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Curating, Plagiarism & Appropriation

A fellow student in a grad class introduced me to this article by Debra Zarka Miller about a lesson she uses with her higher education students to hit home good citation habits. I thought it was very clever and decided to modify it to fit my fifth and sixth grade middle school art students. Here is what we did:

When the students entered the room they found an orange bin with plastic/rubber animals in them. They were then asked to draw one of the animals and place it within an environment on the page. They used construction paper crayons and construction paper. They had about forty minutes to complete the drawing and they were told they would be sharing them during the next class (so do a good job).

The Animals

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The next class we went out into the hallway and the students hung up their drawings on a bulletin board using two pieces of masking tape.

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Once the drawings had been hung up, the students slowly walked past them to get a closer look.

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And then sat back down so we could critique them. Young middle school students don’t always do well with critiques, so we started on a very positive note with praise for every piece. From there we began to discuss the particular elements of certain pieces and the artists had a chance to talk about them. I then prompted students to go up to the piece they liked best and write their name on the masking tape holding it in place. Yes, they were allowed to write their name on their own piece. Yes, they had to choose one.

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There were some drawings without names, there were some with just one or two names. I removed all of those and left the drawings with three or more names on the board.

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Because there were no names on the artwork, the pieces were chosen on appeal alone, this was not a popularity contest. The students whose work had been returned to them took it in stride (for the most part) mumbling things like “I wasn’t finished” or “I know it’s not good”. This was difficult, but necessary to talk about choosing pieces for an exhibit, what makes good art, and why it appeals to us.

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My students are kind to one another and this discussion was difficult for them. They were cautious to compliment too passionately so the students whose work was in their hands rather than on the wall wouldn’t feel poorly about themselves. I suggested we stick to the “facts” with statements such as, “I liked this art because…” – fill in the blank. Students were comfortable sharing why they had chosen certain pieces. Reasons ranged from careful execution and realistic look to “it was funny”. Right away they understood that artwork can appeal to us for a variety of reasons, which is why there are diverse collections in museums. One student suggested curating based on a theme. This led to an enthusiastic discussion of possible themes. Another student suggested that it doesn’t really matter what other people think about your art, saying, “If you like to do it, just do it for yourself. It doesn’t matter what other people think”. We all liked that statement!

“I think that curating is needed because you can not hang up 8 million paintings in a art museum and just picking randomly seems kind of useless.” – Jayme

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Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 6.51.46 AMBased on the Miller’s lesson, I shifted the focus to plagiarism. I told the students that the artwork remaining on the wall would receive an “A” grade. And no matter what their own art looked like, those who had written their names on those pieces would also receive an “A”. Just as with Miller’s students, at first the students were happy to receive the easy “A” and were joking with each other about it. I then asked the artists whose work was on the wall to identify themselves. I asked them how they felt about others receiving a high grade for the work they did. Most began their responses with something like, “I’m happy I can help them get a good grade” (because my students are kind!) but then shifted to “but it isn’t really fair because I did all the work”. This also caused an attitude shift in those who had received the easy “A”. They either reacted with empathy or became defensive. They were stirred up.

“Plagiarism is not okay because you are taking credit for something you didn’t do. Also, plagiarism is illegal. Using someone’s work to make new work and putting your name on it is okay but you should still put the artists name just to be safe.” – Luke

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My young students recognize appropriation in popular music, when one artist samples another’s work. This is a viable entry point for thinking about appropriation in art. They understand parody as with the many versions of the Mona Lisa we have in the art room. They are working on understanding the difference between making transformative changes to the artwork of others and calling it your own or blatantly appropriating it without transformation as in the work of this “artist”.

When all was said and done I was deeply satisfied with this lesson and the impact it had on my students. Putting them in the role of plagiarist or plagiarized victim was key in helping them understand the problem. They have a better grasp on the curation process, which will help in the spring as we curate our annual art show. I’m hoping there will be time this year to do a little healthy appropriation of masterpieces for the pure transformative joy of it.

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At the end of class I told my students they were not being graded as I had described and in fact, every student would receive an “A” simply for being part of an excellent discussion. The sighs of relief were audible. When we met as a class two days later I asked the them to reflect on the experience within our Google Classroom stream.

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 8.47.10 AMHere are some of the responses:

“I don’t like being graded this way. I don’t like being graded this way because if someone doesn’t do good it makes them feel bad. I don’t think it’s fair because the only real judge of your work is you. I also think plagiarism is wrong because you’re basically stealing. I like choosing work to display. I think using someone else’s work is also not fair. That’s what I think about being graded this way.” – Cameron

“I felt that it was educational because we need to learn what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. We need to know that people can steal our art, and how to prevent that. So if we make art we know how to make it safe to post online. It was also important to teach us so we wouldn’t do it.” – Anna

“I don’t think that this is a good or fair way to be graded. I think this because if you were to make an awesome piece of art and then have someone change it or just completely copy it and get credit for it, that is just not fair to the person who actually made it. When we were choosing the piece we liked I didn’t get any votes, which didn’t bother me but I know it bothered some people. In my opinion I hope we never get graded like this again.” – Sophia

“I didn’t really like how we were graded, but I also thought it was good because it showed us that we would not be the best drawer and not everyone would like your art because it’s their opinion. So I don’t think I would want to do this grading system again.” – Hannah
“Being graded like that kind of hurt. I put a lot of work into my drawing and worked until the end. Some people were done in two minutes and chose a drawing that got them a A that is not fair. They did not think, they just slapped a drawing together. It is not fair in the slightest to be graded like that.” – Eddie

I know I won’t be able to conduct an exercise like this again any time soon with these students as they will be on to me right away. However, I plan to modify the lesson further for my classes next term. It’s a good one and the kids rose to the occasion. I am very proud of my students!

Thank you, Kayla B. for choosing this article for our grad class chat:

Miller, Debra Zarka. “A Lesson in Academic Integrity.” Faculty Focus. Magna, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

3 comments on “Curating, Plagiarism & Appropriation

  1. Excellent idea! I think I’ll steal it;)

  2. Have you done this with Elementary? I really like this as a way of teaching not only critique but also the idea of always putting your best work out there and doing an effective job with the assignment.

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