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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Plagiarism: An Introduction

Recently in class I asked my students to write down the process they use when writing essays.  I told them to be as honest as possible and to not be afraid of disappointing me.  Pages filled with “I freewrite about the essay topic for 5 minutes and then write an outline” would be gratifying, sure, but unless I know what my students are really doing when they write their essays, I won’t know how to help them. 

The answers I received were frightening. 

The majority of students turn to the internet immediately after getting the essay prompt and start researching.  One student wrote “I turn to the internet and look up the topic and read, read, read.”  Another wrote “I look for essays online (since it’s [the topic] been written about before for sure) to see the right way to write my essay.”

Answers like the ones above scare me because jumping straight into the research phase of an essay before thinking about what your own knowledge of and opinions about the topic are is a sure-fire way of setting yourself up to accidentally plagiarize. 

What Plagiarism Is

Every institution of higher learning will have plagiarism defined explicitly in the student handbook.  If you’re currently enrolled in classes and haven’t yet read through what constitutes academic dishonesty in the student handbook, read the policy NOW.  “I didn’t know” is not a valid excuse if you accidentally plagiarize because all students are expected to have read and agreed to the policies laid out in the student handbook before attending classes. 

If you’re not currently enrolled in school, an informal definition of plagiarism is “the representation of someone else’s words or ideas as your own.”  It doesn’t matter whether you committed plagiarism intentionally or unintentionally either.  Plagiarism is plagiarism.

How to Avoid Plagiarizing

The easiest way to avoid plagiarizing is to write down everything you know about the essay topic BEFORE you research it.  That way, you’ll know to cite any and all new information that you acquire as a result of your online or offline research.  You should also write down your ideas, opinions, and arguments for or against the topic before you research so you know which thoughts originated with you. 

Once you start reading other people’s interpretations of the topic, it’s next to impossible NOT to think about their points and arguments when trying to develop your own argument in an essay.  I’ve been there too and I know how difficult it is to figure out whether or not you would have thought up the compelling argument you just read had you not just read it. 

If you absolutely have to look at a sample essay because you want to model your own paper after one that is well written, look for a well written essay that is NOT about the topic you were assigned to write about.  That way, you have an example to follow for how to set up the different sections of an essay appropriately, and you’re not muddying your ideas with someone else’s.

More to Follow

The next few posts will deal primarily with plagiarism and how to cite material properly so you will never be accused of having plagiarized.  If you’re not yet familiar with the difference between summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting, look those terms up! I’ll be writing about each later, but don’t wait for me to get to them before you know the differences.  If you are at all doubtful of whether or not you have plagiarized, intentionally or unintentionally, run a search for “what is plagiarism” in the search engine of your choice.

Remember, ignorance is not an excuse.


Photo credit: MrGluSniffer

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Importance of Taking Notes

For some reason, college students (at least the ones in my class) don’t seem to be taking notes anymore.  I could go on for pages about how self-defeating not taking notes in class is, but I’m more concerned with the reasons for WHY students don’t feel the need to take notes.

Some people, I believe, think they will remember what is being said in class without having to write it down.  I should probably include a discussion one of these days in class about what memory is and how memories are made.  Not many people fully understand that a memory needs to be reinforced in order for it to be stored long-term.

Perhaps students don’t think this skill is directly applicable to “real life” work.  I hate to burst their bubbles, but…

Taking notes is as important out of the classroom as it is in it.


Employers do not want to have to repeat themselves every time you need to do a complex task just because you’re too lazy to write the instructions down.  Taking note of important procedures and routine tasks is a mark of an efficient, hard-working employee.  When I worked as a secretary for a (very) small business, I had to use Quicken to create invoices, enter billing information, and update the inventory – all things I had never done before.  I wrote down step by step instructions for how to do each task and pasted them all on the wall by my desk so that I wouldn’t have to bother my boss for help each time I needed to enter something into the computer.  Not only was he impressed, he said that no previous secretary had ever done that before. 

The very thing that made me look hard-working actually made my job SO much easier.  I completed tasks much faster than when I first started out and had to try to recall the different procedural steps by memory.  Even if you have no desire to appear assiduous, taking notes makes your life easier – something I’m sure you can appreciate.

What? Your job doesn’t require any complex procedures, you say? Take notes at meetings, then.  Not because you’ll be quizzed on the materials, but because you’ll appear attentive and interested.  Getting ahead in the “real world” very often depends on who you know and who you make an impression on.  Being able to discuss meeting points with a supervisor while you’re hanging out by the water cooler is an opportunity to shine that you don’t want to miss. 

Ultimately, I’d like you to take notes not for appearance’s sake, but because you’re honestly interested by points other people make.  If you’ve ever been to a convention (scholarly or not), you’ll have seen people taking careful notes during panel discussions.  Again, there is no test at the end of the convention that all attendees must pass.  They’re taking notes because they have a real interest in the topic of discussion and want to be able to remember things that were said and/or look up resources mentioned on their own. 

Photo credit: HawkExpress