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Lessons from a Plagiarist

Lessons from a Plagiarist

Lessons from a Plagiarist

    It happens every semester. Some student, thinking themselves very clever indeed, Googles up a WIkipedia entry, some obscure facts page from some obscure website, an essay from one of the plagiarism sites, or, one time, even one of my own papers, and hands it in as his or her own.

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    The smarter ones cut out the links and references to the site their paper came from. The smartest ones cut bits and pieces of several sources together into a seamless new creation – a ton of work and almost admirable, if any of the words had been their own. But what the smartest share with the dimmest is this: they’re all easy to catch.

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    Confronted, they fall into a couple of patterns. The defiant offer up powerful excuses like “My cousin told me she wrote this!” and “No, that’s all my work.IT’s just a coincidence that Wikipedia put the same words in the same order!” The contrite shuffle their feet, beg to redo their assignments (sometimes turning in more plagiarized work!), or just plain disappear, humiliated.

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    But this is not a post about plagiarism, it’s a post about life – specifically the  lessons we can all learn from plagiarists. Because while I am professionally, legally, and morally bound to be harsh to plagiarists, I  also believe that getting caught offers them an opportunity to learn some very important lessons. Lessons about living with a certain degree of grace and decency and, if they put their mind to it, lessons in redemption.

    Here are the five big lessons I think we can all learn from plagiarists:

    1. Never do anything that would embarrass you if anyone knew about it. The reason students plagiarize is because they believe they won’t get caught. That’s simply the wrong attitude to take, about anything. This is a very simple moral rule: if being caught would be humiliating – even if you’re not technically doing anything wrong – don’t do it.
    2. Never underestimate the intelligence or resourcefulness of others. I know PT Barnum said nobody had ever gone broke by overestimating the stupidity of the average person, but it works the other way, too – people often turn out to be much smarter than you give them credit for, and they have access to resources you might not have imagined. You’d think students would figure a guy with a PhD-level education and 6 years of classroom experience would be pretty savvy to the ways of plagiarists, but they don’t get it. Which is fine by me – it means catching plagiarism is the easiest part of my job, not the hardest.
    3. Own your actions. You’ve plagiarized, you’re caught – quick, who do you blame?! If you say “myself”, congratulations, you’re well on your way to being a decent person. Or, you didn’t plagiarize, you worked hard and did good work, who gets credit? Hopefully you said “myself” again – and if you see why it makes sense in the second case, you can see why it’s important in the first case. When we try to shift blame for our shortcomings to other people, we sell ourselves short, leaving no room for growth or improvement next time. It becomes a self-sustaining cycle – if it’s never your fault, then there’s never any reason to stop.
    4. It’s never too late to seek a second chance. No matter how badly you screw up, there’s always the possibility of redemption – but only you can follow that path. You have to seek it out – ask for a chance to redo whatever you messed up, try doubly hard next time, take your lumps and resolve never to make the same mistake again. There’s two conditions here: the external condition – what it takes to satisfy the person you’ve wronged – and the internal condition – what it takes to satisfy yourself. You may never be able to redress the injury to the other party, but only you can decide what measures you’re willing to go to in order to try. Likewise, only you can decide when your own standards have been met.
    5. Sometimes, the most important lesson you can learn is failure. My department chair told me this during my first semester as a college instructor. In education these days, success often comes too cheap. K-12 educators have to fight for permission to fail under-performing students, competitions are set up so that everyone wins, and so on. But ask any successful person, whether in academia, public service, or business, and they’ll tell you that the most important events in their lives have been the failures, not the successes (and especially not the easy successes). Learning how to fail with grace – and how to pick yourself up and go forward without repeating your mistakes – is an incredibly valuable lesson, and while it may suck to live through, it’s an occasion that we should be at least a little thankful for.

    These are valuable lessons, and they apply far beyond the immediate context of plagiarism or academic work. All of us can benefit from avoiding actions that we wouldn’t want others to find out about (from hiding a relationship to committing a crime), respecting the competency of others, owning our actions and their consequences, redressing our errors, and learning from our failures. It’s only unfortunate that so many young people have to risk so much – I could conceivably have students who violate my school’s academic honesty policy censured or even expelled – to learn these lessons.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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