Frankencode and Other Writing

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Students, Reading and Writing – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A former student of mine once coined a phrase that he used to describe the phenomenon whereby students take bits of code from various other programs and stitch it together in the hopes of ending up with something they can submit for an assignment. He called it “Frankencode”. (many thanks to Jared Hopf)

While I’m pretty sure Jared deserves credit for coining the term, the phenomenon is not new. The article above mentions it too only he calls it patchwriting. Maybe this could also be called Frankenwriting.

His hypotheses on why students seem to be able to write passably in writing courses but not in other courses are important.

  • In many courses that are not focused on writing skills, instructors might not provide detailed enough instructions on their writing assignments to convey to the student what the instructors’ expectations are, and
  • A different issue is whether or not the student understands the course material: a badly written essay may be the result of the student author not understanding the subject rather than not being a capable writer.

I think both apply to forms of writing beyond essays – like code. Actually, I’d go so far as to say they even apply to communication generally, so we also see the same problems and hear the same complaints when students do presentations. AND, while I’m on the subject, this may go some way to explaining why so many presentations made by professionals, and even professors lack, to put it mildly, luster.

I taught introductory programming at university for 25 years. It took me many (MANY) years before I was truly comfortable enough with the material to play around with it while I was teaching. That’s not to say I didn’t know how to program – I did (and do) and I was pretty good at it. However knowing a subject and knowing enough to be able to teach it require entirely different levels of knowledge. The better you understand your material, the better you can be at presenting it. Of course there are always those who have no problem pretending to know things – they, like consummate actors, can present on almost anything and make it look like they know what they’re talking about (except of course, to those who actually DO know what they are talking about). But, I digress.

Mr. Williams goes on to outline four methods by which people incorporate research into their writing. Let me expand that to the incorporation of outside sources generally. Here the list:

Writers have four means by which they can incorporate source content into their text: they can quote, summarize, paraphrase, or patchwrite that content. Contemporary educational and media discourse has been focused on whether writers acknowledge their sources when they incorporate material from them. A more profound question is how writers incorporate source material; quotation, summary, paraphrase, and patchwriting are separate discursive moves representing different levels of intellectual engagement with the source. Quotation requires only the ability to copy. Paraphrase requires comprehension of and engagement with a small bit of text, such as a sentence. Summary requires engagement with an extended passage, even the entire text. Patchwriting stands between quotation and paraphrase; it is neither an exact copying nor a complete restatement.

We definitely need to pay more attention to helping people learn HOW to incorporate outside sources and a little less obsessing about plagiarism. Let’s face it, most of the work we do is repackaging the work of others anyways. That’s also what the bulk of what is done by those we graduate once they get out into the real world.

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