Dr. Sandra M. Leonard

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In my first year of teaching freshman English composition I had the following preconceptions about plagiarism: that it was fairly rare, rather malicious, and always indicative of poor writing. Ten years of teaching, a dissertation, and several articles later, and I’ve changed or challenged all of these assumptions.

While teaching college composition did much to disabuse me of my expectations of the rarity and intentionality of plagiarism, it took me a bit longer to untangle the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of derivative writing.

My unlikely guide has been Oscar Wilde.

After finding many articles debating the ethical character of this well-known fin-de-siècle aesthete, I made Wilde’s plagiarisms the focus of a dissertation chapter and several follow up projects. My article in JNT 49.2 focuses on the sort of plagiarism that might be most recognizable to fellow composition instructors: patchwriting from reference works without attribution. Like students who copy and paste from online reference sources, Wilde stripped away citations and appropriated phrasings as if he possessed first-hand knowledge.

However, Wilde surprised me by his seeming awareness of what he was doing. Unlike students who might plagiarize out of inexperience or pressure, Wilde embraced the transgression of mimesis and made it a major theme of his work.

The fact that plagiarism can be used as an aesthetic strategy has implications beyond the composition classroom. Confining discussions of plagiarism to the domains of academic honesty and professional ethics has unfortunately led to a dearth of stylistic literary analysis of works that fall into moral gray areas. Hopefully, texts that have been previously dismissed for being unethical derivation might be reevaluated in light of the author’s skill in capitalizing on the transgressive nature of aesthetic plagiarism, much in the same way that we admire the intertextual genres of parody and adaptation.

But the idea that plagiarism can be “good” isn’t an easy notion to articulate nor to swallow. When I presented the beginning stages of my research at an academic conference, it was very poorly received.  Like I had previously done, my colleagues equated the label “plagiarism” with aesthetic failure. And to make matters worse, here was a composition instructor sounding like she was giving a well-respected author an F in freshman comp. The current article represents my best efforts to correct misperceptions about plagiarism and explicate the important role it plays in Wilde’s novel.

Wilde is only one such author who demonstrates the fact that plagiarism may be artful but is not necessarily inartistic. Perhaps students have known this all along. While plagiarism is, of course, nothing new, many instructors witness students consistently reinventing it, attempting to recreate essays in the style of plagiaristic mash-ups that exist throughout pop culture as well as in some of our most cherished texts.

Sandra M. Leonard, Ph.D. teaches composition, linguistics, and literature at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania as an Assistant Professor. She is currently working on a book project about Oscar Wilde’s plagiarisms. Her next article on plagiarisms in Wilde’s Chatterton notebook “Oscar Wilde’s Plagiaristic Composition in the Chatterton Notebook: ‘He Needs Must Forge’” will appear in the January 2020 issue 63.1 of English Literature in Transition 1880-1920.

She also published on the problems adjunct instructors face when dealing with plagiarism in the Spring 2018, 22.2 issue of the NCTE journal, Forum: Issues about Part-time and Contingent Faculty: https://prod-ncte-cdn.azureedge.net/nctefiles/resources/journals/tetyc/045-4may2018/tetyc0454forum.pdf

You can find her WordPress profile page here: https://sandramleonard.wordpress.com/ and follow her infrequent Twitter posts @SandraMLeonard

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