Write Like Flunkeys

Or Write Like A Colleague:

Discover Your Authority

by Louie Crew a.k.a. Li Min Hua

First appeared in Florida English Journal 24.2 (1988): 7-12.
© 1988 by Florida English Journal; © 2004 by Louie Crew

Weary of reading plagiarized papers by the dozen, my colleagues and I recently fought back. We tricked our first-year students:

Write a paragraph on art that incorporates the ideas expressed below:

It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. --H. James

Art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feeling to which men have risen. --L. N. Tolstoi

Art is the imposing of pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment in recognition of the pattern. --A. N. Whitehead

They took the bait: 93 percent plagiarized and thereby set up the next lecture, on plagiarism.

We had already assigned the relevant section of the MLA Handbook (Second Edition, NYC: MLA, 1984, 19-23). I rewrote two student essays to demonstrate how they, in the terms of Joseph Gibaldi and Walter Achtert, "could have avoided the charge of plagiarism" (22).

First Student Sample

We can find art by seeking for life, interest and value in our experiences and activities. By the process of seeking, we gain the feeling of life, interest, and importance. It is the highest and best feeling to human beings. It generates strength and beauty which cannot be substituted in any ways.

A Revision

If we seek for art, we will discover interest and value. As we seek, we will feel life. Tolstoi reminded us that art transmits the highest and best feeling to which human beings have risen. Henry James asserted that he knew no substitute whatever for art.

Here I tricked them again. When I asked whether the revision remedied the problem, most students said yes. They did not notice the uncredited phrases, until I demonstrated:
Second Revision

If we seek for art, we will discover interest and value. As we seek, we will feel life. Art transmits, Tolstoi reminded us, "the highest and best feeling to which men have risen." Henry James asserted that he knew "no substitute whatever" for art's "force and beauty."

To reinforce the point, I revised another paper:

Second Student Sample:

Art is a human activity to transmiss the highest and best feelings to others. It also imposes a pattern on experience, and makes us aesthetically enjoy to recognize the pattern. Art has unsubstitutable force and beauty that makes us consider and apply life, interest and importance.

This time I demonstrated two acceptable ways to credit the sources, especially if one plans to add a bibliography which will specify the titles and editions to which the page numbers refer in the second revision:
One Acceptable Alternative

Through art human beings transmit what Tolstoi called "the highest and best feelings." Whitehead, always concerned with process, stressed that art imposes "a pattern on experience," and that we enjoy art because we recognize this pattern. Art's "force and beauty" has "no substitute whatever," according to Henry James.

Another Acceptable Alternative

Through art human beings transmit "the highest and best feelings" (Tolstoi 135). Art imposes "a pattern on experience," and we enjoy art because we recognize this pattern (Whitehead 254). Art's "force and beauty" has "no substitute whatever" (H. James 41).

So far, all according to the book, right?

Not Just a Problem of Plagiarism

Anyone paying close attention will recognize that the student papers here, as did most of the others, manifest serious problems besides plagiarism.

First, few students even paraphrased correctly. Apparently they could not understand the three writers. Most of the students ran their borrowed words together incoherently. Even theft requires more skill to succeed.

More crucial: the students had nothing of their own to say about art or about these three views of art! Yet the assignment stated explicitly: "Write a paragraph on art...." Sixty-five bright students, each having recently eliminated 29 other candidates for the same University seat, glibly borrowed instead of thinking for themselves! Why?

"But sir," one of them interrupts, "you did not tell us to state our views. You have dropped the main part of your instructions: 'that incorporates the ideas expressed below.'"

Note that the student pleads for a right to disappear unless explicitly summoned. This assumption will vitiate any assignment. Those who even minimally understand authoring recognize that it differs from mindless copying. Even when dealing with the ideas of others, writers choose what they say and must take responsibility for how they say it.

Education languishes indeed if we must pull students' flappers and tell them to turn on their thinking caps when they write.

Another student replies: "But I don't know anything about art and you did not tell us about this assignment so I could read up on it."

A University student who knows nothing about art? Absurd. Instead, the student does not know that she knows. Minimally the student knows what these three have said and can report: "About art, H. James said '....' But Tolstoi said '.....' A. N. Whitehead said '....'" Every student also already knows enough to illustrate each:

About art, Henry James said, "...." The "force and beauty" which James names certainly occur in the closing bars of a symphony, but no less impressively in the fiery eyes of an angry bird in a Chinese painting. When each word of Lao Tze falls precisely into place, "imposing...pattern on experience" (Whitehead), the artist summons the reader to enjoy "the highest and the best feeling to which men have risen" (Tolstoi).
While no one writer would likely choose the same examples, all students know enough to choose examples of their own.

Have the three "authorities" intimidated the students into silence? If so, we must wake them. For example, they could find their own authority by challenging the experts. These three don't fare all that well if one reads closely, as I suggest in another of my own attempts to do the same assignment:

Simple Simon and the Gas Jet

The term art often prompts otherwise sensible people to pontificate.

It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. --H. James

What kind of "interest"? The money that a Rockefeller or Run Run Shaw makes when he buys a masterpiece for a pittance off a tatty painter in Mong Kok and sells it to a collector in Paris for a cool million profit?

What "things"? Who applies and how? With what "consideration"? Why should we consider them?

James makes my head spin. He must have smelled the fumes, because he neatly plugged the lexical gas with one clear and powerful phrase: "I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty...."

Ah, but not quite. Still not listening to himself, James released one more fizz: "of its process."

What process? And in the throes of art's "force and beauty," who notices the sculptor's chisels, the composer's coffee-stained scores, the writer's chewed, empty Bic?

Tolstoi needs a bib: "Art is a human activity... " Does he seriously expect us to raise our hands to say, "But, learned author, I once saw a chimp daub paint over the side of my Dad's Mercedes and it looked just as good as a Picasso to me?!" No; L. N.'s cranking his profundity machine; it just hasn't engaged yet: "having for its purpose the transmission to others..." Whew! Maybe I got off at Honda Motors instead of Chinese University? "the highest and best feeling to which men have risen." See, he saved it! He got the ball in the hoop after all, and right at the end of his sentence, which cognitive psychologists identify as the proper place to show off. Gloria Steinem, you'll just have to eat your heart out. You can either blame that generic on the Czar or teach us to lop off the quotation: "'the highest and best feeling' human beings have achieved (Tolstoi)"

But let's not listen to the artists alone. They're biased. They're in the business. Listen to a philosopher, one who by profession only defines what others actually do:

Art is the imposing of pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment in recognition of the pattern.

Alfred North W. takes first prize--clear and concise, with key terms--impos[e], pattern, experience, aesthetic, enjoyment, recognition! Now I know why Beethoven's knock of destiny kept me awake the entire night after I first heard it, why Xian's terracotta warriors haunt my sleep. Whitehead has pinned them down with a phrase. They "impos[e]" a "pattern" on my "experience"! They "impos[e]" a "pattern" on my "experience"! "I speak prose! I speak prose!"

I confess that I hope only a minority of students will write this sophomorically. The speaker does not merely challenge, but actively abuses the sources. In a junior or senior level he might highlight his own vision less crassly. He might even discover Whitehead's patterns in the haunting terracotta warriors.

Nevertheless, for centuries universities have respected sophomoric intervals for their power to instruct. My "fresh persons" desperately need a voice, even if a sophomoric one.

For the more timid, I offer yet another response to the assignment well within the purview of most students' experience:

See How Run, See How Run

Art engages human feelings by its beauty and power, and often it does so simply. Comforting her baby, frightened by tiny creatures a farmer improvises:

Three blind mice. 
Three blind mice. 
See how run. 
See how run.

Oops! She shifts the pattern. The tune catches. Even out of the nursery, we repeat it. Mozart composed symphonic variations on it. Whitehead named the process: "Art is the imposing of pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment in recognition of the pattern." Power lurks in the magic of art's patterns. "See how they run. See how they run" For art there's "no substitute whatever" (Henry James). Across centuries, a skip in the simple beat of a peasant's song transmits what Tolstoi called "the highest and best feeling to which" people "have risen."

Here to address the abstract issue of art, I have taken a common tune and applied to it criteria from each of the "experts." I have carefully chosen only their aptest phrases, which thus sound better in my paragraph than in their own. Certainly their authority thus imported and credited makes me sound better, even as it underwrites my observations. I have enlisted the experts and at the same time have joined ranks with them. The students write like their flunkeys. We need to teach them to write like their colleagues.

Professional More Than Moral Concern

Those who view the students' problem primarily as a moral one miss a major educational point. In the MLA Handbook, Gibaldi and Achtert stress that students who plagiarize may have developed their bad habits with encyclopedias in elementary school, but to correct them they speak of "lawsuits" (19) and "severe penalties, ranging from failure in a course to expulsion from school" (20). They urge them to avoid "the charge" (22), never even to risk "committing plagiarism" (23).

While I certainly don't approve of the ways that my students violated the three texts, I don't for a moment think I will win them over by hounding them like criminals. Documentation looms as a lesser problem.

The students did not respect their own intellect. Instead, most reasoned, "What great art have I yet experienced? I know best how to read the items on the syllabus. I will try to piece together what these three say. I can do assignments like this with no problem....." They manifested none of their usual anxiety. Most finished early and left.

If they want to write well, the students must radically alter these perceptions. They can no longer derive their authority from the syllabus, unless they forcefully retard. They need vigorously to review their earlier education to sort out from received opinions what genuinely speaks to them, what engages their own intellect. They need to breathe life into these academic rites. No writer can author without such breath, commonly called "inspiration."

Then we can meaningfully talk about documentation. Then we can explain why the writer doesn't have to document an allusion (witness my sophomoric use of Moliere earlier) or "common property" (such as James' "interest" in my second revision of the first student's paper).... Writers must first have something to say before their work is worth documenting.


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