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Food for Thought: Open Source and the Student Writer

In my Intro to Digital Humanities course last semester, we spent a significant amount of time exploring the realm of open source information and technology. Having the freedom to use, adapt, and build upon what others have created can lead to advances in any number of fields. However, despite the benefits of making these resources available, open source information is a counter-cultural idea.  We live in the age of the copyright, the solo dissertation, and the image of the genius author that pens the next great novel in isolation.

I've never really considered the ways in which the open source discussion extends beyond the realm of technology... until now. I am currently enrolled in a Theory and Practice of Writing, Tutoring, and Conferencing course, and we've been spending some time discussing the differences between social and individual writing processes. Most student writers are taught that academic writing is an isolated process. They must follow the necessary steps to completion alone, and those who seek the help of a tutor are often considered poor writers in need of remedial help - often with grammar issues. Very little attention is paid to the invention that can occur when a student and a tutor come together. If writing is based upon human speech, why do we isolate the writer but not the speaker? Yes, the written word is still meant to communicate to other people, but we have granted the role of author an almost god-like status. Our culture feeds us the idea that the author's role is to tell us, not converse with us. The author must bring forth a polished and finished product, an individual struggle that yields individual results. Our systems reward these solo efforts, and any cooperative efforts beyond the acceptable limits are deemed unacceptable plagiarism.

As my class is exploring the benefits of social tactics to help student writers, I can't help but notice how helpful it can be to have another person with whom to share ideas. This is more than just asking someone to proofread a paper. The real benefits come during the development phase, in which multiple minds can come together to give a paper purpose and direction. In a way, isn't this process similar to the idea of open source material? The student writer can improve her writing by benefiting from the knowledge and experiences of the tutor, just as a digital humanist can benefit from an open source code. Human beings are social by nature. Why do we insist on isolating knowledge and invention, forcing each new user to start at zero, when a little cooperation can help us move forward towards better results? Food for thought.

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