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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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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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