Tag Archives: writing

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.

Sleep Well…

By Marc Williams

In a previous post, I wrote of my enthusiasm for football and my favorite team, the Detroit Lions.  As a die-hard fan, I follow the team year round and I read every single article written about the team via the web sites of the various Michigan newspapers.  In fact, ever since these papers started publishing web content, I think I can safely say I’ve read every word they’ve published about the Detroit Lions.

As blogs, podcasts, chats, message boards, and other web content delivery systems emerged over the past fifteen years or so, one of the Lions’ beat reporters, Tom Kowalski, embraced these new ways of bringing content to the fans.  While I’ve read the work of many sports writers, I’ve read more content by Tom Kowalski than any other reporter.  In part, this is because of Kowalski’s use of new media platforms—his daily web articles, opinion columns and blogs, fan chats, video blogs, email Q & A sessions, comment rebuttals, Twitter, radio interviews, and podcasts provided Lions fans with a bounty of material to devour.

Sadly, the operative word in that last sentence is “provided.”  Last Monday, August 29, I was spending a few free minutes scanning Twitter as I often do.  I was stunned when I came across this tweet in my feed:

espn_nfcnblog ESPN Blogs NFC North: No words for death of Tom Kowalski.

Tom Kowalski

This news had a profoundly strange effect on me.  Of course I’ve dealt with death before: friends and family, students, teachers, and many others.  And obviously I read about death every day, including people in the public eye who I admire or whose work I enjoy.  But my internal reaction to the death of Kowalski, affectionately known as “Killer” by his readers, took me by surprise.  My experience was not like the death of other journalists and writers I remember.  I was sad when playwright Arthur Miller died but my reaction was not visceral.  Miller’s work certainly moved me—it continues to move me—but I did not feel a sense of personal loss when he passed.  For Kowalski, I felt.  It didn’t feel as if a stranger had died.

I didn’t understand why my reaction was so extraordinary.  And while I’m not sure if I’ll ever know for sure, I’m now convinced that I actually did know Tom Kowalski.  He certainly did not know me, but he shared a lot with his readers.  Personally, I read every word he wrote for at least twelve years, maybe more—and he wrote a lot.  And because he used so many interactive tools to deliver content, he ended up having real conversations with his readers.  In fact, the night before his death he was tweeting with readers who didn’t understand the difference between man coverage and two-deep zone coverage.  Over time, readers learned more and more about his personality.  For instance, almost every night he signed off of Twitter by writing, “Sleep well and dream of large women,” a quote from his favorite movie (The Princess Bride, which he quoted frequently). In fact, his final sign-off from Twitter was a sadly ironic quote from the film:

TomKowalski36 Tom Kowalski OK fellas, here we go … Sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning …

Kowalski did something special as a writer and a journalist: he actually revealed his personality to his audience.  As writers, we are always thinking about audience—who is actually supposed to read this writing?  Knowing one’s audience is crucial in determining what to write, how to write, and the proper format for writing.  Because Kowalski was so highly interactive with his audience, he eventually got to know them as a group and he allowed the group to get to know him as well.  He didn’t write for a theoretical audience but rather wrote for the specific audience with whom he had interacted for years.

Kowalski's cubicle at the Lions' headquarters in Allen Park, Michigan. The press room has been re-named "The Tom Kowalski Press Lounge" in his honor.

I’m not a journalist and don’t know if Kowalski’s personal touch would be considered “good journalism” by professional standards—but that’s not the point.  There are many stories today about how social media and virtual communication threaten human interaction, yet Kowalski’s work demonstrates the best potential of these technologies.  Kowalski used these tools to better understand his audience, to better serve them as a writer, and to interact with them genuinely, as a real human being.

Technology gives us tremendous ability to hide from each other.  We can remain anonymous, faceless, or even invisible.  Kowalski, on the other hand, demonstrated that technology can allow us share our humanity. Given that the BLS program at UNCG is online and that students and professors never actually meet each other face-to-face, what steps can instructors and students take to keep classrooms human?  What can we learn from Kowalski?  And what are some other examples of people using technology to express their humanity?