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- Dec 2015
For the past decade, I’ve been teaching a class at Penn called “Uncreative Writing,” where students are forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts that they haven’t written and claim them as their own. For a final assignment, I require them to buy a paper from a paper mill, put their name on it, and defend it as their own—surely the most forbidden act in academia. In the class, students are penalized for originality, sincerity, and creativity. What they’ve been surreptitiously doing throughout their academic career—patchwriting, cutting-and-pasting, lifting—must now be done in the open, where they are accountable for their decisions. Suddenly, new questions arise: What is it that I’m lifting? And why? What do my choices about what to appropriate tell me about myself? My emotions? My history? My biases and passions? The critiques turn toward formal improvement: Could I have swiped better material? Could my methods in constructing these texts have been better? Not surprisingly, they thrive. What I’ve learned from these years in the classroom is that no matter what we do, we can’t help but express ourselves.
Forcing students to plagiarize shows them the value and agency of their own voice. We don't know what we have until it is taken away.