Skip to content

Month: November 2007

It Takes a Village: Happy Early Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow here in the U.S., and in keeping with the season I’ve been thinking sappily thankful thoughts.

But of all the many things I’m thankful for, one keeps bubbling to the surface: my village. Little by little I’ve found myself surrounded, online and offline, by an array of friends and colleagues that I talk to even more than I talk to the people I’m actually related to (and I talk to my blood relatives almost every day). And I’ve come to realize that it takes a village to keep a village going. Some days it’s my turn to give… offering hugs and jokes and whatever it takes to support and lift the spirits of those I care about. Other days, the community is strong for me, letting me mope or cry at them in person or online and generally letting me know that they care, that they’re there for me, and that I’d get through everything I have to get through.

It’s a good thing we aren’t all down at the same time.

It’s also a good thing I don’t write sappy posts all the time. :)


End of Term

Today is the last day of exams for Fall term, and the students are feeling the burn. This morning I held one as she cried on my shoulder about everything from papers to lost socks. There we stood, in the middle of campus with the fog and drizzle closing in around us, and all I could do was hold her, remind her that she will survive, and encourage her to tackle just one task at a time.

Later, walking through the library, I passed a couch where two students were sitting and writing papers, and out of the blue one of them just suddenly crumpled into tears. It was as if, mid-sentence, her paper had rebelled and flung up on the screen an image of herself flipping burgers for the rest of her life. What’s a librarian to do? … So I went downstairs and got four pieces of candy from the staff room, two for each student.

We’re all looking forward to tomorrow.

1 Comment

I Hate Plagiarism

I don’t hate plagiarism because it’s “stealing” or “cheating” or any of that. Sure it’s ethically incorrect, but everybody knows that. I don’t condone it, certainly, but that in itself isn’t enough to make me ponder in the early morning.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen plagiarism in action at the lowest levels of education, and at the highest levels of scholarship. I’ve seen it’s consequences, and I’ve the way it eats up the lives and risks the careers of those who think it’s important to expose a high-profile plagiarist. I’ve seen this stuff up close and personal, and it’s not pretty. Heartbreaking, terrifying, sad, disappointing… but not ponder-worthy, generally.

No, what makes me ponder is the way plagiarism has insinuated itself into undergraduate education in what I think are unhealthy (and sometimes flat out improper) ways. Sure, it’s important that undergraduates learn the ethics of scholarly communication. But it is not necessary to have plagiarism be the bully whip behind other problems of scholarly communication.

Take, for instance, citation. Students are told to cite their sources so that they don’t plagiarize. What does this do? Well, it doesn’t deter the plagiarists. No, instead it sends a steady stream of freaked out kids to my office right about finals time, each of whom is trying to figure out when to cite and when not to as much as they’re trying to figure out where the quotation marks and italics go in MLA style. It’s often not very clear when a particular statement needs a citation, and the poor students are terrified that they’ll miss-step and inadvertently plagiarize.

And really, however heretical it sounds, I don’t think that citation and plagiarism are inherently linked in the one-to-one relationship that most first-year writing courses seem to teach. Failure to cite a direct quote or a paraphrase constitutes plagiarism. But the act of citation itself should be much more a context-building act than an act of punishment avoidance. So when these students land on my doorstep, the only thing that seems to make sense (barring having us both read through the paper and discuss every sentence) is to explain that citation allows your readers to situate themselves in your context. You cite to give credit, but you also cite to allow your readers to find further information. So if you state a “fact” (one of those nebulous things that don’t need citing but that nobody can explain because lots of “facts” need citations, too) and you think your readers might benefit from more context, cite it. If it’s a “fact” that your friend’s roommate would already know and, more than that, already know or be able to accurately construct its historical, social, theoretical context… there’s no need to cite it.

Oh, and one thing that citation is not in any way related to is copyright. It does not make it OK to copy an image if you include the image URL or other citation information. Copyright is a legal process; citation is an ethical and communication process. Neither is related to the the other even a little bit. Including citation information is a good thing to do, but it does not eliminate or even reduce the need to weigh Fair Use or get permission. I mention this because this was the single most pervasive urban myth that we encountered when we started doing copyright training on campus.

So why do I hate plagiarism? Because I think those of us who work with undergraduates have adopted it as the boogie man of scholarly communication and then generalized it to domains where it doesn’t belong. In the process, it’s become unhelpful to students. Using punishment-avoidance rather than scholarly communication as the sole impetus for citation has actually made the process of deciding when to cite harder rather than easier. Even more importantly, it has shut them off from some of the joys and richness of using citations in their own research. As one of my colleagues likes to tell her students, “The literature in each field indexes itself” via it’s citations. But if students skip over reading these citations, perceiving them simply as legalistic mechanisms that the authors are using to cover their behinds, they miss out on uncovering new pieces of context surrounding their topics.


Brain Vacation Days

Every once in a while, to renew my grasp on sanity, I give myself a “brain vacation day.” I’m still at work, and I still do work, but I give myself permission not to tackle the really hard projects. I only work on the fun projects, or the little clearing-up projects that always get put off during the headlong rush through the term.

Today is one of those days. I couldn’t tackle a hard project if I tried, so I won’t try. I’ll recharge, reacquaint myself with my surroundings and my thoughts, get a bunch of little things done, and generally assess my progress on the things that need to get done soon. When this day is over, I’ll have a better sense of what needs to happen for the next few days, and in what order it needs to happen.

1 Comment