Interdisciplinary project analyzes 'patchwriting' through math, computer science

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 13, 2015

Story image

"Patchwriting," lightly editing content in an attempt to reshape it as original thought, can be a slippery slope. Math and computer science professor James Lu will study the controversial method as one of Emory's new Interdisciplinary Faculty Fellows. Emory Photo/Video

For writers and writing instructors, the concept of "patchwriting" — copying and lightly editing content in an attempt to reshape it as original thought — is a slippery slope.

Often perceived as something akin to plagiarism, the practice commonly shows up when students and writers attempt to patch together source material, slightly rearranging or substituting words in an effort to present it in their own voice.

But in recent years, James Lu, an associate professor in Emory's Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, found himself taking a more expansive view of the controversial practice.

"Actually, the term 'patchwriting' was coined by Professor Rebecca Moore Howard at Syracuse University, who sees this often used as a way for writers to learn the language of a new genre or subject," Lu says.

In each case, he notes, the writers are making deliberate choices of what to harvest or reject, what to rephrase or replicate.

Instead of leaping into an ethical debate over patchwriting — or dismissing it altogether — Lu found himself wondering: Are there patchwriting processes that are more effective than others? If so, can software be used to assist these processes?

Marriage of math and language

This fall, Lu begins researching those questions in earnest, as one of three Emory faculty research teams selected to receive the 2015 Interdisciplinary Faculty Fellowship through Emory's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA).

The goal, says Lu, is to produce both software tools to support patchwriting and understandings that may lead to an informed articulation of effective patchwriting methods.

He also seeks to learn more about the cognitive processes involved in patchwriting — why a writer may choose certain pieces of text, for example.

Working with colleagues and students in natural language processing, writing and ESL (English as a Second Language), Lu plans to examine the effects of patchwriting — including the quality of end products — and the potential benefits the practice may offer in the classroom, especially for writing and ESL students.

To some, the notion of a professor of mathematics and computer science delving into the intricacies of language and writing may seem an unusual marriage.

But to Lu, it's all quite logical. "English is not my first language," explains Lu, whose parents are from Taiwan. "In fact, when I started college, I had only been speaking English for about six years — it was still new to me."

Math, on the other hand, was a universal language. "When I was struggling with language-based subjects in middle school and high school, math was my comfort zone, and the thinking behind computer science was so similar to math that I wound up pursuing that, too," Lu recalls.

Scholarship fed by multiple disciplines

Lu arrived at Emory in 2001, where his recent research has focused on developing software tools to assist in health and biomedical research.

"I am interested in artificial intelligence, which is a very broad area," he explains. "I'm especially intrigued by what we do as human beings and how we might devise computer programs to do them better."

Case-in-point: As the director of graduate studies in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science for the last six years, Lu found himself generating certain kinds of documents over and over again, from annual reports to letters of nominations and recommendations.

The writings were time consuming, but no matter how hard he tried to make each document unique, "in the end, they all looked similar," he says — a fact that would provide initial research questions for his project:

What if software existed that could search past documents and look for semantic connections, suggesting both what Lu had already written and new directions that might be pursued? What if there were computational techniques to help identify text pieces that a writer might find useful for copying?

In an age of unrestrained text, the challenge is deciding how to negotiate it, Lu concluded.

In his IFF research project, Lu is intrigued with the possibilities of scholarship fed by so many different disciplines, from the mathematics of creating and evaluating language processing algorithms to cognitive psychology and linguistics — a wide-ranging interdisciplinary focus that the ILA supports.

Ultimately, Lu hopes his project will contribute to a larger conversation, helping feed higher-level discussions on the merits and ethics of patchwriting by providing greater clarity, including a better understanding of both its strengths and limitations.