Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Ranty Post for the Batman Plagiarists

Dear Members of a Certain (High-School?) Class in Delhi, New Delhi, India or Thereabouts:

Your teacher has set you a very interesting assignment. He* has, in fact, asked you to write a paragraph on what it would be like to be Batman for a day. I would like to have been set this assignment in high school myself. There are many things I would do if I could be Batman for a day, though I am not going to tell you what they are because you little freaks of nature are trolling the Internet in an attempt to plagiarise the Batman assignment.

What the hell is wrong with you? Your entire class has googled this phrase and stumbled upon my website. Are you really all going to hand in the same paragraph? I hope you do. I hope your teacher googles the phrase and comes across this blog entry. Hey, teacher in India! Guess what? Your students are a bunch of spineless cheaters! They are completely incapable of independent thought. If you told them to jump off a cliff, they would jump off a cliff, though perhaps not before googling the best cliff locations worldwide.

Hey, students in India! You are cheating. You are stealing. You are taking credit for work that is not yours. You are Avoiding. Writing. A paragraph. On Batman. Your teacher is not asking you to describe a room or explain how to make a sandwich. He wants you to write on Batman! Batman! Batman! My God...are you really that lazy? Are you truly incapable of spending fifteen minutes thinking about what you might do if you were Batman for a day? Okay, so not everyone likes or knows very much about Batman.** If you must go straight to the goddamn Internet as soon as you get your assignment, why not, you know, use this fantastic resource to find out what kind of person Batman is and what sorts of things he might do in the course of a day? This sort of research is creative (not to mention fun) and will give you the background to come up with ideas of your own.

However...nooooooooo...you plug the title of your assignment into Google and hope against hope that someone else has already completed such an assignment and posted it online. Your laziness truly knows no bounds.

I lied earlier. I shall tell you what I would do if I were Batman for a day: I would work my little armoured butt off to figure out who you guys were and rat you out to your teacher. Boring, I know...but Batman could certainly do it.


*Or she, but let us simplify our pronouns.
**I do, though.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Commas are Not "Pauses"...not "Pauses" at All

About a hundred and fifty years ago, a reader sent me a link to this useful site, which lists--and I quote--"50+ Open Courseware Writing Classes from the World's Leading Universities." If you want to learn how to write essays, stories, poetry, plays, terribly boring business documents, even more terribly boring scientific articles, or blogs that do not insult their readers in every other paragraph and go off into pointless rants about comma splices, this site is for you. If you do not want to learn any of the above, I am not sure why you are reading these words. Go away.

I am still not Officially on My Break and am, in fact, supposed to be marking twenty exams right now, so I shall still not be returning to my regular scheduled railing quite yet. I realise that it has been a long, long time since I claimed I was going to deal with the narrative mode. I am a bad person. I deserve to have to mark twenty exams. I also deserve to have lost at Scrabble to a man who got a bingo* with the word "mariner." He always gets a bingo with the word "mariner." How does he? Why can't I? Why do I always end up with two "v"s, four "i"s, and a "u"?** Is "ivuivii" a word? ("Aalii" is. Use this information well, my friends.)

At any rate...it may be time for another Grammar Moment. It may especially be time for another Grammar Moment because the bleak and sordid fact of the matter is that I have never actually had a real comma-splice rant in this blog. Oh, I mention comma splices in passing occasionally, but I haven't explained what a comma splice is and why the very thought of it makes me try to gouge my own eyes out with my teeth.

I shall deal with commas in general, then work my way up to the comma splice and, incidentally, into a righteous fury.

Here we go:

I have already explained--here--the extraordinarily simple but almost universally ignored fact that a comma is not "a pause" and a semi-colon is not "a longer pause." Punctuation marks, believe it or not, have particular functions. If they didn't, I would not scream and punch my desk when confronted with something like:

He was; a good student who, liked to finish! his work. On time...

If you use a comma, it had better be in your sentence for a reason. Otherwise, I shall have to hunt you down and personally terrify you into learning the punctuation rules.

Let's start with a basic sentence:

John laughs.

Only someone with the grammatical sense of a lemming would write this sentence as follows:

John, laughs.

Why? You don't separate the subject from the verb with a freaking comma...that's why. There's no need to do so. The subject and the verb are connected. A comma between them implies that they need to be separated for some reason.

At any rate, I know that you are right now staring in bafflement at this sentence and thinking, "Why is Kem explaining such a simple rule? Has she finally lost it? Has the marking destroyed her sense of proportion? If she goes mad and jumps into a ravine, can I have her piano?"

I am explaining "such a simple rule" because people break it all the time. They may not do so in sentences as tiny as the one above, but I cannot get through a batch of marking without encountering a shudder-inducing construction such as:

In Beowulf, the title character is a hero because he, is able to expel the monsters from Heorot.

Gosh...the sentence is longer than "John laughs"! It must need more commas! Let's stick 'em any old where!

The whole separating-the-subject-from-the-verb-with-a-comma thing baffles me. Even the erroneous "pause" rule doesn't work here; who besides William Shatner would pause between "he" and "is"? For crying out loud, people: common sense does quite frequently work fairly well with regards to punctuation. By the way, that sentence would also not work with a comma following "In," "the," "title," "character," "is," "a"," "hero," "because," "is," "able," "to," "expel," "the," "monsters," or "from."
Commas are not the chocolate sprinkles of written language.

Someone else might write the Beowulf sentence above as follows:

Beowulf the title character is a hero because he is able to expel the monsters from Heorot.

In informal writing, the comma that follows an introductory word or phrase is sometimes optional. In formal writing, it isn't. The comma after "Beowulf" fulfils a certain function: it separates the initial modifier ("In Beowulf") from the clause ("the title character is a hero") that follows it. Leaving out the initial comma can sometimes lead to confusion. For instance, in the sentence:

Once we had finished sorting out the quilts our cousins made us cookies.

the reader may experience a short period of bafflement while trying to figure out whether the cousins had made the quilts or the cookies. Sure, the meaning does eventually become clear, but in that moment of bewilderment, the reader's concentration is broken. A comma after "quilts" saves her a headache and a small amount of despair.

Another common comma problem arises in the following two examples:

Bob was an excellent ninja assassin, and Rosemary had taught him everything he knew.

Bob was an excellent ninja assassin and had learned everything he knew from Rosemary.

Many writers would leave out the comma in the first sentence and add one after "assassin" in the second. I would then grow to monstrous size and stomp on their heads.**

Two simple rules:

1) If you have two complete clauses joined with a coordinating conjunction, a comma must appear before the conjunction.

2) If you have two phrases joined with a coordinating conjunction, leave the comma out or risk Kem's wrath.

Think of it this way: "Bob was an excellent ninja assassin" can be a complete sentence, as can, "Rosemary had taught him everything he knew." They may be joined with a semi-colon or a comma and coordinating conjunction; alternately, you can leave them as two complete sentences. However, "had learned everything he knew from Rosemary" cannot be a complete sentence.*** The "and" there is actually joining "was an excellent ninja assassin" (a phrase) with "had learned everything he knew from Rosemary" (another phrase). There are two sentences in here, but they are, "Bob was an excellent ninja assassin," and, "Bob had learned everything he knew from Rosemary." Because you omit the second "Bob," you are squishing phrases, not clauses, together, and you can (nay...you must) leave out the damned comma.

A major function of the comma is as an indicator of parenthetical words or phrases: i.e., bits of a sentence that don't actually have to be there for the sentence to make sense. Some examples:

The gilded baseball bat, which was falling to pieces, was probably not going to last much longer as a trophy.

Claire, my sister, is completely insane.

The boy slid down the roof, his fingers scrabbling vainly for purchase.

It was, however, not a good day to die.

The commas clarify the functions of the parenthetical constructions. The parenthetical pair of commas also, by the way, allows you to separate the subject from the verb...but with two commas (with words in between 'em), not one.

If you write, "It was however not a good day to die," I shall metaphorically flay you.

There are many other tiny comma rules, but these ones will do to go on with. One more huge one remains. It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to discuss my least favourite error:

The Comma Splice.

O comma splice, how I hate thee. How I wish published authors hated thee too. When I am reading happily along in a book by J. K. Rowling or Terry Pratchett, both of whom should really know better, and you suddenly rear your hideous head, I feel like retiring to a corner to weep. Why do people love you so? Why do they not realise that you are promoting terrible laziness? What is wrong with everyone?

A comma splice occurs when a writer joins two independent clauses with a comma. An example might be:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether, he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

"The evil overlord was at the end of his tether" is a sentence. "He was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel" is a sentence. Together, joined only by a comma, they are still two freaking bloody sentences.

Stop using comma splices! Stop it now! There are so many perfectly legitimate ways to join independent clauses that you have no excuses for your lazy rule-flaunting. Write the sentence like this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether; he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

...or this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether, for he was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

...or this:

The evil overlord was at the end of his tether. He was tired of destroying planets and wanted to write a novel.

Look at all the options. Look at them just sitting there, waiting for you. Pick one, damn it. Don't abuse the poor comma.

Another capacity in which I sometimes see comma splices is in the introduction of quotations into a paragraph. Students get all frightened***** when I jump up and down and scream about the need for them to incorporate quotations into sentences of their own. They end up "incorporating" the quotations as follows:

King Lear, Edmund is motivated to revenge by his own illegitimacy, "Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. / Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund, / As to th' legitimate" (1.2.16-18).

Dear fictional student...you are not incorporating the bloody quotation by sticking it onto the end of your sentence by means of an illegal comma. You may as well just be plunking it down into the middle of the paragraph without explanation; you're really doing the same thing here. The only difference is that you've substituted a comma for a period. Make the quotation part of your actual sentence, please. You haven't even realised that the quotation you have chosen is not really appropriate to your point. If you had actually made an effort and incorporated the quotation properly, you could not have failed to notice. Try:

King Lear, Edmund's observation that his "father's love is to the bastard Edmund, / As to th' legitimate" (1.2.17-18) spurs his attempt to rise above both "Legitimate Edgar" (1.2.16) and the father whose fault his illegitimacy is.

There: the quotations have actively become part of your argument, and the monstrous comma splice is gone forever. The Forces of Half-Decent Writing have Prevailed.

That's enough about commas for now. I shall leave you with some Filthy Plagiarism:******

composition on hold your blue gold

...the hell? I don't even know what this moron means. I hope he accidentally bites a hole in his tongue.

write a paragraph describing your best friend

example of paragraph describing your best friend

How many times do I have to say this? It's your best friend. Sit the hell down and describe her, you putrefying rat corpse.

writing an essay describing plot eternal present

The Eternal Present
seems to be a film. Perhaps you could go and watch it, then describe its plot. Just a suggestion.

narrative paragraph on making a sandwich

Are there really that many people out there who are incapable of describing how to make a friggin' sandwich? Dude: make a sandwich, then write about it. You can eat the sandwich afterwards if you like. If you steal the description off the Internet, you don't get to eat the sandwich.

essay writing on fame

I'll give you fame, you pustule. I'll make you famous for being a cheating piece of slime. HEY, TEACHERS WHO HAVE SET TOPICS ON "FAME": AT LEAST ONE OF YOUR STUDENTS IS CHEATING! NAIL THE LITTLE FREAK!

essay writing about different ways a person is "smart"

It is understandable that you would need to "cheat" on this "topic," as you are clearly not "familiar" with the whole "smart" thing.

write an essay on fault is within me not in the world

You are an essay on fault is within me not in the world.

paragraph writing about if i were batman for a day

I am still completely incapable of understanding why anyone assigned an essay or paragraph on Batman would not want to write it. Admittedly, I do enjoy the opportunity to imagine what Batman would do to someone he caught stealing an essay about him.*******

My brain is bleeding, and I need to go to bed. I'll be back when I've finished marking and thus honed my bitterness to a fine point.

*A "bingo" is what you get in Scrabble when you use all seven of your letters and earn a fifty-point bonus. It is not what I get in Scrabble when I use all seven of my letters and earn a fifty-point bonus, since I never actually manage to do that. A "scream of frustration" is what you get in Scrabble when you can't come up with a bingo and continually lose to someone who keeps spelling bloody "mariner."
**Just like Dr. Horrible, though admittedly, he only gets to do it in a wish-fulfilment musical number.
***...no matter how sincerely you wish it could.
This sentence is pretty clumsy (you want to get the modifier as close to the subject as possible); the problem is that "The boy, his fingers scrabbling vainly for purchase, slid down the roof" is also clumsy in a different way.
*****I can't imagine why.
******New readers: the Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour records Google searches done by idiots who stumble upon this site while searching for material to steal.
*******It would involve batarangs and the words, "Fear me."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out for Blood: My Immoderate Response to the Garbage of Dale Spender

Before you read the following, please go here and try to get through this article without wanting to kill somebody. Then pick up your sword and return to the Kemzone.

Dear Dr. Dale Spender:

I hesitate to respond publicly to the festering crap you have been spouting to The Australian, if only because I would really rather that your views not be spread and therefore legitimised. However, there's a fine line between trying to prevent the dissemination of poison by ignoring it and trying to prevent the dissemination of poison by administering an antidote. I think I'll go the antidote route this time around. I'll probably do it by yelling a lot.

So you, madam, are "in touch" with the youth of today, yo? Your deep experience with "educationalism" has obviously prepared you for your new and exciting role as a proponent of cheating. Don't you roll your eyes at me! How on earth is cutting and pasting random material from the Internet and presenting it as original work any different from cutting and pasting random material from printed books and articles and presenting it as original work? Are students who lift whole papers from the Web just "learning"? Are the little bastards who troll my site looking for "free essays" on subjects ranging from The Hobbit to Batman to descriptions of their own aunts simply educationalisming themselves in their own ways? Or are they, in fact, attempting not to do any bloody work? You decide, O Educationalist.

All right...let's assume, for a moment, that you're not insane enough to be talking about students who steal entire papers. Let's assume your warm glow of benevolence extends only far enough to include students who take ideas, sentences, and/or passages from the Internet and pass them off as their own. Let's explore this practice in light of my particular discipline, English literature. Please stop me if you've heard this one before:

A student walks into an Internet cafe, essay assignment clutched in his hot little hand. He has a choice of five topics; let's say he's decided to go with #2, which is:

Discuss the motif of the journey in at least two of the texts we have studied this term.*

At the top of the instruction sheet is a blurb in which the prof explains that the student will be expected to narrow the topic down, finding a unique analytical angle from which to approach it. He will also be expected not to refer extensively to secondary sources but to "close-read" the texts; secondary material should be used for back-up only (i.e., secondary sources can help confirm points by providing necessary information, but they cannot themselves make points).

Let us pause for a moment and explore why the assignment is set up in this way. Is the prof "out of touch" with the ways students learn? Is she attempting to stifle the creativity one accesses when one goes onto Wikipedia and lifts a few paragraphs from an article on As You Like It? No, actually. She wants her students to learn how to analyse. She wants them to realise that analytical writing is not a cut-and-paste process, even with proper citation; it doesn't consist of reading other people's opinions and repeating them in an essay of one's own. Instead, it involves students using evidence from the texts at hand and coming up with their own (informed) opinions.

Last year, I was starting a group of students on a poetry unit when one young woman raised her hand. "I don't like poetry," she said. "I never get it. When I write essays on it, I always know I'm not going to have anything smart to say about it; that's why I like to read stuff about it online. Those people are much smarter than I am, and I can never come up to their level, so I need to read their stuff first."

Those people are much smarter than I am. This student was smart. She made intelligent comments in class; when she was pushed to it, she could find meaning in the poetry we were analysing. However, someone had made her feel as if her analytical opinions weren't valid because they "weren't as good" as the stuff she'd seen online. Well, no...possibly they weren't. She was a first-year student approaching poetry at the university level for the first time ever. However, she certainly had a chance to learn to be "as good" as these other critics if she was not bashed over the head with the idea that poetry was incomprehensible to anyone but experts and that she would be penalised for writing anything other than what these experts themselves had written.

First-years tend to see analysis as this great big magical process that is completely inaccessible to them. Some view it as "making stuff up." Some think they're simply "not smart enough" to understand it. Some buckle down and figure it out...but members of the first two groups may gravitate towards the ultimately harmful process of going to the critics first and deriving information from their work without fully understanding it. If students don't cite the sources properly, they're cheating. If they do cite the sources properly, they're filling their essays with other people's ideas and therefore losing out on the original-content marks.

To return to the theoretical student in the theoretical cafe with the theoretical assignment on the journey motif:

This student, whose name may as well be Siegfried, is baffled by the assignment. Journey motifs? What does that mean? He takes a look at the two texts on which he wants to write, the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Book I of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. Both texts involve physical journeys, but he can't really think of anything to say about that. They're just journeys, right? What's to say?

Siegfried sits down at a computer and logs on. He types "Canterbury Tales" and "essay" into Google. Oh, hey: here's a whole site full of papers on Chaucer! He checks, but none of them seems to be about journeys per se. That's all right; here's an essay on estate satire. Isn't it true that life itself is a journey? Don't people take metaphorical personal journeys all the time? Aren't we really going on a journey every time we make a decision about what to have for breakfast? Couldn't it be said that Chaucer himself is going on a journey when he makes the decision to write his poem as estate satire? That sort of thing is much more interesting than actual physical journeys, and look at all this ready-made analysis right here on the Internet! Siegfried is ecstatic. That's half his essay right there.

Now...Spenser. Siegfriend googles "Faerie Queene" and "essay." Damn...nothing on journeys...but here's a paper on allegory, and here's another one on the Redcrosse Knight and the stupid choices he makes. Maybe, Siegfried thinks, he can combine the two approaches and write about how Redcrosse's dumb choices take him on an allegorical journey of decision-making! Brilliant!

Siegfried gets to work and busily lifts ideas (and sometimes even full paragraphs, since they fit so well) from the online papers. He adds a generic introduction and a conclusion that repeats it almost word for word. VoilĂ : an essay...and he's hardly had to think about it at all.

Oh, Siegfried, you cheating, lying little idiot. Even if you had been honest about your sources, you would have shot yourself in the foot here.

Dr. Spender, tell me true: do you think Siegfried has learned anything from his little online adventure? I think he has learned a great deal about misinterpreting his set topic, but very little else. Students who go online for "answers" often do end up lifting inappropriate information because they can't find anything else; they try to make their stolen paragraphs fit into the topics provided, with the result that the prof finds herself blinking in puzzlement--and growing suspicion--at a paper that is supposedly on the role of women but actually on the masculine qualities of heroism...with the word "women" plugged in once in a while. Another major problem with Siegfried's approach** is that he has found three different essays on three different topics; he is therefore going to have a hard time actually comparing the texts he is discussing. He will probably write two mini-essays in one, joining them together only with a flimsy transitional phrase such as, "As well, in The Faerie Queene...."

Oh, I'll grant you that some students approach plagiarism much more intelligently than Siegfried, finding appropriate material and integrating it smoothly into their texts. If they don't understand the material, they shouldn't be incorporating it; if they do, they are bright enough to think up original ideas themselves and, well, shouldn't be incorporating it. Students don't learn to analyse when they steal. They simply learn to steal. Sure, some of them will internalise and learn from the new information they have pilfered, but they won't thereby figure out how to create such information themselves using their very own brains.

Dr. Spender, O Thou Well-Known Educationalist: perhaps you should descend from the heady heights of educationalism and actually spend some time in a classroom. You may think you are hip and with it when you validate students' cheating, but you are actually just ignoring the fact--extremely obvious to many of us--that students who cut and paste off the Internet are no different from students who copy information from books and articles...or from their friends...or from their parents or siblings or guidance counselors. Such students, my friend, have been around since the Dawn of Students. Internet plagiarism is not "just part of the way students learn"; it is a relatively recent permutation of the way students have always cheated.

Yours with great sincerity and quite a lot of uncontrollable fury,

Kem the Merciless

*This one's a pretty standard topic in English classes, actually; I've seen it used several times. If any of my students have stumbled across this site, however, they should note that though many of them wrote on a similar topic last term, none of them is implicated in the story of Siegfried. The most problematic of their essays were simply a bit off topic. It is, of course, entirely possible to write off-topic papers without the aid of plagiarism.
**Aside from the fact that he is plagiarising, that is.