How Composition Benefits from the Open Source Model
Emphasizing the production aspect of the Open Source model provides several benefits for the composition classroom. First, students learn a specific method for writing in groups. If the instructor uses Open Source projects as well as methods, students also learn to produce collaborative writing with real-world groups. Second, doing so reinforces the importance of citation and notation by stressing recognition as a key to successful collaboration. Open Source and copyleft provide concrete means for exploring issues of citation, authorial ownership and collaboration, and peer review. Such discussions also help writing instructors explore the changes in writing that accompany the increased use of technology in writing classes. The Open Source model offers an alternative to the usual assembly line process for collaborative work; it emphasizes the value of writing, in turn emphasizing the wrongs of plagiarism and the need for proper citation.
In addition to acting as a model for product, Open Source also provides a method for production. While the Open Source method translates easily to current composition curricula, it should also extend these aspects beyond the walls of the traditional classroom. First, Open Source composition instructors should use an Open Systems approach to teaching. Open System instructors would provide students with abundant information: syllabus, samples of student work, and an explanantion of their pedagogical method. Their assignments must connect to larger communities, giving students larger group for peer review and a base of "users" to test projects. Under this model, testing would still examine argument, style, and structure, but it would do so by means of practical use of the projects, rather than abstract analysis.
True Collaborative Work: Using Open Source as both a metaphor and a method provides students with a practical way to collaborate. While many composition classes assign collaborative projects and presentations, students often approach them using the model of the assembly line. For this method, students divide work into sections that each member of the group works on independently; then the group stitches the sections together at the last moment. While efficient, this method leads to each student learning the material for a single area. The assembly line method also silences different opinions and questions within any given group project to create a cohesive project. This method effectively defeats the goals of collaboration because the students only learn one minor part of the project.
Because of the potential pitfalls that can accompany group work, others have proposed alternate metaphors for these projects. Greg Ulmer has suggested the metaphor of the garage band. The garage band metaphor allows each member to create an individual part that operates within the overall project, but that may express different ideas and methods. Further, the metaphor of the garage band implies collaborative work in the composition of the group project, and it implies rehearsal and variation with different 'riffs'. (Ironically, Apple's Garageband encourages individuals to do all the partsmaking a collaborative metaphor individual.) Open Source provides a metaphor for collaboration that requires an approach that differs from that of the assembly line.
Peer Review Communities: Implementing the Open Source method in the composition classroom also calls for a change in the nature of the classroom assignments. Because they depend on large-scale peer review done by a community, Open Source composition assignments need to connect to a community outside of the classroom. Assignments that connect to larger communities for peer review are not uncommon in composition classes. Examples of such work from the University of Florida alone include: Blake Scott's composition class assignments, with assistance from Bradley Dilger, to write documentation for the University of Florida's Networked Writing Environment (NWE) and for web coding and design (see his latest implementation at Western Illinois University); Jeff Rice's assignments for students to write and develop websites for local non-profit agencies; and Greg Ulmer's EmerAgency work which seeks collaboration between students, researchers, and local communities to solve community problems. In each of these assignment types, the students are given large projects that can only be accomplished as a group.
The assignments also require the initial development and then testing of the ideas such that students cannot view the assignment as one component to be completed and left; instead, each portion of the project requires communication with the class as a community and with the community outside of the class in order to develop, change, and refine the project. This method obviously applies to courses focusing on social justice. Michael Truscello notes a strong parity between movements for social change and Open Source: "Open Source is certainly not anti-corporate, but it does posess a subversive political philosophy" (2003). While Open Source can connect to models for service learning, service learning can be done by an individual in service to the community. The Open Source model requires that a collaborative group undertake the project. Additionally, while a service learning project may last one semester, Open Source projects should strive to remain open for later revision for a longer period. Further, Open Source as a method requires that the discussion and documentation be available for later groups to implement or alter. Service learning is instead more focused on the individual experience with the project rather than later repeatability. Finally, Open Source projects do not necessisarily equate to "community service," but instead may reflect a better understanding of the benefits of shared research.
Understanding Attribution: Composition classes need a model that can incorporate ideas of collaboration, the ethics involved in writing, and the need for revision. Open Source provides this model and, with it, provides a way to foreground the nuances between collaboration, plagiarism, and citationlarge issues in composition classrooms. Open Source focuses on making the best possible software in the shortest amount of time, but without providing any financial rewards. This is because Open Source is founded as a gift culture which, like academia, accords the reward of respect based on what community members give to the community. In order for the gift culture to continue to operate, the gifts must be properly noted and recorded. Magnus Bergquist and Jan Ljungberg suggest that Open Source as a gift culture can best be understood in terms of research communities like academia because of their emphasis on peer review and attribution (2001, p. 318).
Students in composition classes often feel as though plagiarism is a victim-less crime because they feel that words cannot (or do not) have value. For academic citations, words are considered intellectual property, given to the community in exchange for recognition. Giving students a schema that recognizes the value of words reasserts the importance of citation. Thus, students come to see why plagiarism is damaging:
Another OSS taboo relates to plagiarizing work as one's own by removing the credit to the rightful contributors. This recognition of developer contribution at the micro level of individual modules is vital to ensure that developers are motivated to continue contributingit represents rapid feedback that one's contribution is valued, and this type of rapid recognition generally does not occur in a traditional software development environment. (Feller & Fitzgerald, 2002, p. 96)
In OSS, plagiarism is more than just stealingit is a fundamental disruption in production that injures the overall community. This creation of a community makes the writing or code have value based on the larger systems that they represent and not as inherent in the writing itself. In using the OS model, students can connect writing and citation to both issues of proper academic credit and to the support of a larger community that suffers from actual repercussions when plagiarism occurs. Similarly, Laurie Stearns suggests in "Copy Wrong: Plagiarism, Property, and the Law" that:
Plagiarism is, then, a failure of the creative process, not a flaw in its result. Although imitation is an inevitable component of creation, plagiarists pass beyond the boundaries of acceptable imitation by copying from the work of others without improving on the copied material or fully assembling it into their own work; by failing to attribute copied material or fully assimilating it into their own work; by failing to attribute the copied material to its actual author; and by intending to deceive others about its origin. (1999, p. 7)
Stearns writes from the composition perspective and she also suggests that plagiarism is an error in attribution. Stearns' definition of plagiarism, when taken in context with the OS problems with plagiarism, creates a concrete example of the problems of plagiarism and a concrete example of the differences between plagiarism and referencing or citation.
The OS conceptualization of plagiarism also connects to the ethics and etiquette in OS communities. Because they are most often small classes that spend a great deal of time in discussion, writing classes require a community atmosphere that is open for student discussion and that allows for students to critique each other without seeming overly critical. The OS model again proves useful by showing a collaborative community that is heavily structured as polite and helpful. As many scholars like Christine B. Smith and Margaret L. McLaughlin have noted, people in online environments sometimes adopt rude mannerisms, acting in ways when they would not in real world environments; many attribute this behavior to the lack of face-to-face interaction (1997). In attempting to create collaborative classroom environments, rudeness can be devastating. Feller and Fitzgerald observe that same devastation in OS communities; the communities communicate within a rhetoric of politeness that focuses on how to best share information without offending others. This model is counter to the general business model of one-upmanship (2002, p. 99-100). While students may or may not have experience with models like these, providing an explicit model of politeness helps to establish the class community as a polite space of collaborative assistance.
Open Source and copyleft provide new ways for teachers of writing to introduce their students to writing as a technology and to the social and ethical implications that come with any technological apparatus. Writing teachers have always had to deal with questions of citation and plagiarism and writing classrooms generally include some sort of peer editing or peer composition process. Many students have trouble understanding how the peer work differs from plagiarism or collusion and how and when to cite other authors. Many writing classrooms have become and are becoming digital classrooms with movements like writing across the curriculum, which puts writing requirements into classes like introductory chemistry and biology, and with the increase in digital distance learning classes, which puts more writing classes into strictly computerized environments. These movements conjoin writing and technology in mutually beneficial ways; they highlight the importance of writing as a technology and provide concrete examples for questions of ethics and usage. An older problem of rhetoric was whether or not to teach students to argue when they could use it for ill means. The OS model includes the ethical implications of language and rhetoric within the framework of property and society, and the technology shaping them.
Building Lasting Resources: Finally, the Open Source composition classroom would create lasting resources for other teachers and students. The resources for teacherssample syllabi and sample student workwould help teachers implement the Open Source model for their classes or assignments (Texas Tech's ICON writing program uses this sort of wide-scale peer review to revise and improve its core writing curriculum). We propose that the work done by students could also provide lasting resources for the larger community; the projects could exist as resources for later classes to work on and improve. Faber suggests:
An open source classroom would extend projects from a single term or semester and would build in tools for handing each project over to a new group. . . . This approach would teach students to see themselves as part of a larger trajectory of work rather than as solitary instantiations of one project. In addition, it would teach them to make temporal connections in their work spacesconnections to both the past and the future. As such, it would teach students about the interdependence of project-based work and how their own work fits within larger frameworks and communities. (2002, p. 34)
The peer review and revision inherent in this model means that student projects need not be confined to a single semester; rather, the student work could be part of a much larger project with each class and each semester contributing towards that goal. By freeing students and teachers from working within the single semester project deadlines, the projects can become larger and more advanced. Making projects so large in scope will also encourage students to think about consistency, demanding that they write style guides or implement other such measures. Such projects might include writing webbed documentation for an entire University lab system, updating that documentation with information on new programs and new ways to use those programs, editing the pages for accuracy and clarity, and restructing the entire system for the most effective use.