when the paper is complete), a place where teachers must take what they hold dear and throw it all away, abandoning “old favorite” assignments in favor of composing “original questions” and devising new “juxtapositions.”

In such a classroom:

Assignments are no longer a pressure-packed one-shot deal. The incentives to cheat evaporate. Why sweat it? We’re going to write this again. We’re going to find new things to add, things we haven’t discovered yet. And we don’t have to do it alone. We’ll have lots of help. After we work like that for a while, our admittedly derivative work will evolve into its remixed or hybrid form, something that from there just might turn into some as yet unforeseen brand new thing, something where our originality and our appropriations can finally be as one.

Later, when the student writers have nearly finished their project, before the official release or publication or grading, they can see their work as being just like Muddy Waters’ blues. Now they can take their Alan Lomax readers on a tour of the cotton field where it all came from, the place where they heard it, learned it, made it. As with Lethem’s piece, finally, everything is revealed. Documentation now takes on new meaning and significance. Let me show you how I did this thing I’m so proud of. See? Here’s how you can do similar things yourself. Here student writers become teachers, translating for those poor, uninitiated folks who’ve never visited Gerde’s Folk City, The Gaslight Cafe, or 1920s New Orleans. Students are collaborators even at these final stages, making up a kind of community help desk where they offer advice to each other on how to use their sources more effectively and make them more open and accessible to all. Finally, they can say to each other, “I like what you did with that” and “That gives me an idea.” Students become invested in the work, not just the grade, and when you are invested in the work, the work gets better.

Here we get to the critical point for the ideas we’ve been exploring in this issue of the newsletter.  Being able map their sources, to take their readers on “a tour of the cotton field” to see what they’ve used, and how, and why, is exactly what we all want our students to be able to do.  I love the classroom that Wayne envisions (and that he creates in his own teaching).  And I do believe that we need new metaphors for talking about using sources with our students, to help them see the process in ways that get beyond a fear of punishment for doing it wrong. I also know that many faculty who teach large classes in other disciplines may not be able to devote the time to creating a writing community that Wayne’s courses allow, and that they need tools that can help them guide their students through this process in other ways.  And I now think that, when used appropriately, even a “plagiarism checker” like SafeAssign, with its reports of matches, can provide an alternative map to guide students on their journey.

For related discussions, see also

J. Hamlyn “In Defense of Plagiarism”  in his blog Thoughts on Art and Teaching, February 5, 2010 <http://thoughtsonartandteaching.blogspot.com/2010/02/in-defence-of-plagiarism.html>;

Jason Johnson,  “Cut and Paste is a Skill too,” in The Washington Post, March 25, 2007  <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/23/AR2007032301612.html>; and

Brent Staples, “Cutting and Pasting:  A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name),” in NYTimes July 12, 2010,<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/opinion/13tue4.html?_r=2&src=me&ref=homepage>.

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