Monthly Archives: May 2012

Some Thoughts on Plagiarism

In the last week or so a fellow graduate student, Robert Kurtz, uncovered a couple cases of plagiarism. He called me and we chatted about the different courses of action we were going to take and the implications of plagiarism in general. I have to remind myself often that just because I know through and through that plagiarism is stealing, and stealing is wrong, others may not understand this (or they may plead a case that they don’t understand this when they clearly do — this is what I call Cold Blooded Plagiarism).

The cases Kurtz uncovered had to do with a couple undergraduate student plagiarists cutting entire sentences from the old Internet or textbook and passing them off as their own. This, we told the classes — Wait. For. It. — was wrong. By and large the majority of students understood this. But with any organization or institution (I’m increasingly learning), there are always a few who disappoint and depress the rest.

Large scale cases of plagiarism (what I like to call Competitive Plagiarism) included the shenanigans intrinsic to Enron (circa 2001) and Madoff. It was plagiarism in the sense that short-term accountant fudging invariably turned into huge and delusional bubbles of profit, and this in turn generated an inertia of expectations. By this point, there was no way for the lies to stop because expectations had been developed, and investors believed what the plagiarists — who carried badges of Authority — delivered. The only thing that made it stop was for it all to come crashing down around them. It played out then as it played out this last week: the plagiarists are brought into some kind of court, and publicly shamed outside of court. In the case of large scale plagiarism, the thief gets sent to White Collar Prison (that’s just kind of how it is). Small-time plagiarists get locked up in the Criminal Justice System (that’s also just kind of how it is).

One of the goals I want to communicate to students, though, is not only why plagiarism is wrong, but how civilization and societies cannot rest or prosper on foundations of lies and deceit (well, not any more than this planet already has — we always seem to be at a threshold). There is a website (be sure to cite your sources so you don’t end up plagiarizing content in an effort to combat plagiarism), and following is the definition I produced some months ago for a mock syllabus in a graduate seminar, the Teaching of College History. The definition is a hybrid of NDSU’s code of academic conduct, some of what Dr. Tracy Barrett uses in her syllabi, and some of my own thoughts as well:

The American Oxford Dictionary defines plagiarism as the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Plagiarism is, to be blunt, theft. Plagiarism is intolerable because it undermines the time, energy, critical thinking and writing used to produce a product, term papers or otherwise. Thus, plagiarism cheats not only the individual who is a plagiarist, but it also swindles fellow students and scholars who do put the time into playing within the defined rules. In short, this is why plagiarists will be disciplined in accordance with University policy.

Students have my official and unofficial blessing to openly shame and mock on social media sites and in public anyone who plagiarizes. This is regardless of political or religious affiliation, ideology, ethnicity, creed, nation, cultural relativism, and so on and so forth. I told them to especially mock plagiarists who are co-workers, fellow students, colleagues and comrades within their own organization, since the brand and integrity of the institution — something they are a part of — requires a solid foundation. Plagiarists undermine that foundation, this whether they know it or not.

One more point: if you call a plagiarist out, be sure to have data that supports it. Empiricism, evidence and data sets us free, so be sure to always get it from the source, and don’t be shy about citations, bibliographies and references. We’re all in this together.

An Evening Stroll in Downtown Fargo

Often times a Wednesday evening walk is in order to counter or shake off the protracted sitting incurred throughout the day (Homo sapien is at a peculiar time in history, the most sedentary we’ve been since emerging out of east Africa some 150,000 to 200,000 years ago). To recap my

A May 2, 2012 photo of Rick Gion in one of his natural habitats.

walk from May 2, 2012, about the 7:30PM hour, I set out from 4th Avenue and Broadway in downtown Fargo and headed south toward Island Park. Along the way I noticed that groups of two-to-five or more gathered here and there, folks wanting to be outside with the short-sleeve temps and all. They tended to station themselves on the sidewalk benches installed at the ends of each block. About a block south of where I started my walk I ran into Rick Gion (or Rick Gion ran into me) to, as we often say, shoot the breeze. After busting each-other’s chops a bit (which is a North Dakota thing to do), Rick rode off to the north and I continued south. After that I called my father on my cell phone, and also thought of the mobility cell phones allow us. Not that many years ago a chat on the telephone required that we seek out a telephone which in turn was attached to a telephone line: this arguably required more social commitment, since you had to call someone, plan on being at a set location, and then do everything possible to make it to that location at the designated time. Today the convenience of cell phones and text-messaging ensures that you will receive something like 3 to 17 texts from the party you intend to meet, first canceling the meeting, then rescheduling the time and location, and then informing one another that you are within 2 minutes of arriving via text. Cell phone technology influences our behavior, but technology does that often. It shifts how we behave throughout time, and tracking this otherwise gradual change is one of the businesses of historians. Phone booths are nearly if not entirely obsolete, now, and I often wonder if in two or three decades (or even sooner) we will look at the 20th century as the Age of the Telephone Land Line. Anyhow, I phoned my dad because before setting out on my walk a couple

About Main and Broadway in Fargo on May 2, 2012. Photo looks west toward the storm dumping rain on central North Dakota.

friends from Bismarck updated their social media web site with information about rain and possible hail. I wanted to check up on that, chat with kin, and since the weather is a very neutral topic, it is a great way to have a conversation with basically anyone in or outside of North Dakota. I stopped just north of the intersection of Main Avenue and Broadway, looked west, and snapped a photo of the eastern tops of the cloud system that was saturating Bismarck. I communicated this to my dad, and then moved on to other neutral topics such as the price of gas, how the Twins are doing, and so on. Eventually I got into Island Park, and visited the Henrik Wergeland statue, which has been a monument for quite some time, a video-history of which can be seen here. I circled the monument, and then to the west noticed a chivalrous scene playing out. I snapped a photo of that as well. “So this is what some people do on Wednesday evenings…” I thought. “Interesting…” By the time I rounded the park, the cell

Knights at Island Park in downtown Fargo, North Dakota.

phone conversation had ended and another couple folks spotted me. So more light banter ensued, and I remember asking the two if they had yet seen the Cold War Comedy, “Spies Like Us.” This was the third time in 24 hours that I’ve asked groups of two or more if they had viewed this movie. Each time the groups have responded with no. For some reason I think it’s important for people to watch it. After that, the final stretch of my walk took me back up Broadway, and I inadvertently ran into Den Bolda, perhaps one of the most accomplished Civil War reenactors in the tri-state area. I say this only after learning that Mr. Bolda had just finished attending another knitting class, this so he could reproduce vintage (aka, knit) Civil War wool socks to wear at all the 150th anniversary mock-battles back east. Nice work, Den. Nice work indeed.