Why Writing Matters, And Why You Should Care

by Erin Poythress

3:00 A.M. Still up writing that essay.

3:00 A.M. Still up writing that essay.

You are working on your final essay and preparing to turn in 35% of your grade, and the universe hears you thinking out loud, your curses at the screen. It hears your exhaustion, and perhaps, just the slightest temptation to lift a paragraph or idea from a source you’re reading. You know, since you can’t say it any better than its author did… and anyway it’s 3:00 AM. Maybe this isn’t you. I hope it isn’t you. But if you’re human, you’ve probably at least thought about it. We all have.

This New York Times article describes how plagiarism is on the rise on college campuses all over the country. Any student would be most wise to read this. It isn’t very long, and is a thoughtful approach to a topic that is typically unthoughtfully discussed in class: academic integrity and intellectual property.

Many instructors don’t want to have to spend time discussing plagiarism, and I’ll admit I have felt like students should know this by now. I have also felt that I am only preaching to the choir, since someone lazy and irresponsible enough to cheat clearly isn’t going to bother to read or listen. Often the discussions of cheating that occur the first day of class are like bad sex-ed talks from the 1950s—”don’t ever do it; bad things happen if you do”—without ever talking about what “it” is.

But the notions of authorship and intellectual property have changed in the digital age, and you need to know how this will affect you, because they haven’t changed at UNCG or any other college campus.

"Do you think I haven't read that article myself?"

“Do you think I haven’t read that book myself?”

If you use someone else’s words or ideas and do not give them credit, it is plagiarism, which is just a fancy word for stealing. In an age where you can illegally download music, books, movies, and where websites routinely steal passages from each other uncredited, this may seem like an antiquated notion. It’s not. Not only is that how the university’s Academic Integrity policy specifically defines plagiarism, but to cut and paste or in any other way claim another’s thoughts as your own does not prepare you for the kind of synthesis and analysis that intelligent people must do to be a successful and productive part of society. The short-term result of plagiarizing any part of your essay in one of my classes is, of course, failing the class. But that concerns me less than its broader implications. And it should concern any student, too.

When you graduate from college, because you will have more education than many of your peers, you will have opportunities to not only be more financially secure in this world, but to shape this world. I would argue that all of us—whether we have a Ph.D. or a third-grade education—have an obligation to be a force of positive change in our communities, and as you join the ranks of those with the most education, you have the opportunity to be more visible and more convincing, since you’ve spent all those years learning to think logically and argue convincingly. But this means you also have an obligation to do your thinking and arguing ethically. It’s not difficult at all to find examples of unethical people who have preyed upon innocent people and even profited. Bernie Madoff comes to mind, but he is one of the more egregious examples of lapses in ethics that occur on smaller scales every day. His crimes had victims with names and bank accounts. You may think intellectual property heists have no such victims, but they do, as the linked article from The Crimson attests. They not only hurt the people who actually did the hard work of composing their thoughts, but they hurt the people that steal them because they help sustain the lie that the ones who steal can generate meaningful, coherent thought. What do you think the world would look like if our country’s great thinkers resorted to cut and paste instead of doing the difficult work of trying to solve our world’s most pressing problems?

Slave labor?

Slave labor, anyone?

This may seem like a strong reaction to a problem you view as minor, but I ask you, if, from here on out, all we do is copy/paste/recycle/reuse all the thoughts that came before without improving them, challenging them, overturning them, how will we solve problems we have never faced? What will be the fate of human innovation if all our thoughts are merely mashups of someone else’s deliberation?

Perhaps original thought is overrated, but I don’t think so. And the university doesn’t think so. And original thought is exactly what is expected in your essays. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from other people’s ideas, but you must give them credit for lighting your path. Don’t denigrate your own talents by lifting their words verbatim without quotation marks and a citation—you’re all intelligent enough to discuss a topic without resorting to stealing.

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