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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 January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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