Writing, Jazz, Plagiarism and Improv – Jazz as a metaphor for academic writing.

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Copyright: Unattributed Creative CommonsAcademic writing, Jazz, Plagiarism and Improv. You might be wondering at what these concepts have in common, and why they should be written about in a single article. Well last week I had the opportunity to attend a network meeting-come-book launch-come-philosophy lecture by Bruce Ellis Benson talking about his new-ish book Liturgy as a Way of Life. “Ugh, are you serious” – I can hear the groans already. What does Liturgy have to do with anything? Well i wont be directly addressing the liturgy part of the lecture tonight, except to say that it’s not quite as you may think.

Instead one of the parts that piqued my interest was Benson’s extensive use of musica as a philosophical framework for the explanation of life, amongst many other things. From this framework he posits a veritable bevy of comparisons between Jazz and life, of which I will only look at one in this post: Improv. Benson argues that while God is the originator and creator of the world, we are instead re-creators, taking what has been already created and reimagining it and recreating it into something new. While Marx and Hegel may have argued that everything has been done already, in the same vein as Ecclesiastes 1:9; Benson instead argues that we take the original strains of musica and reinterpret them as a form of Jazz-like improvisation i.e. Improv. In such a way we stand on the shoulders of giants and play the tune that has come before but in a slightly different way.

Now for this metaphor to work it is worth noting a few things about Jazz music. Firstly, despite the seemingly cacaphonic nature of an improv within the piece it inevitably picks up on the theme laid out earlier in the piece, and ‘riffs’ off it. In this way the improv soloist (or band) are taking what has already happened and turning it into something a little bit new. Secondly, it is not the wholesale replacement of the original piece. Despite how different the improv may seem there is acknowledgement of what has come before, and cues for what is to come afterward. In this way an improv cannot simply stand on its own as a whole piece, it is shallow and thin; and the piece is somewhat hollow without that corresponding improv.

But what does this have to do with academic writing? – I hear you ask; well I offer this corollary. One of the aspects of academic essay writing that the students who come and see me for first year tutoring commonly wrestle with is how to present ‘novel’ thoughts within their essays. They rebel at the concept that an essay could be simply the regurgitation of someone else’s ideas, organised into a pithy 2000 words; and I would say rightly so. Nevertheless the balance between acknowledging the supports for your argument and simply depositing it onto the page with a citation is a fine balance at times. 2 Here is where I think the metaphor of Jazz plays into the equation: writing an academic essay is somewhat like performing a Jazz improv. When you are writing an academic piece you are constantly acknowledging the shoulders on which you stand, those who have run the race beforehand and set benchmarks, the explorers who have charted their little bit of new territory and laid out some of the markers. Rare is it that a paper stands on its own, and in the vein of Star Trek: boldly goes ‘where no man has gone before.’

However, a good academic essay should not be simply regurgitating the previous information, but should be teasing out the implications, the differences in individual perspective  that make previous arguments sing more brightly, or lend weight to a specific train of thought over another. This is the improv part, the offering of a different interpretation, nuances here and there, extending the bounds of the sphere of research wider. It is not simply slavish wholesale copying which is realistically plagiarism, even if it is cited. But rather seeing the intricacies of the arguments that have come before hand, watching the notes bounce off each other, and recognising the gaps that can be filled, or the silences that can be left, and working with those. Sure at an introductory level the author is bound to find that someone else has thought of their lightbulb before, or shares the same interpretation of a text as them. But even there the nuance is different. In the indomitable words of Monty Python ‘you are all individuals’, and as such the individual differences of our perspectives can be brought to bear in an essay, of any level.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is by using Bruce Ellis Benson’s own words:

Just like in Jazz improv, one may borrow an idea but one must return it with interest.



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  1. I know that the comparison between classical music and regurgitation can be made here. However, even in classical music I think there is some scope for individual interpretations.
  2. I know that the comparison between classical music and regurgitation can be made here. However, even in classical music I think there is some scope for individual interpretations.