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.

Funny thing about accountability: or, what it means to write a dissertation

February 13, 2011 § 12 Comments

While writing a dissertation, a student will explore a plethora of emotions that run the gamut from excitement to ennui to hysteria to antipathy. She (speaking for myself here) will doubt herself, defend herself, trust herself, torture herself. This is all entirely normal and to be expected.

What she might not expect is what happens when she maintains accountability with another dissertation-writer. My dissertation-writing buddy, V, has been…amazing. She pushes me when I need pushing; she supports me when I need supporting. At the beginning of the year, just after New Year’s and before the semester began, V and I met at “our” coffee shop to discuss our graduation plans. Of course, our dissertation lies in the way of graduation, and we must conquer it. We have both made significant steps toward that very regal walk we will take on August 7th, and I for one am extremely proud of us.

What I’ve learned about accountability is just how truly powerful it is. Because V has never belittled me or yelled at me (and I don’t believe she ever would, since she knows I don’t work this way) for not achieving a goal or for having a difficult time getting started on a particular day, I trust her and value her opinion when she helps me to set my next week’s goals. On Friday, she and I chatted for quite a long time about what I am going to do with this 51-page literature review…which is an exceedingly long lit review. She gave me fabulous advice in regards with how to reorganize some of the chunkier bits and where I might start looking to make cuts. And then she said:

“I don’t think your goal this week should be to churn out ten pages. I mean, you can if you feel inspired…but I think you’ve got plenty of work to do here. I’d spend the week getting this chapter ready to send out to your director.”

And when she said that, I felt such a weight lift off my shoulders. V gave me a new goal, one that I’m ready to accomplish, and I get to sort of “take a break” from new writing.

Although…truth be told…I’ll probably finish editing this chapter and just write more, lol.

Thanks, V, for keeping me accountable and for helping me to meet these commitments.

Undoing the damage done: learning how to write outside of Academia

February 1, 2011 § 6 Comments

Fairly fresh to blogging in the beginning of December 2010, I came upon the blog of a bright, hilarious young mother who challenged me (well, not me personally) in ways I never before expected to be challenged. I happened upon this blog when I was just coming to grips with what it meant to own the words “I don’t want to teach anymore.” The blog that was featured was Tori Nelson’s “The Ramblings“, and especially the post “War of (BIG) Words / Battle of Smahrt.” What Tori did in this post was something remarkable. Without meaning to, she held a mirror up to my own speech and writing patterns. In fact, I found myself on the side of pretentious speech, attempting to win the so-called Battle of Smahrt. But, Tori so wisely concludes:

“Do not feel trapped by these word-twisting, outsmart-ing whackos because, in the end, whatever you say can be said one hundred different ways, most of them better. But you say what you say the way in which you say it…. small words and all.”

I think we might even be able to play with her quote here a little (and only do minor damage by mangling the meaning…hope you don’t mind, Tori), and we can even apply it to the word-twisting, outsmart-ing, whackos themselves. In short: You pretentious linguistic snobbish pig-dogs, stop hiding behind those massively inappropriate and unnecessary words. Your meaning is all the more clear, your message all the more endearing, when you appeal to the broader audience who, by the way, is not mentally incapable of translating your words. You simply look verbally foolish.

The “you” in the above paragraph really stands in for “Mrs. H.” You see, as a graduate student I learned how to write. The right way. I learned how to verbalize my rhetorical arguments with such vigor and force of vocabulary as to purposefully leave my adversaries’ heads a-swimming. I was trained to dominate linguistically. Professors expected judgment, so-called “rhetorical discernment,” wherein I would exercise my intelligence and deem this argument worthy or that one dreck. Scholarly writing, it was demonstrated to me, is a style devoid of humor and “plain speech.” Unless you have “made it” and are a tenure-track professor at a top-notch university and constantly published. Unless you, like Stephen Greenblatt, have a veritable nine rings of an entourage, the degrees of which determine how intelligent you perceive the individual yes-man to be. (Oh, and yes. I have seen Dr. Greenblatt, premier Shakespearean scholar extraordinaire, at a conference…which is to say I have seen the cloud of people surrounding him all jockeying for a better position within the entourage. Those physically closest to Dr. Greenblatt are his intellectual near-equals; those further out are mere sycophants.) Only if you are Stephen Greenblatt or someone of his ilk do you even conceive of breaking the rules of Good Academic Writing. A young Master’s student who chooses to emulate his easy-breezy, personal style in the introduction of her thesis may be told at her thesis defense that such a choice was “interesting.” And that is not a compliment. For example.

And here I am facing the reality that I might not want to be an academic when I grow up. I might not want to emulate Stephen Greenblatt or Lisa Jardine or Valerie Traub. Sure, I admire the mess out of them. But I do not want to be them when I grow up. (And, ladies and gentlemen, I am near-grown.)

So, where does this leave me?

This leaves me trying out a new voice. Writing with a different purpose, a different edge. Finding a new audience. Hell, enjoying writing at all. I gather great inspiration from Tori’s blog in entries like “I still write.” (Tori’s honest look at herself as a writer, in response to a sort of call-to-arms issued by Kathryn McCullough…mentioned below.) And, also by Tori, “Man Van & The Hip Husband Demographic,” which is a hysterical analysis of recent ad campaigns. Tori represents to me the writer that I could have been had my humorous, creative voice not been so sufficiently stifled. Of course, I am really kidding myself if I have the gall to claim that I was ever as humorous as she is…but who’s to say I might not have developed more in this direction than in the academic one? Tori inspires me to try new things. To loosen up. To play with words and laugh. To invite my readers to laugh with me. I don’t believe I have accomplished this yet, and I am not so arrogant to believe it will happen overnight. After all, it took six years to become the proper scholarly writer that I sort of am. But there is an obvious unease in my academic writing; it is clunky…like a child plodding around in her father’s loafers. Maybe it will be easier to shuck this writing style that drapes over me in an embarrassingly pretentious way.

And then there’s Kathryn McCullough’s blog “reinventing the event horizon (notes from the edge).” In her current life, she lives in Haiti with her partner Sara, and she writes beautifully descriptive and informative posts about Haiti’s current struggle to right itself (if it ever was before aright); one of her most moving posts was one that left me shaking in my boots: “An Event Horizon for Haiti? Baby Doc’s Mind-Bending Return From Exile.” In this post Kathy not only informs her readers of the frightening and tumultuous political upheaval poor Haiti is now enduring, but she also makes this specific, singular experience relevant to the rest of us. What I love about Kathy’s writing style is that she is the perfect example of someone who has been where I am now, too. In her past life, she was an instructor of college composition; and, in fact, our universities are in the same football conference. Kathy is the kind of woman who not only taught strong writing to college students, but she demonstrates it in her own blog. She does not write in the voice of the pretentious, over-educated, Ivory Tower elite. She writes in a way that is engaging and interesting…and isn’t that the purpose of writing? In fact, Kathy devotes some time in her blog to exploring what it is to be a writer; when Tori wrote the post “I still write,” she responded to the questions that Kathy asks at the close of her blog post “Fear and Trembling in the New Year: A Writer’s Confession.” Thank goodness for Tori’s blog because it also introduced me to Kathy’s–I was doubly-blessed this day to encounter both of these women’s writing styles. She follows up this post with another that explores how writers defeat themselves with what she terms the “Writing Neurotic”–the part of us that sabotages our work before we’ve even had the chance to begin. This post is titled “Confessions of a Desperate, Writing Neurotic.” To give an example of Kathy’s Writing Neurotic (and I hope you don’t mind my reposting, Kathy), she bravely shared with her readers a piece of her personal brainstorming:

“When I have tried to journal recently I’m always bothered by the notebook I’m writing in—I know that sounds crazy—and surely it’s a mere excuse—but I truly believe I should be keeping my entries in another format—

Perhaps, typing them on my computer—if the paper is lined, perhaps, it should be unlined—if it’s plain—perhaps, it should be graph paper. If I write in blue ink, probably, it should have been black or green or gray—any other color than the one I’m using.”

And so she continues, finding fault with nearly everything she is using as a tool for expressing her thoughts on paper or in digital format. Finally, she concludes,

“Most everything about writing feels wrong—doing it—not doing it—doing it in the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon—equally problematic.

[…]

But I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. It’s better to get it wrong than not to have gotten it at all.”

The perfect conclusion to the conundrum. It is better to get it wrong than not to even try to get it at all. My father used to tell me, “You might fail if you try, but you will absolutely fail if you don’t try.” Also true.

What does all of this have with “undoing the damage done”? Well, you see, whether intentionally on the part of my graduate school professors or not, I learned that some writing styles are better than others. That if you write in a relaxed, easy, loose, humorous way, then you are simply not taking your work seriously. And, as my immature early-20-something brain took it the next step further, if you are not taking your work seriously, then you are not taking your intelligence seriously. Whether or not it was said, I heard, “You must wear your education on your sleeve. Demonstrate to everyone that you are smart, you are educated, you are a budding scholar.”

Well you know what? Nobody cares. When I went home for Thanksgiving and Christmas the years between 2004 and 2010, none of my family members were impressed that I could elucidate on the valorous wordplay of Marlowe over Middleton. They wanted to know if I was close to graduation. If I was dating anyone. How teaching was going.

The training I have received to be a master of Academese (our very own language, really, replete with buzz words like “agency” and “gender” and “sophistry”) has served me to excel in my program, to be sure. But I am not comfortable with this language. Although immersed in the culture, I do not speak with the effortlessness of an Academic Native to the Ivory Tower. I have a funny accent, slow vocabulary recall, imprecise word choice. When I return to my natural home, however, my speech is tinted with an exotic tinge that smacks of long-term exposure to Academia. I struggle to communicate with my family while I speak a disjointed version of Academlish–occasionally I manage to piece together a coherent sentence in plain English but too often Academese breaks through and distorts my meaning.

I do not believe that all Academics have this problem. In fact, I know of several off the top of my head who are fully capable in their bilingual expertise, flowing easily from English to Academese with little effort.

I do believe, however, that as an Academic-in-training who does not intend to pursue her scholarship, I must relearn the proper method of communicating outside of the Ivory Tower. Maybe then my thoughts will be taken all the more seriously and less like elitism.

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.

Worth a shot

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

In addition to tackling a dissertation, I’m also contributing to an encyclopedia of early modern women of interest. I’m writing five entries for this encyclopedia, and most of the research has gone fairly well. One woman continues to completely elude me…hopefully that will be resolved tomorrow when I attempt to track her down in the stacks. Another woman is extremely well-known (well…to scholars in this area), but her death records are dubious. Obviously, she died. But we don’t know when or how or where or if she was buried. My research led me to a book I own that is a compilation of her poetic work–the introduction to this book has been particularly useful. Then, I looked at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on-line and saw that the woman who wrote the introduction to the book I was using also wrote the biographical entry in the ODNB. That itself is not particularly uncommon, but what is curious is that in the introduction to the book, she speculates that the poet outlived her husband. In the ODNB, however, she speculates that the poet predeceased her husband.

So, what’s a young scholar to do? Two sources conflict with each other, but they’re written by the same person.

So…this young scholar Googled the well-established scholar, found her at Harvard, and e-mailed her.

Yeah. I e-mailed an extremely well-established Harvard scholar. This might not seem like that big of a deal, but imagine if you were confused on a point and, rather than re-researching this point, you just up and contacted a top-tier contributor to your field. It’s certainly a bit presumptive, but what was the worst that could happen? Either she could respond to my e-mail or ignore it entirely.

Well, she wrote back. First thing this morning.

I was stunned. And she gave me a helpful answer that I fully intend to incorporate into my biographical entry in the encyclopedia.

So, the lesson learned here? When you stand to lose absolutely nothing and to gain a great deal, it’s worth taking the shot. Even if it’s scary, even if it’s intimidating, even if it’s a little bit embarrassing. I guess I ultimately decided to either face a little bit of short-term embarrassment by e-mailing this woman or a lot of long-term professional embarrassment if I misrepresented the facts in my biographical entry that will be published.

Robert pointed out this morning that we’re all academic colleagues here, no matter the university or field experience. That’s how I felt when I received the reply from this amazing scholar–we both have the same goal, and that’s to represent the facts as best as we can in as complete a manner possible. From that conclusion, scholarly consultation flows naturally.

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