(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

When Cheating is Learning – Inadvertent Plagiarism #rhizo14


The challenge in week 1 of #rhizo14 to think about cheating made me think a lot because my work involves helping faculty at my institution deal with plagiarism. I expected to struggle with this idea, but listening to Dave’s intro video and reading his blog reminded me of an anecdote i share early on in a plagiarism workshop i give.

It is a story I read in one of Helen Keller’s books where she recounts a story of being accused of plagiarism when she was very young (eleven!). Imagine a deaf-blind kid being accused of plagiarism! (full story in her own wordsaccessible here). Apparently, she wrote what she thought at the time was her own original story, only to later discover (by being accused of plagiarism) that her story was very similar to something someone had read to her once (that person was not her mom or her regular nurse, so it took a while before they discovered how she had “read” the story before). She had not been aware of plagiarizing, it just happened. This incident made her very careful afterwards with all her writing, including letters, and she stuck to writing non-fiction. What a shame, right? I share this story as a caution to how accusing a person of plagiarism when they do not intend it could kill their spirit and creativity. Keller herself makes a point that reminds me of rhizomatic learning:

It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. Consequently, in nearly all that I write, I produce something which very much resembles the crazy patchwork I used to make when I first learned to sew.

Have we not all had similar experiences? We learn something, internalize it, and then we are unsure where someone else’s ideas ended and ours began?

It happens to me all the time, and happened to me during my PhD research. It took me time between finishing my interviews and finalizing the writing up of the analysis and results. There was a particular idea that I had thought was mine, but that I realized (thankfully before i finished the thesis) was actually said in an interview with someone.

I guess what Dave was saying was that the idea of cheating assumes someone else has the answer, and that there is actually one answer that is possible to reach alone. Whereas much learning occurs “in-between” rather than within each of us (sounds like social constructivism but i am sure rhizomatic learning goes beyond that).

In a brainstorming meeting, so many ideas bounce off each other that it is often difficult to attribute the final idea to one particular person… It is a crowd-sourced idea.

I also think Helen Keller’s imagery of how ideas become part of the substance and texture of the mind reminds me of neural networks of our brains… Information gets stored there in ways we cannot imagine in detail, and follows paths that we cannot always predict (at least, that is how computer neural networks work – as I remember from my undergrad years, and I believe they are similar to the human brain in their action).

In that sense, a rhizome is similar to the brain itself… Like the multiple connections between neurons. Or have I got this wrong? (I think I need to go read a bit more about rhizomes, rather than just work with what I understood from reading about them a few times on Dave’s blog and others’) – but i wanted to share this thought right away.

Would love to hear others’ thoughts on this.


Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

5 thoughts on “When Cheating is Learning – Inadvertent Plagiarism #rhizo14

  1. Thanks for sharing this story about Helen Keller. Stories are such a good way to get a point across. They work every time for me 🙂 Last year I completed the ModPo MOOC (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) and as part of thinking about where poets get their inspiration from I thought about plagiarism and wrote this blog post – http://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/re-purposing-poetry-and-plagiarism/ Sorry to push my blog post on you – but maybe the idea of repurposing is relevant to the discussions that we are having in rhizo14 about cheating?

  2. Thanks Jenny! I have learned from and cited some of your work in an upcoming publication of mine on MOOCs! Thanks for sharing your post – not imposing at all, but making more connections!

  3. Hi You write: I guess what Dave was saying was that the idea of cheating assumes someone else has the answer, and that there is actually one answer that is possible to reach alone. Whereas much learning occurs “in-between” rather than within each of us (sounds like social constructivism but i am sure rhizomatic learning goes beyond that).
    Would the difference be: Social constructivism is much more constructed and formal, while rhizomatic learning is more fuzzy and unpredictable?

    • Hey Jaap – I am not sure that social constructivism (as I understand it) is necessarily more structured, though I guess it is applied that way in formal educational settings. I it really the theory or the application that drives our perception of it? Sounds like I need to go and re-do some old reading on pedagogical theory. Another concept I really liked from way back in 2003 is Pedler’s learning community where interdependent learners take different paths to reach different goals, while supporting each other along the way.

  4. Hi! I love the Helen Keller story and feel the same about what I read and experience as it all becomes internalized and my own. Crowdsourcing and brainstorming are great examples of trends that explicity show the phenomena of which you speak as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and words in such an elegant and deeply humanistic way. Looking forward to future rhizomatic connections:)

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