Saturday, December 14, 2013


Consider this a footnote to the previous post on "plagiarism."

As a freshman in college I was required to take an introductory course in "English Composition." Looking back, I realize that the aim of the course was to prepare us to write academic papers. The course book was a volume edited, as I recall, by Alfred Kazin and included essays on different subjects, and our assignments were to read an essay and write a critical assessment of the writer's arguments. What I most remember from this class was the teacher's (probably back then a Ph.D. student) crabbedness about footnoting sources. I seem to see her at the front of the classroom, frowning, because she suspected that we had quoted passages without acknowledging the source. She was probably correct, though at the time her point seemed to be merely one of the impenetrable rules that those in authority imposed. I was very dutiful (I had twelve years of Catholic school education behind me!), but it took me a lot longer to understand the difference between paraphrasing with attribution and quoting verbatim with attribution.

I discovered when I was writing my dissertation that, however much I thought I had copied a source perfectly, with quotation marks, generally something had been omitted or changed in the copying. It was a moment of horror to go back and verify the date of publication or pagination, only to discover that a mistake had been added to the precious words of the cited authority. A reader of this blog will perhaps have noticed that I often put quotation marks around certain phrases, which means that they come directly from the source I am talking about. In a blog like this I resist quoting very long passages with quotation marks; that's another reason why I also cite the publication details. To some extent I suppose I am like Fritz Strich, seamlessly (I hope) blending my thoughts with those of my interlocutor. (By the way, I also give attribution to illustrations I have taken from other sources, unless they are from Wikipedia or from a self-evident commercial advertising source.)

Strich of course was writing in the tradition of that referred to by Joseph Texte (see previous post). I, on the other hand, am writing in the age of the footnote. It is interesting that a modern trope is "originality." No one wants to be thought to be like anyone else. Yet the demand for footnotes exposes a lack of originality, while also indicating that we write in an age when our connection to the literary inheritance and to tradition has been fractured.

Picture sources: Beauty Best FriendEthnography MattersLapsura

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