Let’s Talk Semantics 6: When is it Plagiarism?

March 9, 2011 § 21 Comments

If you are one of those people who notices eensy-weensy details like the particulars on someone’s blog, you may have noticed that yesterday I decided to append a copyright license to my blog. You see, I’ve started to become nervous. It finally dawned on me the other day that I am posting portions of creative thought that will appear in one form or another in my dissertation. It would break my heart (not to mention really really piss me off) if someone stole my creative intellectual property before I even had a chance to explore it. Although I trust my general readers not to steal my thoughts, the same can’t be said for the general Googler who might happen upon my blog when they type in specific keywords.

Note: I realize that I’m giving myself a great deal of credit, thinking my blog would show up in a Google search, but for the sake of the point, please just play along.

In addition to being pissed off by plagiarists who might want to steal my stuff, I am disgusted by people who plagiarize at all. For instance, as some of you Gmail users may be aware, Gmail sometimes takes it upon itself to “read” your e-mail and provide advertisements that correlate to the subject matter. More often than not, I am appalled to find an ad for a paid dissertation-writing service (like those paid essay-writing services!!) splashed across my Gmail inbox…just because I used the word “dissertation” in a message to a friend.

How utterly disgusting and disgraceful, to steal a dissertation! To pay someone else to write it for you so that you can slap your name on it and claim authorship! To that I say: if you don’t have the facilities to compose a dissertation all on your own, then leave your program ABD. Let it go. Don’t get the degree. Leave the degree for the students who can and will do their own work. So disgusting.

And then…things like this happen:

1. German ‘plagiarism’ minister Guttenberg drops doctorate

2. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: Baron without a title

3. LSE investigates Gaddafi’s son plagiarism claims

4. Plagiarism: The Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V boom

Look, folks, let’s just be perfectly clear here.

Writing is hard work. If you want your work to be taken seriously, you will often need to incorporate some amount of research (even if it’s light). Even in works of fiction, authors will write an acknowledgement or thanks message where they give credit to the people who assisted them in their research.

Research is hard work. In order to conduct research properly, you have to think of all the questions before your readers have the chance to ask them. Cover all your bases. Know what your sources know. As you conduct your research, you have got to keep track of the sources: their titles, authors, page numbers for direct quotes and paraphrases.

If it isn’t appropriate for your work to contain a bibliography, then write a note of thanks and acknowledgement so that those who assisted you are given credit.

I guess at the end of the day, the plagiarism rule is this:

When in doubt, always give credit where credit is due.

Let’s Talk Semantics 5: I think vs. I know

March 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

Welcome to another installment of “Let’s Talk Semantics”! Before we begin, a vignette!

Ah! I think to myself. Spring has come early. Too bad for me I’ll spend it in the library. Oh well.
“Excuse me!” a shrill voice interrupts my reverie as I dig through my bag for my sunglasses.
“Hm?” I look up and find a young woman, frazzled and frantic.
“D’you know where the deli is on campus?” Her question comes fast and impatient.
“Uhm…,” I say intelligently. “Ah, the best I know is that we have one on campus. And…I think it’s near some dormitories. Maybe…that direction?” I gesture randomly to the right.
“Okay,” she says, suddenly confident in my unclear directions. “So, it’s over there?”
“Oh, well, I don’t really know. I just think it’s in that direction…but I’m really not sure. Maybe you should ask someone else.” I reply, realizing that I’m about to send her out into the wild blue yonder.
“But it’s that way? If I go that way, I’ll find it?”
“Uh…I really don’t know,” I say, trying to laugh to lighten her intensity. “All I know is that it’s near some dormitories.” (For the record: this is not like my little undergrad–there are dormitories everywhere here!)
“Okay, I’ll go that way, then.”
Laughing again, I stop her and say, “No, no! I don’t want you to go the wrong way. You really need to ask someone else. I’ve only been to the deli once and that was six years ago! I’m not confident in my memory.”
She scoffs scornfully at me and turns around to speak to a rather dashing young man. Soon, they’re laughing. At me? I don’t care. I’m going to the library.
Oh…that’s where the deli is….


So, let’s talk semantics, folks. When did “I think” translate to “I know” for her? at what point do we as general listeners take someone’s thought and transform it into knowledge? Was it because I looked older than a freshman (god help me) that she just wanted to intrinsically trust me even though I was telling her that I wasn’t a trustworthy source on this point? I wasn’t wearing teacher clothes, so I looked like every other student schlepping across campus. What in my language/demeanor/dress indicated to her that I was the font of information and that I was just being modest when I said that I wasn’t sure but I thought this was true?

As a student of English studies for nearly over a decade (oh the horror!), I have learned the fine art of supporting my most outlandish claims with research and cold-hard facts. I have learned how to ethically, pathetically, and logically present a compelling argument for the purpose of persuading my reader to my side. I have learned to deliberately select specific words over others to serve a clear function. But, and let me be perfectly clear about this, if I do not know something to be true but I have a pretty good idea, then I will choose the phrase “I think,” instead. And I do so hoping that my reader or audience will discern the difference.

“I think” indicates that I have not conducted the research, have not gathered the facts, and indeed am not confident in my own conclusion to stand resolutely beside it should it be found wanting.

“I know” means the absolute opposite of the above. And I choose to use that phrase in specific instances.

This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed in increasing frequency–when I say “I think,” this sometimes translates into “I know” in the minds of my listeners. Hell, even when I say, “I don’t know” and am clear on that, sometimes my listeners hear the complete opposite. (I do know this because of recent conversations with students who have misquoted me during lecture to a surprising degree.) It is in moments like this one when I have that horribly wearying thought that my deliberate word choice is all for naught–have we turned into a society that just speaks for the sake of hearing the sound of its collective voice?

As it turned out, I ended up passing the little deli on my journey to the library. I had pointed that young woman in the exact wrong direction. Oops. Her life lesson: always get a second opinion, especially when your first source rambles on about how she doesn’t know for certain that what she’s saying is even true.

Let’s Talk Semantics 4: Gay

February 22, 2011 § 12 Comments

I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while. Apparently this ad campaign has been running for at least 2 years (at least, that’s when it was added to YouTube), but it hasn’t started making its rounds to this part of town until right around the Super Bowl.

Just in case you haven’t seen it (and, really, even if you have), take a gander:

I am sick to death of people, especially young people, using the word “gay” as an insult. I hear it at least once a day just by walking through the halls. More often than not, I hear it from the mouths of young men rather than from young women, but I am not foolish enough to believe that it’s just a male problem. In fact, before I left Facebook, I remember seeing young people attempt to “pretty it up” by spelling it differently. Surely, changing the spelling to “ghey,” for instance, entirely shifts the meaning away from a connotation to imply homosexuality and instead suggests that the meaning is entirely dependent upon spelling.

Of course.

So, to appease the Grande Wanda Sykes (who I utterly adore), perhaps the young men should have corrected her assumption and said, “No no, you thought we said G-A-Y. We actually said G-H-E-Y.” Yeah. That’s better.

When did this happen? I have no memory from high school of hearing people exclaim that something was “gay” when they thought it was stupid or weird or whatever. The scapegoat term then was “retarded,” which apparently has become so sinister in usage that I have even heard really young people (like…middle-school-aged) call it “the r-word.” It took me a while before I realized what word they meant. Obviously I would never condone the use of “retarded” to stand in to mean anything except in a medical sense preceded by the word “mentally” (although…is this no longer standard? I know the acceptable term is “developmentally delayed”…but as a former musician, I can’t help but be reminded of ritard to mean “slow” or ritardando for “slowing down”…”retarded” just has a different connotation to my ear, I suppose).

I suppose young people have likely always bastardized the meanings of other words to replace “stupid.”

There’s something rather despicable, of course, when the word derives original meaning from the description of a person or people. (Hell, even “gypped” is pretty disgusting, since it is derived from “gypsy.”) I suppose what makes the use of “gay” for this purpose topically offensive is that we are currently in a tumultuous, confused, and troubling argument in regards to gay rights. When young people use the word “gay” to mean “stupid,” they are not only insulting an entire portion of the world’s population (both past and present). Sadly, it’s not just about insults, Madame Sykes. Rather, the use of the word “gay” in this context degrades people while simultaneously shutting down the entire discourse before it has a chance to really get its legs beneath it. “That’s so gay [or ghey or whatever],” halts all discussion. Regardless if it’s said in a positive (which is rare) or negative (more common) context, that phrase at all generalizes, stereotypes, and ignores an entire group of people.

So, what do we do about it? We shut down the insulters. Like the ad campaign concludes, we tell them to “knock it off.” Even if it’s not our kid, not our conversation, not our battle, we make it known that that phrase is not appropriate.

Look, if you’re going to degrade something, really degrade it. And do it with class without dragging an entire group of people into it!

Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.
(from All’s Well That Ends Well)

That Shakespeare, he really knew how to zing ’em!

Let’s Talk Semantics 3: Telling vs. Tattling

January 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

As I was flipping through the channels this afternoon to watch some television with my lunch, I happened to glimpse an ad campaign promoted by Dr. Phil. I don’t know the origins of this campaign very well–I didn’t stop on the commercial to watch it. But what I caught was the tag line: “Bullying: telling is not tattling.” I “hmmed” my way through to the next set of channels and commercials, struck by that interesting argument.

Telling is not tattling.

So, Let’s Talk Semantics, folks: what is the difference between telling and tattling?

When I was little, my parents attempted to make the distinction excruciatingly clear: tattling was when someone did something that didn’t directly harm you or a friend or themselves. Like, for instance, if your little sister sat on your couch cushion when you were sitting there first before you got up to get a glass of water. That’s just tattling. I understand why they made this distinction clear. It cuts down on unnecessary whining, unnecessary refereeing, and unnecessary punishment.

But at what point in our lives do we go from, “well…it’s just harmless ribbing…maybe I should learn to take a joke and not be a whiny-ass tattle-tale” to “no, that’s cruelty and someone needs to be informed”? Me, I can’t take a joke. I don’t like being teased. I don’t like it when someone claims to employ sarcasm when what they’re really doing is just being mean. (The distinction, of course, being that sarcasm is an intellectual art form rarely done well. But that’s a “Let’s Talk Semantics” for another day.) So, knowing this about myself, that I tend to be really sensitive to the unkind taunts of others, then my impression of “direct harm” would be that that person really is harming me directly and someone needs to be told. Maybe someone else might call that tattling, but for me, it’s all about interpretation.

I’m not a parent yet, so I’m genuinely curious how those parental types out there actually handle this dilemma. On the one hand, you probably get fed up with the number of times in the day that the baby comes crying to you because the big kid called him or her “dumb baby.” But on the other hand, name-calling is not nice and should never be taken lightly. So, what do we teach our young? Do we teach them to run to teacher every time another kid name-calls and slanders them? Do we teach them to fight back? Do we teach them to ignore it? When I was in first grade, I got glasses. And they were thick. I’ve always had crap vision. When I came to class for the first time wearing glasses, in the middle of the school year no less, I was picked on relentlessly…like every other four-eyed freak on the playground. I came home sobbing and even (weakly) mimed destroying my glasses by punching “at” them while they laid on my bed. My parents were just trying to help me survive to the end of the school year and told me to ignore the other kids. I did, but they still name-called; I just learned to suck it up.

Is there a stratification of name-calling? Does four-eyed freak count for fewer bully points than stupid head? Does stupid head count for fewer bully points than a racial slur, or a sexual-orientation one?

As grown-ups living in a world where children are doing stupider and stupider things (and posting those things on-line, the stupidest of all!), what on Earth are we to do? Will we make our children wimpy and unable to defend themselves if we encourage them to tell us when they are being bullied? (Whatever that exactly means….) And when exactly do we tell them to start telling us? My parents told me that tattling wasn’t tattling when you were physically or emotionally hurt. But what extent of hurt justifies telling an adult or an authority figure?

Thank goodness I don’t have any little ones begging to know the answer to this question just yet. Because I don’t know what I would tell them. And I’m pretty sure that at this point whatever I would tell them would at some point be undermined by something else I tell them later on.

So, thoughts? Parents? People who aren’t parents? What do you all think about this telling versus tattling issue?

Let’s Talk Semantics 2: Accountability

January 16, 2011 § 3 Comments


In essence, accountability is when one person makes a commitment to him- or herself via another person’s knowledge of that commitment. So, for instance, when I say, “I’m going to perform a certain action in a certain amount of time solely for myself,” what I mean is, “I want you to yell at me if I do not perform a certain action in a certain amount of time solely for myself.”

Sometimes what I really want to say is, “I want you to take responsibility if I do not perform a certain action in a certain amount of time solely for myself.” Sometimes I want the word “accountability” to mean that someone else can take the fall for my failure to come through on a specific commitment.

Don’t manage to write my 2 pages a day? Surely it’s someone else’s fault.
Can’t shake that weight? Obviously Lay’s is to blame.

But here’s what I’ve really started to learn as a grown-up: the cold, hard fact of the matter is that nobody can actually take the fall for my actions (or inaction). And now I pause for the Internet to unanimously and in perfect harmony let out a mighty: DUH.

Well done, Internet! Bravo!

Anyway. So, fine, it has finally sunk in that asking others to help me stay accountable does not necessarily and automatically make them responsible for my goals. I am learning how exactly to employ this knowledge. For instance, on Wednesday night last week, I seriously did not want to work. At all. But when Robert got home from work, I begged him not to make me cook dinner because I hadn’t accomplished a thing yet. We talked a minute about a Plan B and finally settled on eating out nearby to my favorite coffee shop. After dinner we would sit in the coffee shop until they closed; Robert would play whatever he wanted to on his laptop, and I would work. After dinner, I still did not want to work. At all. But Robert held me accountable and put it to me this way: “it is 7 p.m., and they close at 10. You’ve got three hours.” Of course…I also had to teach my first day of class the next morning, and I did not like the prospect of staying up at all hours that night finishing my pages.

I finished my pages at 9:55 p.m., and we were in bed by 10:30. (Of course…I didn’t sleep that night, but that’s not the point!)

I’m also learning to ask for help while seeking accountability. I guess they go hand-in-hand.

Accountability is taking responsibility for your own actions while simultaneously asking for help. We are really asking for someone to help us remember that someone else is aware of our goals. We are asking for help because we ourselves aren’t perfect. We are asking for help because we know that we can only achieve our goals when other people are involved, even in the smallest way…even if it’s just to keep us on track.

And that help, that accountability that someone else holds us to, is the point where we realize the actuality of our intended goals.

Let’s Talk Semantics 1: Goals vs. Commitments

January 8, 2011 § 12 Comments

Considering that one of the things I love to teach my students is the power of words in general, I have decided to begin a series of posts. From time to time, as the mood hits, I’ll add to this series: Let’s Talk Semantics. In this series, we’ll play with words and their individual power, as well as the meaning behind them.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Let’s Talk Semantics!

Yesterday morning, I met with my friend V over coffee to discuss some dissertation writing plans. We agreed that if we wrote two pages a day, five days a week, and turned in 10 pages every Friday to each other, by the end of April, we’d have every chapter in a full draft form. Considering we’ve been in academia for over a decade, and that we’ve studied English literature/composition for the majority of that decade, we can compose 2 pages a day with little trouble at all. We feel confident we’ll be able to meet these self-imposed deadlines and that we’ll hold each other fully accountable.

And that’s what brings me to today’s topic.

While V and I were writing down our deadlines in our calendars, I glanced over to V’s calendar and saw that she had chosen a very specific word. Rather than choosing to write “Writing Goal: 2 pages a day,” she wrote “Writing Commitment: 2 pages a day.” In that moment, it suddenly struck me that there is a clear difference between goals and commitments. Here’s what I mean:

Goals: something often vague, abstract, and in some distant future. We might say something like “my goal is to lose 100 pounds,” but we haven’t necessarily mapped out exactly how we intend to achieve that goal. So, fine, we map out our plan to achieve it. But does that plan automatically suggest that the goal will be met? I’m inclined to believe, no.

Commitments: something concrete, specific, and immediate. When we make commitments, we are holding ourselves responsible and accountable for meeting those commitments. If we fail in our commitments, we are often held responsible and accountable for them by others as well. For instance, if we commit to raising a puppy, we commit to feeding it, taking it potty all the times it rings a bell needs to go out, walking with it to keep it exercised, socializing it with other dogs, and playing with it to keep it people-friendly. If we fail in these commitments, we reap the consequences of that failure. We might have a poorly-adjusted dog, or (even worse) our dog might be taken from us.

Commitments are more serious goals. Goals say nothing about our level of interest in completion. Making a commitment says to all who are aware of it: “I mean to see this through to the very end. I will not give up.” Goals say: “I really hope/wish I could achieve this.”

So what? Anyone can hope and wish and dream. But commit?

To commit takes some real gumption.

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