Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark


I may have been the world's worst undergraduate. I spent most nights sitting up until the small hours with friends, and didn't make it to many morning classes. (And I defined “morning” as “anything before two in the afternoon.”) I usually didn't even think of a paper topic until several weeks after the paper was due.

I therefore frankly tell my students I'm a pushover on all kinds of things. After all, it would be bad karma for me to be strict; when I get to the Pearly Gates, I don't want Saint Peter to accuse me of hypocrisy. So I'm laid back about a lot. Late papers? — no big deal. Missing class? — just let me know in advance.

There's one subject, however, on which I have absolutely no sense of humor, and that's academic dishonesty. I used to be easygoing about that, too, but my trust was abused too many times. On this I'm now a perfect hardass: if you string together so much as two words you didn't write without proper citation, you'll fail the class without a second chance. If you get on my nerves, I may well take disciplinary action to hound you out of school.

When I'm grading a paper, I'm proceeding on the assumption that everything in it either belongs to you or is properly credited. (The economic metaphor — ideas belong to people, as if they were products — has a long and interesting history, but I won't go into it here.) Anything — any idea or expression — that didn't originate in your own thinking should be credited to its originator. If it ain't, you're lying to me, and I don't take it well.

Okay, maybe not lying — at least not always. When a student buys a paper from a term-paper mill and puts his or her name on it, it's obviously a case of dishonesty. But one problem of the Internet age is what we might call “honest plagiarism.” It's easier than ever before to move chunks of text from one source to another, and many students simply don't understand where the boundaries are between “fair use” and stealing. Here's the best guideline I've got: as I note on my citation page, if you had to look it up, you have to cite it. Or, to put it in a more technological idiom, if you copy and paste any text into your paper, it had better be inside quotation marks.

Perhaps you're wondering whether I'll be able to detect a plagiarized paper. After all, maybe I won't recognize it. There's no way I can have read everything. I invite you to try your luck. But you've got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

[Entry revised 22 Dec. 2005.]

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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