Information Sheet #135

April 5, 2002


For the last four years, a key assignment in the Coe Writing Center’s staff development course (Topics in Composition, a 0.3 credit course that writing consultants take during their first four terms on the staff) has been a web page forum using Blackboard CourseInfo.  Each term the 30-35 students are divided into three or four posting groups, though individuals may post responses with other groups if they are so inclined.  Occasionally I submit questions for the staff to ponder, but most postings are open-ended reactions to reading assignments in composition theory and pedagogy.  Class members must post twice per week on separate days, a minimum of 500-750 words per week.  Prior to a class session, I read through recent postings and use the student observations to guide our in-class conversation, either following up on ideas raised in the postings or focusing on passages in the reading assignment the group had ignored or were having troubles interpreting.

For an upcoming presentation at the International Writing Center Association Conference in Savannah, Georgia, eight Coe students will be discussing how the forum affects their understanding of collaboration, an issue at the core of any writing center’s practices.  In preparation for the trip, the staff generated this list tabulating the pros and cons of these forums:

The Benefits

• Simultaneous, multiple conversations; can choose topics for discussing.

• People may be passive in class, but the forum forces everyone into collaboration on postings.

• A dialectical process: opinions do change.  People learn more about themselves; discover confusions in their own thinking.

• Keeps everyone writing and thinking/analyzing readings, recent conferences, etc.

• No immediate negative feedback; freedom to develop your ideas.

• Allows everyone to talk, discussing ideas that would not otherwise be brought up.  Can be less intimidating than in class.

• Sharing of personal experience generates more ideas; people learn from others--new staff learn from more experienced consultants.

• Practice learning how to expand Nothing into Something.

• Learn more about others’ personalities and their writing styles.

• Allows for tangents, and tangents often get integrated into useful ideas.

• Links theory and training to personal experience.

• Improves computer and typing skills.

• Good for introverts; may be less satisfactory for extroverts who want immediate feedback.

• People lose inhibitions; staff more comfortable with each other.

• Provides a written record of conversation; increases likelihood our conversations will move forward; ideas get refined and advanced..

• Encourages thinking about ideas before class sessions; helps participants feel more comfortable talking during class meetings.

• Develops writing skills because we don’t have to worry about perfect grammar; can concentrate on ideas in conversation.

• Insights don’t have to occur all at once; the forum is always waiting so that when an idea occurs to you, you can share it.

• Postings cover more of the reading and more analysis than what occurs in class discussions.

• You must be articulate: no voice or gestures or inflection to help communicate your meaning.

• People more thoughtful before posting than before talking.

• You can go back and bring up issues discussed in the past; that’s not likely to occur in real-time conversations.

• More formal than e-mail; postings are more like writing a paper.

• A history to the conversation and some sort of permanence.

• “We write to know what we think.”

• Allows us to appreciate different views and perspectives on the text and the Writing Center.

• Allows for experimenting with different writing styles and ideas. • No pressure to be perfect in your writing.

• Allows for very random thoughts.

Problems with Forum

• Postings are often vulnerable to misunderstanding; people over react, failing to understand tone, sarcasm.

• Takes time to type postings each week–plus read other postings.

• The word count requirement means people babble; creates wordiness and redundancy.

• Many postings are repetitive; same issues covered over and over.

• Discussions often inconclusive.

• Procrastination problem: people wait til last minute to post

• Delayed feedback or no feedback on questions, concerns, etc.

• “Pedagogy is for the birds.”

• Allows passive students to remain passive while in class.

• Allows people to ramble; is rambling really a good habit?

Excerpts from Web Page Forum

[The following text is a brief excerpt from a web page forum group (the Run-Ons) during a five-day period last fall.  These posts have been condensed, but otherwise they appear as originally posted.]

14 Nov 2001 13:27:30    Subject: Plagiarism?

 I have been reading an essay discussing the idea of plagiarism and the "owning" of texts. It suddenly hit me. If, there is no such concept of an original idea or thought because we collaborate with everyone and everything then how can one person own a text? Which brings me to the question of how can there be plagiarism? If, there is no such thing as an original thought then everything we write is plagiarism since we have never spoken or written an original word or sentence. However, the very idea of plagiarism goes against the argument of collaboration and helps the "romantic" idea of individuality. . . .  –Drew

14 Nov 2001 18:05:56   Subject: Re: Plagiarism?

 As I was reading this I asked, what is plagiarism? Instead of being creative, I decided to rely on Webster and his Collegiate Dictionary: plagiarism is "an act or instance of stealing and passing off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; using (another's production) without crediting the source; to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source."

Even before consulting Webster, I considered plagiarism an unfair credit to someone who copied someone's work. This isn’t collaboration, but rather getting credit for someone else's ideas, the difference is between sharing ideas and stealing credit. If two or more people are collaborating, then everyone deserves credit, because there would be no one person supplying the original thought. But if one person comes in after the collaboration has finished compiling ideas into written text and the person expects to get credit for it, or pretends to be in on the collaboration, then that's plagiarism. Plagiarism exists even if original thought doesn't because the plagiarizer is simply denying the original writer of the ideas due credit for compiling the collaboration of past experiences and new knowledge.

You say, "If, there is no such thing as an original thought then everything we write is plagiarism since we have never spoken or written an original word or sentence." I disagree simply because writing seems by default a passive collaboration.  While plagiarism is an active stealing of someone else's words.  I don't think "plagiarism goes against the argument of collaboration" because it just depends on whether people are getting credit and how involved people are in the collaboration. . . . Anyone care to disagree with me?   –Sarah

Date: 15 Nov 2001 01:08:16   Subject: Re: Plagiarism?

i read a novel yesterday. it was about a hit man, hecter, whose true passion was hair styling. he was on his way to make the hit that was going to allow him to retire, when his plane crashed, stranding him in the desert. he was forced to eat the pilot in order to survive, but eventually managed to reach a town. there he fell in love with a long haired beauty named adrien. but his love had a terrible secret. she was a vampire from another planet who had come to enslave the human race. eventually hecter and adrien ran off together.

as i'm sure you've guessed, i didn't read that book. it doesn't exist. but everything that happened in my imaginary novel was taken from something i have either seen in a movie or read. there was not an original idea in that entire scenario, not even the names, but i don't think anyone would say that such a novel, if it existed, was plagerism.

we take ideas and inspiration away from almost everything we encounter. you're allowed to take bits of information away from one source and use it in your own story, but you can only take so much before it is no longer your creation. i doubt anyone read my story summary and thought, "the people who created the sources that hobz got these ideas from must be crazy." no . . . people will recognize those as my words . . . my creation. the pieces came from many different sources, but i rearranged them to tell a story that i've never

heard before.  An after-thought:  if hecter had a volleyball named wilson with him when he crashed, that would be plagerism.   –Hobz

Date: 15 Nov 2001 16:21:19   Subject: Re: A reply to a lot

Due to the fact that I really don't want to study right now, I decided to use my time this afternoon to read through several postings and attempt to respond. The first one that I can recall dealt with Drew's statement about plagiarism. . . . It reminded me. . . of what we have been studying in philosophy these past two weeks.  Quoting David Hume:  "Nothing is more free than the imagination of man; and though it cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses, it has unlimited power of mixing, compounding, separating, and dividing these ideas, in all the varieties of fiction and vision."  That quote can be found on page 718 of the textbook From Plato to Derrida. Just to cover my bases there, so I can't be accused of anything. In response to Drew's question, I'd like to say that although everything we think, say, write, etc, is traceable to some original idea that wasn't our own; we are the ones who put that idea together with other ideas to form what we call our own work. Rather than plagiarizing, it's a sort of stretched paraphrasing operation. Like Hobz's little story about Hector. If that can be called paraphrasing. . . .

Finally, I wanted to share with you all a quote from the poetry reading I went to other day. . . . when Debra Marquart read some stuff. She said (referring to all the bands she was in) that: "[I got] so tired of collaborating that I thought, 'Writing, yeah, something you can do on your own...'" She went on to say that she soon realized even writing wasn't a solo process because of the publishers, the marketing, etc, etc, so on and so forth. I immediately thought of our Topics discussions and chuckled quietly to myself.  –Liz

Date: 19 Nov 2001 23:56:33   Subject: Re: an after-thought

That was a fun posting Hobz. :) You're right about that not being plagiarism until you added the volleyball. I can't put a fine line on where plagiarism starts and ends, and I don't know anyone who can, which is why there are so many disputes on the ownership of writing.  I know I said there could be plagiarism without original thought, but I was just typing that to see if I agreed with it. I'm not sure I do anymore. Do you think there can be plagiarism without original thought? Can you plagiarize from past collaborations? Or does collaboration negate original thought? Does original thought exist?

Earlier, Drew said, "If, there is no such thing as an original thought then everything we write is plagiarism since we have never spoken or written an original word or sentence." I responded, "I disagree simply because writing seems by default a passive sort of collaboration (informal collaboration). While plagiarism is an active stealing of someone else's words." Can we distinguish between passive and active collaboration? Is reading passive collaboration? If there is no difference between passive and active collaboration, then can someone take in information from their surroundings, process it, and use it for something else without collaborating? Or, is this all active collaboration? Is there a difference in collaboration depending on whether it's reading or writing that's going on?

Not all plagiarism is intended; sometimes people don't know how to cite and/or when they are supposed to cite sources. Since plagiarism is the stealing of someone else's ideas without giving credit, does it have to be a conscious act in order to qualify as plagiarism? If there is no original thought, does that mean everything is collaboration or does it mean everything is plagiarism? Plus, if all sources have to be cited for it to not be plagiarism, and there is no original thought, and there is no way we can cite everything; is all writing plagiarism or collaboration by default?  –Sarah

[A special thanks to Drew, Sarah, Liz, and Hobz for giving their permission to quote from their forum postings.  –Bob Marrs]

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