A Grumpy Morning

This morning got off to a grumpy start. I just came across an article called Take my word for it, the English language is facing destruction from a British publication called The Independent. Robert Fisk is the author.

If there’s anything that’s guaranteed to get my hackles up, it’s talk about the deterioration of the English language. Folks, English has already deteriorated. It happened after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

I studied Old English in graduate school, and I even read a substantial chunk of Beowulf in the original language. Old English was crammed with elaborate grammatical constructions, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve forgotten all of them. It is a very difficult language.

Old English had a zillion ways to make a word plural, for example. How many do we have? One – the “s” ending in girl, girls and house, houses – with some exceptions for foreign words and a few old forms that have lived on (child, children).

After the Norman Conquest, English lost most of its endings and formal grammar, and we never got them back. The Beowulf poet would weep if he saw what happened to his elegant language.

But modern English found ways to compensate for those losses, and we can still write sophisticated ideas and exciting stories. If English is still around in a thousand years, I guarantee it will look different from what we’re used to – but it will still be capable of subtlety and sophistication.

But it was something else that really upset me. Today I am going to bash – with apologies – English teachers. (Reminder: I was an English teacher myself for 40 years.)

Fisk’s article talks about a friend of his – a university lecturer – who was upset that his students copied research papers directly from Wikipedia. The lecturer didn’t mind the copying, mind you – what bothered him was that students didn’t even bother to change some of the words.

I am having a coronary. Yes, those students deserved to be marked down. But those plagiarized papers were the lecturer’s fault, not the students’ fault.

I (ahem!) never had a problem with plagiarism, and nobody ever handed me a paper copied from Wikipedia (or the World Book Encyclopedia, or the Britannica, or the Americana). And it’s not because I had any magical powers of detection.

Here’s how I did it:

First, I taught research papers. I didn’t just assign them and leave students to figure it out themselves (and be tempted to take the easy way out). (You can see some of the teaching resources I used at www.ResearchPaperSteps.com.)

Second, I required a thesis statement – a position to be developed in the paper. Encyclopedias don’t take positions. They assemble facts. Wikipedia is of no use when you require critical thinking.

Third, I provided a template. Ready-made papers for sale online obviously didn’t fit my template. Problem solved!

Most important, I monitored students’ progress. They shared their thesis statements in groups (and with me) long before the due date. They brought in their outlines. They discussed their research process. We had workshop days when students helped one another untie some of the knots they were encountering. Of course I made suggestions too.

Bottom line: if an instructor requires critical thinking – and really teaches the steps in writing a research paper – the plagiarism problem vanishes.

Research can even be fun. My remedial classes had to research the Lizzie Borden murder case and then critique a hokey TV documentary video that I showed in class. The papers that came in were wonderful – thoughtful, well organized, and well supported. None of them were bought online or copied from Wikipedia. (And students also were introduced to the difference between fake news and the real thing.)

OK – thanks for reading this today! Now that I’ve blown off some steam, I’m feeling much better. Whew.

critical thinking word cloud on a digital tablet with a cup of coffee


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