Turn-It-Inward: Copyright in Theory and Practice

This post is the first in a series at TUSH this year on the relationship between research and the classroom. You can look out for several pieces from regular and guest contributors on a wide range of subjects in the coming months.

It’s hard to convey the precise look of horror that spreads across students’ faces when you tell them that you work on the history of copyright. Watching the anxious leafing through the syllabus to sort out whether your plagiarism policy will be that much more intense, their initial relief that the terms appear fairly standard almost immediately shifts to suspicion. As if to say “what’s the catch,” several hands shoot into the air to ask, “what about turnitin?” Of course not everyone has this reaction: several sit calmly, confident in whispered comments that range from a understanding of how to properly cite source to 8am-on-a-Friday bleary eyed indifference. But in that first meeting of my first lecture course, several years ago at this point, it was evident that my research, and how I could use it as a teaching tool, resonated beyond icebreaking introductions.

For many students, including those navigating the dissertation filing process, copyright can be an abstract, distant category, popular with media moguls from Taylor Swift to Mickey Mouse. Piracy and plagiarism are also open-ended, running a gamut from a missed footnote to wholesale copy and pasting. However a few centuries ago intellectual property had a very practical role as a way for a wide range of intellectual laborers, from artists to writers, cartographers to engravers, fabric makers and technology inventors, to make a living and support themselves. This is not to say that American copyright and patents have not changed dramatically since the Constitution codified it back in 1787 – it has, quite a bit – but rather that producing your own authentic, innovative work is not just something you have to do for a grade. When you write a paper or complete an assignment, you are participating in a long history of people turning their ideas, abstract and ephemeral, into material realities. And for students of all levels that process can be very empowering.

Admittedly, the collective response to that initial spiel was more crickets than thunderous applause about producing the most inspired work of their academic lives. But over the semester and in subsequent courses I’ve noticed several light bulbs go off whenever lectures and discussions veer into the realm of relevant subjects: improvement and innovation in American society, free and unfree labor, commercial and trade regulation, the impact of print from The Federalist Papers to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s been substantial engagement with the position that if someone plagiarized, it not only took advantage of the work of another person but also defeated the point of studying history in the first place, not to mention professional development more broadly. When I was a writing fellow last year, working with faculty and students to design curriculums that advanced students’ effective communication skills, this became even more apparent. In the WAC emphasis on “writing to learn,” preventing plagiarism was more than a way for to teachers to encourage students to learn the material. For everyone in the classroom, instructors and participants alike, it was a meaningful step towards gaining a better grasp of their own interpretations and perspectives.

While this likely sounds obvious, it consistently surprises me how distant these ideas can be in the day to day running of a history course. Students are well aware that plagiarizing violates academic honor codes and breaks the rules because it means they did not complete their assignments. By widening the scope of understanding to include the historical landscape of similar issues, it seemed that the stakes became more substantial to them. Understandings of what plagiarism ran deeper than abiding by the rules because it was grounded in centuries of debates over the very similar issue of whether or not they copied and pasted off the internet. Gaining a historical understanding of the context of copyright – when it worked, when it failed, and why – was I believe an effective way of connecting historical understanding to the value of students crafting their own contributions.

Ultimately, in sharing elements of my research with my students, I want to create an open intellectual environment with transparency about the historical questions that interest me. And I bet that there are many terrific research projects, sure to be explored in this series, that will speak to the brilliant ways we can bridge the artificial gap between the archive and the classroom, personally and for our students. Plagiarism is one of countless challenges teachers face and I cannot say for certain that no student in my class cheated, only that while I was the head instructor, I never “caught” anyone. Some students ran into trouble, not understanding how to properly cite and integrate primary and secondary evidence but I do consider that a separate issue, one that required more effective instruction on my end, from deliberately taking another persons words without acknowledgement.

But to get back to that initial question, “what about turnitin?” At this point, as I responded several years ago, I don’t use it. This is not a principled stance but a practical one, and one that can absolutely change in the future. Turnitin and other equivalent services are completely valuable teaching tools, helpful both for students and instructors in the revision and editing process. When I have seen plagiarized papers in the past, as a TA and with colleagues, it seems pretty evident and sure, if a paper seems dubious, I will run it myself, since nothing in my syllabus precludes that possibility. But at this stage in my ongoing development as a teacher, I am striving to present copyright and plagiarism as important historical and present-day concerns that students should be aware of in their own academic practices. My goal is not to monitor but to encourage an individual sense value in their intellectual work. By trusting that they will not plagiarize, initially at least, I want to encourage my students to communicate their viewpoints honestly and accurately not just because they have to to pass the class but because of the inward benefits that process can provide.

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