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How a successful book contract led to an academic career's end (essay)

Herb Childress describes how a successful book contract led to his academic career’s end.

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Why plagiarism is not necessarily deceitful or deserving of censure (essay)

“College Plagiarism Reaches All-Time High”

Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception”

Headlines like these from The Huffington Post and The New York Times scream at us about an increase in plagiarism. As a society, we feel embattled, surrounded by falling standards; we bemoan the increasing immorality of our youth. Plagiarism, we know, is an immoral act, a simple case of right and wrong, and as such, deserves to be punished.

However, nothing is simple about plagiarism. In fact, the more we examine plagiarism, the more inconsistencies we find, and the more confusion.

How we think about the issue of plagiarism is clouded by the fact that it is often spoken of as a crime. Plagiarism is not only seen as immoral; it is seen as stealing -- the stealing of ideas or words. In his book Free Culture, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig questions what it can possibly mean to steal an idea.

“I understand what I am taking when I take the picnic table you put in your backyard. I am taking a thing, the picnic table, and after I take it, you don’t have it. But what am I taking when I take the good idea you had to put a picnic table in the backyard -- by, for example, going to Sears, buying a table, and putting it in my backyard? What is the thing that I am taking then?”

Lessig gets at the idea that, when a person borrows an idea, no harm is done to the party from whom it was taken. But what about loss in revenues as a form of harm? Surely there is no loss of revenues when a student plagiarizes a paper. From Lessig’s metaphor we can see that theft, and even copyright infringement, are not entirely apt ways to think about plagiarism.

But Lessig’s metaphor does not help us understand that, in academic writing, acknowledgment of sources is highly valued. Neither does it reveal that taking ideas and using them in your own writing, with conventional attribution, is a sophisticated skill that requires a good deal of practice to master.

There are at least three important things to understand about the complexity of using sources. First, ideas are often a mixture of one’s own ideas, those we read and those we discuss with friends -- making it hard or even impossible to sort out who owns what. Second, writers who are learning a new field often “try out” ideas and phrases from other writers in order to master the field. That process, which allows them to learn, involves little or no deceit. And third, expectations for citing sources vary among contexts and readers, making it not only confusing to learn the rules but impossible to satisfy them all.

It is quite hard to separate one’s ideas from those of others. When we read, we always bring our own knowledge to what we’re reading. Writers cannot say everything; they have to rely on readers to supply their own contribution to make meaning. One difficulty arises when you read an argument with unnamed steps. As a good reader, you fill them in so you can make sense of the argument. Now, if you were to write about those missing steps, would they be your ideas or those of your source?

Writers may reuse the ideas of others, but surely they know when they reuse words, so should they attribute them? Perhaps not. Words are not discrete entities that can be recombined in countless ways, rather, they fall into patterns that serve certain ways of thinking, the very ways of thinking or habits of mind that we try to instill in students.

The fact is that language is formulaic, meaning that certain words commonly occur together. There are many idioms, such as “toe the line” or “cut corners” that need not be attributed. There are also many co-occurring words that don’t quite count as idioms, such as “challenge the status quo,” “it should also be noted that …” and “The purpose of this study is to …” that similarly do not require attribution. Those are called collocations. Student writers need to acquire and use a great number of them in academic writing. What this means is that not every verbatim reuse is plagiarism.

Moreover, imposing strict rules against word reuse may function to prevent student writers from learning to write in their fields. When student writers reuse patterns of words without attribution in an attempt to learn how to sound like a journalist, say, or a biologist, or a literary theorist, it is called patchwriting. In fact, not only student writers but all writers patch together pieces of text from sources, using their own language to sew the seams, in order to learn the language of a new field.

Because of the complex way in which patchwriting mixes text from various sources, it can be extremely difficult to cite one’s sources. Despite this lack of attribution, much research has shown that patchwriting is not deceitful and therefore should not be punished. In fact, some scholars are interested in exploring how writing teachers could use the concept of patchwriting to help student writers develop their own writing skills.

The third reason that it is not always easy to acknowledge sources is that expectations for referencing vary widely and what counts as plagiarism depends on context. If, for instance, you use a piece of historic information in a novel, you don’t have to cite it, but if you use the same piece of information in a history paper, you do. Journalists typically do not supply citations, although they have fact checkers making sure their claims are accurate. In business, people often start their reports by cutting and pasting earlier reports without attribution. And in the academy, research has shown that the reuse of words in science articles is much more common and accepted than it is in the humanities.

In high school, student writers probably used textbooks that did not contain citations, and once in college, they may observe their professors giving lectures that come straight from the textbook without citation, cribbing one another’s syllabi and cutting and pasting the plagiarism policy into their syllabi. They may even notice that their university lifted the wording of its plagiarism policy from another institution!

In addition to those differing standards for different genres or fields of study, research has also shown that individual “experts” such as experienced writers and teachers do not agree whether or not a given piece of writing counts as plagiarism. Given such wide disagreement over what constitutes plagiarism, it is quite difficult, perhaps impossible, for student writers to meet everyone’s expectations for proper attribution. Rather than assuming that they are trying to pass off someone else’s work as their own and therefore deserve punishment, we should recognize the complexity of separating one’s ideas from those of others, mastering authoritative phrases and meeting diverse attribution standards.

While most people feel that plagiarism deserves punishment, some understand that plagiarism is not necessarily deceitful or deserving censure. Today, many writers and writing teachers reject the image of the writer as working alone, using (God-given) talent to produce an original piece of work. In fact, writers often do two things that are proscribed by plagiarism policies: they recombine ideas in their writing and they collaborate with others.

Interestingly, the image of the lone, divinely inspired writer is only a few hundred years old, a European construct from the Romantic era. Before the 18th century or so, writers who copied were respected as writers. Even today, rather than seeing copying as deceitful, we sometimes view it as a sign of respect or free publicity.

Today, millennial students often copy without deceitful intent. Reposting content on their Facebook pages and sharing links with their friends, they may not cite because they are making an allusion; readers who recognize the source without a citation share the in-joke.

In school, millennials may not cite because they are not used to doing so or they believe that having too many citations detracts from their authority. In either case, these are not students trying to get away with passing someone else’s work off as their own, and, in fact, many studies have concluded that plagiarism, particularly that of second-language student writers, is not done with the intent to deceive.

Despite these complexities of textual reuse, most faculty members nevertheless expect student writers to do their “own work.” In fact, student writers are held to a higher standard and punished more rigorously than established writers.

What is even more troublesome is that teachers’ determinations of when plagiarism has occurred is more complicated than simply noting whether a student has given credit to sources or not. Research has shown that teachers let inadequate attribution go if they feel the overall sophistication or authority of the paper is good, whereas they are stricter about citing rules when the sophistication or authority is weak. Furthermore, they tend to more readily recognize authority in papers written by students who are members of a powerful group (e.g., whites, native English speakers or students whose parents went to college). Thus, in some instances, plagiarism may be more about social inequity than individual deceit.

As we come to realize that writers combine their ideas with those of others in ways that cannot always be separated out for the purposes of attribution, that writers often reuse phrases in acceptable ways, that citing standards themselves vary widely and are often in the eye of the beholder, and that enforcement of plagiarism rules is an equity issue, the studies and articles panicking over plagiarism make less and less sense. In looking at plagiarism from the different perspectives offered by collaborative writers and today’s millennial student writers, we can see that much plagiarism is not about stealing ideas or deceiving readers.

Unless plagiarism is out-and-out cheating, like cutting and pasting an entire paper from the internet or paying someone to write it, we should be cautious about reacting to plagiarism with the intent to punish. For much plagiarism, a better response is to relax and let writers continue to practice the difficult skill of using sources.

Jennifer A. Mott-Smith is an associate professor of English at Towson University. She has been teaching college writing for more than 20 years and researching plagiarism since 2009. This is the second in an occasional series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe for an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries.

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Popular Native American studies scholar declines deanship at Dartmouth amid concerns over his past support for Israel boycott

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Popular Native American studies scholar who was named faculty dean at Dartmouth withdraws from position, following criticism of his past support for Israel boycott. Some fear impact on academic freedom.

NEH chairman steps down as White House renews call for eliminating agency

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Humanities leaders had hoped to see William D. Adams, an Obama appointee, finish his term. The agency is among several targeted for elimination by the White House.

How to make job contacts want to help you (essay)

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You should always focus on making your networking contacts feel good -- and make sure your interaction is a positive experience for them, advises Joseph Barber.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017
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Effects of Female Mentors on Women in Engineering

Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, made headlines in 2105 for her study suggesting that female undergraduates in engineering were much more likely to participate in problem-solving group activities when they made up more than half the group. Dasgupta and Tara Dennehy, a graduate student in social psychology UMass-Amherst, have new study out this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that could help engineering programs further support women.

For the paper, “Female Peer Mentors Early in College Increase Women's Positive Academic experiences and Retention in Engineering,” the authors had 150 female engineering students meet with peer female or male mentors, or no mentors at all, once a month for a year. Students’ experiences were surveyed three times in the first year and once again a year later. Survey responses and retention data showed that female mentors positively influenced mentees’ retention, as well as their feelings of confidence, motivation and belonging and desire to continue in engineering as a career. Male mentors had no such effect. 

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Philosophy professors at St. Thomas in Houston, their contracts late, fear for their jobs

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St. Thomas in Houston has held back reappointment notices for philosophy professors -- even those with tenure -- amid debates over budget and the curriculum.

‘Fear and Oppressiveness’ at Nashville State CC

A report commissioned by the Tennessee Board of Regents has found "a climate of fear and oppressiveness" at Nashville State Community College, The Tennessean reported, based on a leaked copy of the report. The report was based on interviews and surveys with faculty members at the college, who were critical of President George Van Allen. In an interview with the newspaper, Van Allen defended his record and blamed "a strong minority" of professors for the criticisms.

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A professor revisits his relationship with a teenage, college and grad school acquaintance (essay)

I was scrolling through my email one morning last March when a message catapulted me back to an earlier time of baseball cards, bell bottoms and biology homework. One of my college roommates sent a link to a morning headline -- "Hedge Fund Manager Dead in Apparent Suicide." The man had jumped from the 24th floor of a Manhattan hotel. My roommate’s note was terse: "It's Chuck Murphy."

Charlie Murphy and I met in Ms. Puccio's homeroom class in 1974, when we were 13 years old. We were entering sophomores at Stuyvesant High School, a public New York City high school that specializes in math and science. Charlie was a nice guy, friendly and soft-spoken. Also very tall -- with inches yet to grow.

We had all the same classes our first semester, and we ran with the same pack of friends for a while. Though Charlie and I didn’t really become friends ourselves, we stayed abreast of each other -- not least because we saw each other every morning in homeroom.

Stuyvesant was -- and is -- a crucible of high-pressured academic competition. I did well there, and discovered an interest in tournament chess. Charlie also did well. We both wound up at Columbia University, where we began school together once more.

At Columbia, Charlie exercised the prerogative of many a college student: he reinvented himself. He started calling himself Chuck, and he joined the preppy fraternity. He dressed the part, too -- I saw him in black tie on more than one weekend.

Charlie also went out for crew. As a senior, he captained the crew team. That same year, I became captain of the chess team. We would say hello when our paths crossed, but they didn't cross often.

Still, Charlie's personal transformation stuck in my mind. After a while, I figured out why. He chose to shed his skin, to efface his past. But that skin he was shedding -- well, it was the skin I still wore. That past he was erasing was the past we shared.

I remember running into Charlie at commencement, where we shook hands in our gowns and congratulated each other. By then, whenever I saw him, I was mostly reminded of the differences between us.

***

Our paths may have diverged, but our geography remained ironically parallel. Both of us landed at Harvard University in the early 1980s. Charlie (I never got used to calling him Chuck) went to Harvard Law School, and I started the long road to a Ph.D. in English.

I had once thought about going to law school myself, and did legal work for a couple of summers during college. But I liked literature better. After vowing on numerous occasions that I would never go to graduate school -- I can still hear myself saying that -- I learned enough about myself to change my mind. So I dug in and tried for a professorship.

Charlie and I ran into each other in Harvard Yard sometimes. We always greeted each other warmly, as old familiars, but neither of us asked much about what the other was doing.

I heard that Charlie went to Europe after his 1985 graduation to work in banking and finance. I never saw him again. He never wrote to the alumni class notes, either, so his story never advanced for me. He became encased in the amber of memory.

But after my roommate’s email, I heard a lot about him. The financial papers descended upon Charlie with prurient zeal. There were stories in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Fortune, Barron’s. The Daily Mail weighed in with a heavily illustrated, gossipy account.

From these accounts, I learned that Charlie had lived in London for over 20 years before coming back to New York in 2007. Upon his return, he paid $33 million for a townhouse with 11 fireplaces, in the same part of Manhattan where he grew up.

Charlie had been a highflier, working first for Morgan Stanley, then for start-ups and hedge funds. His work, I realized, lay behind stories I’ve read in the business pages of the newspapers. One of his last deals aimed at the breakup of AIG, the insurance giant whose failure contributed to the 2008 financial crash.

Charlie made some good bets over the years -- the Journal estimated his worth in the tens of millions of dollars. He also made some bad ones: the hedge fund he joined upon his return to the United States had invested heavily in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. At the time of his death, Charlie was a partner at a different firm, and his home was for sale for $42.5 million.

Charlie had been known in his profession as Charles. His name had changed yet again, but so had something else. The financier described in his obituaries wasn’t remotely like the Charlie Murphy I remembered: Charles Murphy was "rigid" and "confrontational." "Conversations with Mr. Murphy," reported The Wall Street Journal, "amounted to lectures." A 30-minute phone call with him meant "29 minutes of Charles talking."

***

Call me an English professor (because I became one), but these accounts initially recalled for me Theodore Dreiser's fictionalized portrayal of the tall, handsome, daring financier Frank Cowperwood in three novels published between 1912 and 1947. One of the words Dreiser often attaches to Cowperwood is "force." The mystery Dreiser sets up but does not solve over the course of more than a thousand pages is what makes Cowperwood always want more: more money, more women, more art for his collection. "I satisfy myself," Cowperwood often says. But he's never satisfied.

My thoughts eventually fixed on Edwin Arlington Robinson's 1897 poem "Richard Cory." The title character is "a gentleman from sole to crown, / Clean favored and imperially slim." Cory is "richer than a king" and "admirably schooled in every grace."

In 1965, Paul Simon made a song out of Robinson's poem. It appears on Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence album. Many people of a certain age, including me, first encountered Richard Cory through the song, not the poem. I heard it for the first time a few years before I met Charlie Murphy. The song's out-of-left-field ending (which echoes the poem's) has never left me:

My mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."

I knew Charlie Murphy once. The man his colleagues knew as Charles Murphy I knew not at all. Yet his death haunts me. No one else shared high school, college and graduate school with me.

Charlie and I tracked together from our young teens until our midtwenties -- the years when we were choosing our professions. I first read Dreiser and Robinson during those years, and now I see myself turning to the tools of my job to try to make sense of my classmate's suicide.

Which I can't, of course -- I hadn’t seen him in more than 30 years. His death is a tragedy for those close to him. For me, it's also a story that vexes me because my emotional connection to it is so hard to understand.

The Simon and Garfunkel song conveys a strange sort of self-righteous triumph when Simon sings the "put a bullet through his head" line. Simon’s narrator is an unhappy worker in one of Richard Cory’s factories. The singer’s admiration of Richard Cory is matched by his own misery: “I curse the life I’m living/And I curse my poverty.”

What lies behind the singer’s defiant tone when he delivers that last line? I’ve devoted my career to questions like that -- and to arguing for why they matter. Does the singer display a poor man's schadenfreude? The smugness of youth? Or the simple joy of someone who sees that he’s still alive?

The question has no clear answer -- and that’s one of the reasons we’re still reading and listening to “Richard Cory” after more than 50 years. And it’s one of the reasons I can’t stop thinking about Charlie Murphy.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University. His most recent book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It (Harvard University Press, 2015).

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Thursday, May 25, 2017
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Tufts Grad Students Form Union

Tufts University graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Thursday. Turnout was high, at 82 percent, and the tally was 129 in favor and 84 opposed, with eight challenged ballots. The university said in a statement it’s "disappointed in the outcome" and "concerned unionization will fundamentally change the relationship between graduate students and faculty." Yet it recognizes the union's right to exist and is committed to collective bargaining in the coming months, it said. Non-tenure-track instructors at Tufts, both full-time and part-time, already are represented by SEIU. Brandeis University graduate students voted to form a union with SEIU earlier this month, and that institution committed to beginning contract negotiations, as well -- unlike other campuses that have continued to bring legal challenges to new unions. A hunger strike at Yale University over delayed negotiations there is ongoing, for example.

Also on Thursday, a regional NLRB office said that graduate students at Boston College, a Roman Catholic institution, were free to hold a union election -- except those students studying theology and ministry and mission and ministry, respectively. Similar to recent NLRB decisions on proposed adjunct unions at religious institutions, the office said that most Boston College graduate students, save those studying theology, did not perform the kinds of specific religious functions that would exempt them from NLRB oversight. The proposed Boston College unit is organizing with United Auto Workers.

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