Tie And Jeans

The Problems of Plagiarism for Middle School

This is largely taken from a comment to an old Russ Gorend post.

“How much can I copy and have it still be my own work?” This is the nonsensical faux-Talmudic discussion that follows most mentions of plagiarism and attribution in middle school classes. But Dr. Tae is right – these farcical questions never come up if the context is authentic and performance based. Like, say, skating.

“Does someone own the copyright for a kickflip?”

Thank the heavens, NO! You can’t “copyright” a kickflip. A kickflip is not a “fixed medium of expression.” Even spotting 6th graders the colloquial use of “copyright,” no! You can assert your originality in the discipline (see Rodney Mullen and the ollie), although 6th grade is full of examples of how “first” can be a problematic claim.

The idea of a kickflip is exciting, but what counts is the execution. “Pics or it didn’t happen” makes sense for many disciplines, but not so much for writing.

When we discuss plagiarism with middle school students, we often focus on avoiding copying and remembering proper citation. In skate terms, we’re not concerned with the invention of the kickflip, but the execution of one particular kickflip. “Yeah, that’s me in this video. I’d show you, but I threw out my back.” That’s a lie. That’s dishonest. That’s equivalent to taking a paragraph or an essay or a batch of research data and claiming it as your own.

Actually performing a kickflip? That’s equivalent to reading Shakespeare and deciding that writing sonnets with extended metaphors seems like a good idea, then sitting down with a blank page and a pen. It’s creation, it’s culture.

6th grade is deep in the middle confusion about originality and exclusivity, which is why teaching about plagiarism is so difficult (and probably important). Every nuance of speech or style is parsed and assigned for social weight. “I was the one who started saying ‘hella.” “I started the triple shoelace thing.” “I was there, I heard of them first.

I appreciate what Grammar Girl and others are trying to accomplish with lessons like this. But middle schoolers don’t need more encouragement to be petty and territorial about their intellectual landscape. Skateboarding is a great counter-example for kids. In the early years of skating, new tricks were invented constantly. They then spread through the isolated communities and came to define regional styles, which then spread and metastasized. Small, isolated ideas became the base of a vibrant culture.

I recognize the challenge in getting kids raised on copy/paste, youtube rips and unattributed images to recognize the intellectual dishonesty in plagiarism. But for every minute I spend on the punitive warnings about “intellectual dishonesty,” I try for a matching lesson on the Velvet Underground and the Stooges to show how imitation and pastiche are a net cultural positive.



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