Richard Posner's "The little book on plagiarism" is an excellent, concise look at plagiarism. Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago and a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, offers an interesting legal-economic perspective on plagiarism that's well worth reading.

For something to be considered plagiarism, Posner states,

Plagiarism is a species of intellectual fraud. It consists of unauthorized copying that the copier claims (whether explicitly or implicitly, and whether deliberately or carelessly) is original with him and the claim causes the copier's audience to behave otherwise than it would if it knew the truth. (p. 106)

That's why, Posner argues, textbooks and judges' written opinions do not fall into the category of plagiarism. That is, (1) no one cares that textbooks don't cite their sources or that judges put their name on legal "patchwork" opinions, and (2) readers' actions would not change even if they knew the writing was not original. Ditto for ghostwritten celebrity books.

And that's why student work can fall into plagiarism: Students who plagiarize copy without authorization and lead the teacher to give a grade higher than would be the case if s/he knew.

One interesting point Posner makes is the double standard applied in the university. That is,

Plagiarism by professors tends to be punished less severely [than that of students] ... (p. 89)

Posner gives several examples, but one that stands out is that of Doris Kearns Goodwin:

Laurence Tribe leapt quickly to her defense, contending that her plagiarism had been inadvertent (though there was no way he could have determined that to be the case)--like his! And a string of prominent historians led by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Signed an open letter to the New York Times stating flatly that Goodwin "did not, she does not, cheat or plagiarize. In fact, her character and work symbolize the highest standards of moral integrity. (pp. 92-93)

As Posner notes, that academics would defend an "acknowledged plagiarist" as a "moral exemplar" is "remarkable."

Another point that Posner brings up is the differences between copyright violations and plagiarism. The former is illegal, the latter is not. Often they overlap, but not always:

Copyrights have limited terms; after a copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and can be copied by anyone, without legal liability. And not all expressive works are copyrighted in the first place; for example, the federal government is forbidden by statute to claim copyright in the documents it produces. (p. 12)

Although copying public domain works does not incur a legal liability, it can still be considered plagiarism, especially when done by students, which reminds me of another double standard: many teachers think nothing of photocopying copyrighted materials without permission (in ways that are not fair use and thus breaking the law) but become righteously indignant when detecting a case of plagiarism, which is not illegal. Rather remarkable, isn't it?

The OrnamentWeb 2.0 adherents often talk about the need for conversation, sometimes as if simply participating in the conversation is sufficient to promote learning. What is less often seen is the notion of intention. Philosopher Alicia Juarrero's book Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System tackles the problem of intention in action.

In her book, Juarrero asks, “What is the difference between a wink and a blink?” The wink, of course, is intentional, and the blink is not. And this is what her book is about, a contribution to action theory, which is a branch of philosophy that investigates the difference between action and non-action, intentional and unintentional behavior. Such distinctions are crucial in courts of law and have import in interpreting everyday encounters. Juarrero asserts that modern action theories are grounded in an inadequate understanding of cause and explanation. To remedy this defect, she proposes that action theories take a dynamical approach and consider intentional behavior as a complex system.

Juarrero's focus is on action. As conversations are a form of action, I wonder what role intention might play in education? What relationships exist between intention and focused attention as studied in second language acquisition? Juarrero herself wonders “whether and to what extent we can teach children to focus and channel their internal dynamics” (p. 251).

In addition to intention, Juarrero's take on stories attracted my attention. Juarrero looks at stories, or narrative, primarily as a hermeneutic tool, which can be applied to education. Stories aren't a new notion in education, but putting their usefulness in complexity terms explains how they might work in learning. Stories have the potential “to promote flexibility and resilience” (p. 253), to push one’s conceptual landscapes far from equilibrium, in children and in adults. Not all stories. Most simply reproduce social expectations and indoctrination. For stories to develop flexibility and resilience in children, they need to provide some element of surprise via juxtaposing concepts in unexpected ways. For an example, consider The Farmer’s Wife (Shah, 1998).

In this children’s story, a farmer’s wife drops her apple, which rolls into a hole. Unable to get it out, she asks a series of animals and objects (bird, cat, dog, bee, beekeeper, rope, fire, water, and cow) to help her. However, each one in turn refuses and is called “naughty.” Finally, she asks the bird to peck the cow, which sets off a cascade of actions in reverse order of animals and objects, returning to the bird again, building up to the point at which it is expected that the last (and first) animal, the bird, will retrieve the apple. However, instead, at the last second, a wind blows the apple out of the hole, “And everyone lived happily ever after.” This short story juxtaposes (1) asking according to one’s own interest with asking according to the recipient’s interest (or nature), (2) allegedly naughty beings (and the good farmer’s wife) with living happily ever after, and (3) an expected outcome from a linear cascade of causes with unexpected chance.

There are other concepts with educational and research implications presented in Juarrero’s text: interlevel causality, interdependencies, enabling constraints, and so on. Juarrero’s book is pregnant with concepts and questions for re-examining old lines of educational research and opening up new ones.

Dynamics in Action is dense. To understand its philosophical underpinnings requires careful re-readings. It is also speculative. Juarrero is using, as she says, complex adaptive systems as a theory-constitutive metaphor. However, it is insightful speculation, and it is a story worth re-reading.


Shah, I. 1998. The Farmer’s Wife. Cambridge, MA: Hoopoe Books.

Note: Most of this post is excerpted from my review of Juarrero's book in the journal Complicity.

The Ornament

When you think of tolerance and multiculturalism, does Medieval Europe come to mind? Probably not. Yet, Maria Rosa Menocal's (professor of Spanish and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University) book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain makes precisely that claim. Weaving together tales from medieval Spain, Menocal illustrates how three different religions built a "first-rate" culture of tolerance that influenced Europe for centuries to come.

Menocal intertwines "culture of tolerance" with F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion of a "first-rate" mind, writing,

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time ...

[that] contradictions--within oneself, as well as within one's culture--could be positive and productive. (pp. 10-11)

Contradictions, Menocal asserts, were responsible for the flowering of art, intellect, and tolerance towards others in Medieval Spain: Muslims, Christians, and Jews interacted openly and freely, keeping a strong sense of identity, yet assimilating features of other cultures that they admired. In Medieval Spain, tolerating contraries led to great philosphers like ibn Rusd and Maimonides, who wrestled with the contraries of faith and reason. Maimonides, with his Second Law, or Mishneh Torah, would be called a "second Moses." Moses of Leon struggled with the traditional Halakah and came up with his Sefer ha-zohar, The Book of Splendor, a systematic compilation of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The study of the living language of Arabic generated once again a Hebrew that was "the language of a vibrant, living poetry" (p. 109).

Such "first-rate" contraries resulted in "authentic multiculturalism." Jews, such as Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Samuel the Nagid, were viziers in an Islamic government. Alongside Arabic--a language of state, love, and religion--existed other religious and vernacular languages. This multicultural environment preferred freedom of religious expression to political correctness; "incongruity in the shaping of individuals" (p. 11) to a "strict harmony of ... cultural identities" (p. 277); "to pose difficult questions rather than to propose easy answers or facile morals" (p. 274); and so on. All of these contraries and others touch upon so many issues in education and modern life, such as assimilation vs. heritage maintenance, multiculturalism vs. traditional canons, political correctness vs. freedom of expression and of religion, bilingual education vs. immersion, and so on.

The authentic multiculturalism of Medieval Spain arose from tolerance of and dialogue with others. Yet, tolerance and dialogue are not givens, as this culture of tolerance eventually fell.

WHAT HAPPENED? HOW AND WHY DOES A CULTURE OF tolerance fall apart? How did a people come to abandon a culture rooted in an ethic of yes and no, so readily able to love and embrace the architecture or the poetry of political enemies or religious rivals, so willing to read good books regardless of the library they came from? All the answers are themselves bundles of contradictions.... Perhaps all that can be said with any conviction is that in the combination of spectacular successes and failures presented by this history lie tales of both warning and encouragement. (p. 266)

The notion of contradictions being essential for tolerance and creativity, and also for learning (see Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction) underscores the need to inject uncertainty and novelty into the classroom, not so much as to be overwhelming but enough to promote the flow of learning.

At the end of the book, Menocal writes, "Every reader will take away different lessons from the tales in this book." Indeed.

Below are some reviews that offer other readings of and lessons from The Ornament of the World

They say / I say

They say/I say : the moves that matter in academic writing is a lovely introduction to academic argument by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein that shows how academic argument is a dialogue in which an individual acknowledges what others are saying and at the same time makes a space for what s/he is saying. The chapter headings summarize the book fairly well:

Part 1. "They say"
ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)
TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)
THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"
FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)
FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)
SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)
SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together
EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)
NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)
TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

Besides showing "the moves that matter" in an easily understandable way, the book provides templates to help students make these moves in their own writing. Graff and Birkenstein anticipate "naysayers" on templates as being prescriptive and "stifling creativity," but respond by noting their classical history and present modern examples from academic journals. Then adding their own voice, they write,

One virtue of such templates, we found, is that they focus writers' attention not just on what is being said, but on the forms that structure what is being said. In other words, they help students focus on the rhetorical patterns that are key to academic success but often pass under the classroom radar.


In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students' ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence.j

For ESL/EFL students, making explicit the implicit is crucial in learning to write an academic argument. And this book does that in a way that captures the essence of academic writing and represents it in a down-to-earth way. Although written for L1 composition, They Say / I Say is a book I plan to read and re-read this summer and incorporate into my classes next fall.