Authorship 2.0

authorship.jpegTwitter, huh? If you aren’t already familiar with Twitter, you might want to check it out. According to the front page of the Web site, Twitter “is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” Essentially, it allows users to post as often as they like these tiny little blogs that keep any followers of the posts updated on the minutiae of someone’s day. Posts like “Just landed in L.A.” and “Slept in until 10” are common, as are posts that describe other activities: “Reading an article in the New York Times about the writers’ strike” or “Wishing I hadn’t had so much to drink last night, even though it was fun.” Some people Twitter their thoughts about politics, religion, relationships, etc. There is no matter too insignificant or significant for a Twitter post. If you think it, do it, say it, hear it, you can Twitter it.

I had a long conversation yesterday with my partner about the moral nature of blogging. I had questions about a blogger’s accountability to his audience. In particular, I wondered if there was some necessity, simply because I’d set the expectation, that I follow my last post on Slam Teaching with a continuing discussion of plagiarism. I wondered if I am somehow accountable to you, my readership, and if I could let you down – not just in an emotional sense, but in a very real way concerning my responsibility to you as a fellow instructor or human being – by not posting the promised follow-up to my previous discussion. In a very real way, this communication via blog is limited: it is asynchronous, primarily one-way (like a lecture, if you will), and how the discussion progresses is entirely in my court. Because I must approve any replies to my posts, and because I can edit those replies at will, this blog is, despite appearances, actually generated by one author (me) who determines for himself the rules by which he wields his authority.

Rather than go into a long discussion about the question of accountability in blogging, I’ll segue: Americans are very attached to their own authorship. Is this a safe statement? When I author something, I feel I own it, that it must belong to me because I created it. This is, in fact, one of the sources of the plagiarism problem: the notion of intellectual property. Once I put my words on paper, they are mine; if you use them, you need to let others know that I came up with them first.

But equal to ownership of a text, experiences, thoughts, ideas all tend to be made more real when put into words, videotaped, or saved to a hard drive. Our lives are confirmed when they are textualized. I’d wager this is one reason why we see such a huge move toward blogging. We want to let people know our ideas, and we want our ideas cemented and actualized through the text they create (whether that text is written, digitized audio, or film). We author, and when we do, we create something we own, something we alone are responsible for, and something that confirms us as the authority of our own experiences.

As a teacher of writing, I am ecstatic at this return to written communication. It is as though it’s suddenly cool again to keep a journal, to know how to write well, and to write often.

According to Perseus’ The Blogging Iceberg, Teenagers have created the majority of blogs. Blogs are currently the province of the young, with 92.4% of blogs created by people under the age of 30. Half of bloggers are between the ages of 13 and 19. Following this age group, 39.6% of bloggers are between the ages of 20 and 29.” While the vast majority of blogs generated are abandoned almost immediately, the remaining blogs are nonetheless primarily those of a younger set, particularly teenagers. They use these blogs to provide updates on their lives (to author their experiences) for their friends and families.

In other words, middle school, high school, and college students all have a propensity for authorship. They want to say what they think. While that alone is not particularly revelatory, what might surprise some is that what these young people think is important, relevant, circumspect, and insightful. Take a look at Clay Burrell’s experimental Students 2.0 blog, an excellent example of how students can thrive and succeed when given the opportunity to author for themselves.

It started with e-mail, moved to text messaging, migrated to MySpace and YouTube, proliferated across hundreds of thousands of blogs, and now comes with the insistence of a radio signal via Twitter: young Americans, our students, are creating more text than ever before. (And watch out, because services like Ning are going to help them organize text-centered social networks according to their own design.) They are authorities over their own thoughts, and they’re broadcasting.

Though it may not seem so, this post is exactly a follow-up to my previous post on plagiarism. I think the primary problem with the way plagiarism is handled in the academy has to do with the fact that we are asking authors capable of flooding us with their own ideas and reflections to reauthor the ideas of others. Why not think about a pedagogy where we engage our students in their own authorship, their own expertise (with their lives, with the curriculum, with the class material) before we ask them to bow to (and cite) some other expert? The practice of learning from those who come before, of relying on the experts of a given field for information, is time-honored… but may be out-dated. Knowledge and information moves faster now than ever before; authorship is more profuse. Assuming that “the experts” are those who publish written texts and who have been practicing in their field for decades may now be an incorrect assumption. You have a classroom full of burgeoning experts.

In the latest issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, Dennis Sparks, emeritus executive director of the National Staff Development Council, writes about the power of authentic voices from leaders. He says, “By voice, I mean the clear and genuine expression of the intentions, ideas, beliefs, values, and emotions that inform their work… Effective leaders, I believe, bring their authentic voice into every conversation”. (The irony of a citation at this point in my post is not lost on me.)

I really think the solution to the problem of plagiarism can only be gotten at by looking at a single question: What is teaching meant to do? In my own practice, teaching serves the important purpose (not unlike parenting) of creating successful adults, where success is measured by the ability to express “intentions, beliefs, values, and emotions” within a chosen field, occupation, profession, vocation, etc. All the other tools of learning lead to this one result. For me, plagiarism is best handled not by creating assignments that make it difficult to plagiarize, and not by penalizing infractions of the academic policy, but by focusing on the importance of student authorship – an authorship our students are more and more ready to take on.

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