Separating Mimicry from Plagiarism: Teaching Through Copying

To many educators, there’s a belief that students in eastern countries learn through rote memorization and copying while those in western countries focus more or original work and creative thought.

Though the stereotype is obviously not the complete truth, there are cultural differences between educational approaches in countries with an eastern cultural background and those with a western approach.

Professor Anita Lundberg ran into these cultural differences head on. Teaching for Australia's James Cook University at a satellite school in Singapore, Lundberg has seen first hand the clash between the two cultures.

In April, as part of WritingXTech | The Writing Mindset, Lundberg sat down with Jason Chu, education director at Turnitin to detail her experiences and what she had learned from her five years in Singapore. Lundberg, a cultural anthropologist studying ethnography, the study of customs and cultures, had some very interesting lessons for educators.

The biggest, however, is that copying and imitation, or mimesis as Lundberg prefers to call it, is a key part of the learning experience in all cultures and in nearly all areas.

One example Lundberg gives is that of a simple handshake, which she gets from the book The Secular as Sacred by Herbert Fingarette. In this example, the handshake is a critical culture norm upon which friendships and important deals often hang into balance. However, to an outsider who has never done one, the process can be intimidating and confusing.

“So, for someone not knowing the practice of a handshake, for instance, it would be fraught with anxiety,” Lundberg said. “We think of it as completely automatic and have difficulty even noticing it at all, precisely because we’ve actually absorbed and embodied hand-shaking, yet the difficulty of first learning this practice is enormous.”

This absorption comes through repetition, but the act itself must first be learned by mimicry, watching how others do it and following suit.

This notion of mimicking as part of the learning process can be found in all fields including writing and art, where great masters often start mimicking the works of those who came before.

“All of these professionals claim that copying to learn produces real, tangible benefits for practitioners, helping them notice and absorb the features and qualities of the work they aspire to,” Lundberg said, “Copying enables them to learn to become successful writers and artists, or, in our case, it could be used for success for students.”

Lundberg does this with her students in part by providing example essays for students to learn from. To eliminate the temptation of plagiarism, she's careful not to use an essay on the exact same topic the students are writing about while still providing a model for the students to work from and even mimic.

The key, according to Lundberg, is to separate mimesis from plagiarism. Encouraging students to copy as part of their education is potentially beneficial, but it must be coupled with strong referencing and citation skills. This is why she teaches her students how to attribute their work as she encourages them to copy.

After all, mimesis is not the same thing as plagiarism anymore than copying is the same thing as plagiarism. Teaching proper attribution skills ensures that students learn how to avoid plagiarism while still gaining many of the benefits of mimesis in their work.

According to Lundberg, given how important copying and mimicry is to other areas of learning, it makes sense to encourage students to use it when crafting their essays or doing their research. The key is to make sure that the copying is ethical and that is done through teaching citation, not by avoiding copying.

Watch the full webcast


Changing Culture to Promote Integrity: Why Progress Is Possible

"Color Me Bad"?: Fostering Plagiarism Awareness