Who is Allowed to be Original?

During our very early interviews, we asked our informants whether they had ever learned by “copying” the writing of others.  What was interesting was that many of them seemed very defensive at the phrasing of that question and believed we were asking them if they plagiarize. It appeared that they had very quickly learned the severity of “plagiarism” in the American academy and were very nervous about the word “copy”.  So we revised the questionnaire to include the word “model” instead and that’s when we were struck by a common thread: the perception of the roles of scholar and student emerged as a central theme that informed many of our other categories. It stemmed from our discussion of originality. Who is allowed to originate? The statement “be original” is a consistent part of most writing assignment prompts in the American academy. But when a non-American student is faced with that statement, it can be a major challenge. Our research shows that many students don’t see themselves as originators; to them, the scholar is the originator whom the student mimics. This mimicry serves as practice for the student to sound and experience the thinking, the language and the style of the scholar. Some students copied the style and structure of published works; others not only mimicked the style, but directly copied and memorized texts and were then quizzed on how accurately they replicated the text.

Many of our informants said that most of their writing experiences were in-class, which suggests that there was more emphasis on the repetition of knowledge, rather than the synthesis and analysis of knowledge. Writing is consequently seen as proof of received knowledge rather than as a process of thinking and learning. While many of our informants showed frustration with the rote memorization in their school systems, others believed it helped them develop their intellect by teaching them how to essentially becomescholars themselves. This approach to learning isn’t against the individual per se, but it is a way to reserve respect for the great thinkers.

~In my native language…again it was mostly analytical. It’s interesting because it always comes back to me reading, to mimicking someone else’s writing. Because, if I had to analyze, say a book, I would take someone else who analyzed it or analyzed parts of it and then take someone else and see how they structured it, and in a way try to create, see what the general idea of what all that is and try to create my own way of analyzing it. I would put it in my own thoughts , but put it in a frame that’s suitable. So, reading was a big part of learning the frame of the discipline and fitting in your thoughts.

~Mimicking others? I do a great deal of mimicking someone’s writing, especially in my major. I mimic academic writing by reading and it’s easy for me; like right now, I’m working on my senior thesis, so I go and read studies a lot before I start typing. So when I start typing and summarizing using their quotes it’s easy for me to follow through in my analysis in the same language as they use because they use it so well. So for me it’s very easy to pick up and mimic someone’s writing

~If you want to be proficient in academic writing in any field, you have to learn. You have to see how people write in your field, by reading a lot. I’m grateful to my professors for making me read a lot just because it’s easy to adjust your writing when you mimic someone’s writing in a way. Mimic the style, mimic the structure. So I read a lot before I started being proficient.

~[In Bulgaria] we would have a class when our teacher would read a story, a short story, and she would read it twice and we were not allowed to take any notes and we had to recreate it. It’s like retelling the story in your own words. But no analysis. You could not put something in that was not in the story. You cannot interpret it in any way. It’s about paying attention to detail and learning to paraphrase a writer in a way. These are the first steps I guess, my first steps in writing by retelling stories. This is in English as well. Yes, they were using this approach to teach us to pay attention to details in English, in another language.

~What’s good writing here can be completely nonsense in my country. It is, to a certain extent. If I take an essay that an American student wrote and show it to a professor in my home country, they would say “what is this? This is not academic writing. This is someone’s personal view? I don’t care what that person’s personal view is. This is not what I have taught.”

~Particularly academic writing is more objective in Sri Lanka, not so subjective.  You don’t bring your personal opinion; people don’t care about your personal opinion; you just analyze the data in a more clinical fashion back home. You write in the third person. You would never insert “I” into an academic piece. Ever. You’d always write in the third person. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

~On whether she learned to write by copying the writing of others:
I can’t remember ever doing that in terms of copying people who have written about the subject. For research writing, you have to do lit reviews, so you have to learn the field-what is out there. So that for literature reviews, you kind of have to cite what people have written about that subject. That’s the only time I can think of – not copying but analyzing what other people have written about the subject. Other than that, I don’t think I have ever done that. I am either attracted or enticed to write because I see writing of other people or I like the way people write or I read more of a particular writer because the style of writing is very enticing or interesting. But I don’t necessarily say I’m going to write more like this person. I’m just intrigued by the way people write, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I copy the writing style.

~They give models and say “write like this,” but no originality.  For example, everyone uses the imagery of moon “hangs” in the sky, whereas here you write your own description.

~American teachers teach to write your own; don’t copy anyone else.  But Chinese teachers just want a very beautiful, good paper; they don’t encourage but don’t care if someone copies; they like beautiful words and grammar.

~On memorizing texts in her native country:
Word for word.  And it was normally not considered good to move away from the text, you know.  Your own expression was, uh, you know, not really accepted, you know… It was not really acceptable.  Unlike here where, you know, there is a lot of emphasis on your thoughts, your expression.

~Teachers in India are very—which word should I use—authoritarian?  Or there’s more and more disciplinarian aspect in Indian teaching, but here there’s a lot of, a lot of encouragement.  Even if there is just a tiny bit of hope, they keep egging you on.  And in India, because there are population problems, only the best survive.

~The patterns of schooling are completely different from here.  They say that this is the text you have for your exam, so what we do is go line-by-line, practice writing from the text and we produce it in the final.

~In graduate school there is not so much memorization; there is a little bit more comprehension. You change the way it is expressed, but the content remains the same, you know, it’s not your personal opinion.  It’s only how you express the comprehension.

~It all comes down to vocabulary; it’s not your thought because I feel that  now, every person who goes to school who does even a bit of schooling is blessed with some thought or another in his or her chosen field, but it’s the expression….   I mean if you talk to an Indonesian, a Malayan, everybody grows up in a language, so um, and everybody has an enriching experience as they grow up, so it’s not the thoughts, I always felt that it’s never lack of original thoughts, it’s the expression and that comes when you have a solid, solid vocabulary basing.  You have to have to know which word to use to express your thought.

~[My teachers in South Korea] don’t ask you to put your own thoughts on anything… I mean about what we learn and what we have read, but not about our own opinions.  They don’t count as much. We don’t do critical thinking as much, and we just have to summarize or analyze things that we learn from classes.

~We can say the classes [in Thailand] are teacher-centered because when we walk into the classroom, we expect that today the teacher will tell us. We just listen, just like the lecture, to the teacher, to what they want to tell. It’s like that. But it doesn’t mean it’s like that all the time because sometimes the teacher does ask the question but it’s like we were trained not to be active in the classroom, so not much discussion. Just listen and then doing homework like that in the classroom. But nowadays there is change. They try to have the children-centered class, have the children speak up to show us the idea. This is what the American system does, right? So that means the student have to show the idea, have to speak out, and they are independent and they have to study more and more.

~On the notion of “voice” in academic writing in Russia:
The voice would still be yours.  They didn’t want you to mimic like a well-known writer, in terms of the way you write or she writes.  They didn’t want you to do that.  They wanted you to develop your own voice, but at the same time I think it is more limited. Also, I think the time when you are actually able to show your voice is when you write like a really important paper.  Like my mom, she wrote her dissertation—there you can explore your whole, whatever you want to do.  But in terms of my class, they don’t let you.  I don’t remember being encouraged.  They want to see obviously how I write…they had guidelines of how I should write.

~Here, I think it is just more open, more laid back.  I don’t think it is secretive, you know.  And there, it is like more…you keep to yourself; the whole society, they will open up to you when they get to know you.  Here, it depends on individual because there are so many different kinds of people. Here, you know, obviously it is okay to be different so you can tell your story, but there, you just keep to yourself.  So in terms in writing, I don’t remember writing about my life, like my family, issues, and things like that.  It would be more like strictly academic: you write about a book, you write about an event, or historic event, or whatever.

~So this professor said you have to quote from all these articles; you have to. So then, with my first time I wrote it, he came back and said “no, you have to quote more from what I told you to quote.” So then I said, “how many do you want me to quote?”  So…he said “you know maybe…I don’t know how many.” And then the next time I wrote, just to tell you how confused I am, actually, I wrote a very nice paper quoting very nicely. Tons of them. And then he came back and told me, “very well written, quotes are excellently phrased, but I want to hear more from you, how you think.”

~Here, I am taking some classes that are not really law classes, but have a lot of ethics involved, a lot of morality.  So here you have more chances to develop your own ideas rather than there.  Because you can’t really talk much about law, you can’t really give your opinion because you don’t have enough knowledge, so you are compelled to use sources all the time and to cite authors and kind of analyze all of the opinions.  Here you have more leeway.

~For the essay questions, they used to give us [in school in Pakistan] like ten essays and we used to memorize that.  We never used to get to put our own thoughts.  And one thing that I see here that we were never taught was reading.  The more books were read here, the more vocabulary increases, and we never used to; the teachers never used to give us books to read.  We only used to go through course books.  But my father and my family, they paid a lot of attention to this thing, and they made sure that we read other books besides the course books.

~We didn’t have a concept of plagiarism. We were supposed to memorize stuff and put it down on the paper, and obviously it wasn’t our thoughts; it was someone else’s and that’s complete plagiarism.  And sometimes we used to write word for word. I remember there was a teacher and if I missed one line, she would say “okay, you are missing this line.”  And now I realize they were teaching us plagiarism.

~Teachers here tell us what books to approach.  I would say that the professors here know what they are doing.  And they have a complete knowledge of their own field, so even if I ask them a complete weird question, they would have an answer for that.  They would not say “okay, don’t focus on that, this is not your thing; just focus on your course or syllabus” like they used to do back home.  But over here if I just come up with a weird idea, and I have something in my mind, and if I go to my professor, he or she would explain that to me.   But they are really helpful, they do go through my papers. I can submit rough draft, and they will say “okay, these are the points you need to add to your paper.”  They are really helpful.  They always tell me “put more citation in, you have quoted wrong.”

~I would say that one of the weakness [in Pakistani academy] was the structure thing, and we were not allowed to use our own ideas.  We were not allowed to research on the topic before we write anything down.  And they were like small topics: your best friend, your best book, your favorite music, really small topics.  And they are still using the same topic.  They never change themselves.

~American teachers don’t tell you this is wrong or your idea is not good. Basically, there is no right or wrong and back home there is. If you say the answer, they either say right or wrong, which is discouraging most of the time. Students’ questions are not that much welcome in class. If you ask a lot of questions, that means you don’t understand and it is bad with you. Because the teacher is giving his best and has given perfect explanation and if you don’t understand then that is your problem. The way they grade, as I said, it is either zero or ten.

~When I was in college in Nigeria, I would have two or three pages for my exam; I would have to sit down and memorize the definition. Here, it does encourage free thinking, free writing, you know, you create your ideas.  By the British, you have to go certain rules and regulations. For me right now, I prefer the American system because I don’t have to cram anything. I know my GPA will be 4 because I understand, you know… I understand and I know how to apply the concepts, but I cannot write; but, now I have four daughters, and so, I don’t have the brain to memorize the definitions. I cannot memorize any more.  But back home, in Nigeria, my husband has to define every medical word; he has to know what is this definition of every medical word. Here, he says when he asks the doctor “what is this?” they say “give me a second;” they go open the textbook, you know, read what it says and come back and explain.

~When you are writing an essay you don’t go like following some certain rules or regulations whereby you have to have introduction, thesis, conclusion, body. In Hausa you don’t have to do all that.  What is more important is the ideas that you are putting on the paper. That is what is more important.

~If a teacher asks me to give some specific idea, and then write it down and do some research and make a paper—that is easy. But, more creative things…you make a campaign, so you analze how you are going to do your campaign. That kind of thing is hard. [Last year] my professor asked me to make a specific campaign. [He asked] “who is target audience and how are you going to target your audience and what kind of strategy are you going to do for your campaign?” That was really hard (…) For foreign students, very specific form is more  easier. But, more creative things, you can make your own paper, make it creative, and there is no specific way, so you have to create your own campaign, your own paper. But, some American students love this because thye more freely express their knowledge and writing skills. For foreign students, it is awkward; the question is very hard to figure out.

~I never talk about strategies. When I feel like writing I just write. After I have something I start playing around with it. Maybe I don’t think that’s a strategy. But you have to have something. But you cannot write before having an idea. To me, having an idea is the most important thing. You need to have the idea before you start, I think.

~I’m interested in copying; we didn’t learn like that in Columbia.  Here, professors give us sample papers, so you just follow the structure and what they’re supposed to look like, but not like copying word for word. I appreciate the sample papers; I think it’s a great idea to really understand what they want for the paper.

~A problem I notice is that whenever I write, I acquire the writing style immediately of whatever I am reading right now, like Dickens, which doesn’t really suit my academic writing.  I noticed that I have to stay focused on the academic reading, published articles, to maintain that style in my papers too; otherwise I immediately try to bring that color, that particular thing I was reading, especially with Dickens and all; he is so verbose and you cannot use that kind of language. I need to distance myself, which is a sad thing though.  That richness of the language is lost.

~Modeling is very important for me and I try to do what the native writers do, how they write.  That is very important and if you see something that is perfect, you just put it in your mind and next time try to use it, even if you use it in the wrong way.  From time to time, it is better for you to have your works revised by some native writers and that is very important because if you get used to one way of expression you will always use it unless some people tell you there is a better way.  Even in my experience, even if I saw some very good sentence in the articles or in the papers, I can get used to using it…next time I still use the way I express, unless someday some people saw my paper and say this can be better expressed, that is going to impress me most and I will change my way next time.