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.