1. Communicate early and often. Know you’re going to miss class, or be late on an assignment? Confused about an upcoming exam? Say something now instead of later. This shows your professor and TA that you’re on top of things, that you want to work with them to do well in their class.
2. Don’t copy and paste from websites into papers. Just don’t do it. Even if you just mean to take a phrase or capture some facts that you’ll integrate into your paper later, copying and pasting is a slippery slope, and if anything you didn’t write actually gets into your paper, it’s usually pretty obvious. The easiest way to dodge plagiarism charges is just to completely avoid the temptation to copy and paste.
3. Have someone proofread your papers. Pain in the ass, I know…but it’s worth making a deal with a friend or classmate to have each of you proofread the other person’s papers before they’re submitted. There are misspellings, typos, and other errors that you’ll never catch on your own, and those mistakes make your work look sloppy. The fewer errors your prof spots, the more he or she will be convinced that you actually give a shit.
4. Go to office hours. College rules usually force faculty members and TAs to hold regular office hours for their students to visit. Usually, no one comes. Stop by, early in the semester. Yeah, it could be a little awkward, but you’ll earn major points that can mean your instructor will cut you some slack when you need it—and if you ever want a letter of recommendation, you definitely want the person writing it to remember your face.
5. Don’t miss deadlines. This sounds obvious, but generally speaking, a crappy piece of work submitted on time is better than a more polished piece of work submitted late. Why? Because (a) you’ll lose points and inconvenience your teachers by turning stuff in late, and (b) you’re probably fooling yourself about having the time and energy to do a better job on your work later. Then you’re submitting work that’s still crappy—and now it’s late too.
6. Read the instructions. Another one that sounds obvious…but it’s amazing how often people lose points because they just kind of sort of read the assignment. Before you submit a paper or an exam, go back and look at the assignment or the questions to make sure you didn’t miss anything.
7. Know how to cite. Academic citation can be really confusing, especially if you didn’t go to a high school where they made you use it. If you don’t know how to cite in the style preferred by your program (usually APA), go to one of those info sessions they probably offer at the library or tutoring center or whatever and just figure it out. Until you do, you’ll just be bleeding grade points unnecessarily.
8. Err on the side of keeping your opinions to yourself. A lot of times you’ll be explicitly asked to give your opinion on a subject, whether in discussion or in a paper—and sometimes your professor actually wants your opinion. In general, though, it’s best to steer clear of throwing your opinions around, especially in written work. Why? Not because your prof is likely to be offended—though that’s always a possibility—but because you’re basically being trained to be an academic, and in academic papers, you’re supposed to check your opinions at the door. For example, say you’re writing a paper on gay marriage. You might be tempted to wrap up with a sunny paragraph praising the spread of gay marriage laws across the U.S., and saying you hope it continues. Your professor probably agrees, but if you instead say something neutral like, “Indications are that the legalization of same-sex marriage is likely to ultimately spread across all 50 states,” you’ll sound much more academic.
9. Back yourself up with sources. If you’re making an assertion of fact, check that fact and cite your source. This does get time-consuming, yes, but in general, it’s considered poor academic form to throw around assertions that you’re not supporting. Plus, even if you think you’re saying something completely obvious, you might be surprised to find that it’s wrong.
10. Remember that your professor can see you sleeping in class. And, FYI, the girl behind you can see you watching porn.
Going into way too much detail about a topic that’s not closely relevant to the assignment. If the assignment is about Durkheim’s views on religion and your essay includes three long paragraphs about his views on gender, that’s the kind of thing that makes your instructor go hmmmmm.
Turning in an essay with a weird structure. No intro, no conclusion, just two pages that touch on some subject vaguely relevant to the question you were asked.
Putting their names on essays featuring sky-high diction and technical terms they obviously don’t know. Is your prof really going to believe that you went overnight from writing things like, “Honestly when you think about it racism is still a problem in the Us” to “the preponderance of confounding variables presents persistent challenges for reliable analyses of the effects of demographic characteristics on standardized lifetime earnings”?
Awkwardly trying to change a few words to dodge Google. For example, rewriting that last sentence as, “the preponderance of confusing variables presents persistent challenges for reliant analyses of the effects of demographic characteristics on standing lifetime income.”
Citing sources that aren’t in the reference list. First off, if you’re feeling the need to plagiarize, you’re probably not very good at using proper citation style—so the first thing your teacher will notice is that for once, your in-text citations are actually correctly formatted. He or she will then go and look for the sources you cite in the reference list, but they won’t be there because you forgot to go get them from the reference list of the paper you’re ripping off.
Turning in a paper with multiple fonts. Gee, you think your TA will notice that the poorly-written first and last paragraphs are in a different font than the very well-written middle section of the paper?
Leaving hyperlinks in place. In the most egregious version of this, a Word document has random words linking to spam sites, because those links were in place on the content farm where you got the essay. Slightly better is when there are just a lot of links pointing to Wikipedia pages, such as one might find on, say, the Wikipedia article you plagiarized.
Copying the number one search result for the essay topic. Right, like you’re the first person ever to Google the essay topic and steal several paragraphs from the Yahoo! Answers page that’s at the top of the results? More like the first person this week—if you’re lucky.
Students today, with the encouragement of their professors, are increasingly deciding their own paths of study through fields that are defined by general principles and methods rather than by specific works or thinkers. To some that sounds like a dishearteningly cold pragmatism, but why should anyone be surprised when a newly, and happily, diverse student body finds it hard to get excited about fields of study that until very recently defined many of them into irrelevance? The natural and social sciences have also left a lot of diversity to be desired, but at least when Marie Curie discovered radium, she didn’t have to publish her findings under a male pen name.
The liberal arts are adapting, yes, but as they adapt, they come less and less to resemble what their defenders are mourning: a dedication to “great books and grand subjects,” in the words of Joseph Epstein, who makes clear his loyalty to a particular flavor of “greatness” when he, quite candidly, decries the decision that “the multicultural was of greater import than Western culture.” Epstein preferred a world when there was a “general consensus” about what needed to be taught in college, and that consensus included the conviction that ancient Greeks and Romans were more important to study than—this comes straight from Epstein—African-Americans.
Epstein doesn’t think we’ll find his perspective offensive, because he writes from a perspective that has presumably measured Frederick Douglass against Aristotle and, after careful and fair consideration, given the prize for sagacity to Aristotle. He’s counting on us agreeing that it’s outrageous that Douglass would be taught instead of Aristotle—but that’s a cheat. Just because Toni Morrison has now bumped, say, Proust from syllabi of world literature does not mean that the notion of a “general consensus” about whose books should be taught is any more defensible than it was when African-Americans needed to found their own colleges because the “general consensus” was that blacks didn’t belong at white colleges.
This isn’t a manifesto: I’m not saying we should replace literature with sociology, or philosophy with physics, or poetry with calculus. What I’m saying is that empirically, the world is changing, and higher education is changing along with it. What we now understand, and that Epstein et al seem loath to admit, is that the “general consensus” that defined the humanities in their heyday was never really all that general.
After 18 years of various forms of involvement in higher education—undergrad, grad student, research assistant, teaching assistant, resident assistant, tutor, thesis advisor, lecturer, adjunct instructor—I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. When I stepped foot on the verdant campus of Macalester College this fall as a newly-hired visiting assistant professor, though, I realized that I’d never experienced life inside that hallowed American institution: the liberal arts college.
My first impression was that, when it comes up to meeting one’s expectations of what a highly selective teaching college is like, it’s amazing how little this college disappoints. I’m guessing it’s the same story at Williams, or Amherst, or Swarthmore: students strolling leisurely across a quad, stopping to laugh and chat or share a flyer for their upcoming a capella show, napping under trees and tossing the inevitable Frisbee.
When I flew out east at age 18 to begin my studies, sight unseen, at Boston University, I was surprised to find that my dorm looked like something from behind the Iron Curtain and was positioned next door to a giant auto parts dealership (billboard: TRUST ELLIS THE RIM MAN). Macalester is a college that actually looks like its website.
As I got to know the school better and made my way through the administrative tasks required of an instructor, the college revealed itself as what seemed to be a university on training wheels. Our new-faculty orientation included a dozen or so friendly faces, and we were visited personally by the registrar herself. At a university, the registrar is like the Great and Powerful Oz: you quiver in fear of her judgments while taking her actual existence purely on faith. Functions that require entire floors of administrative buildings at BU or Harvard require only one part-time staff member at Mac.
What’s been hardest to adjust to, having spent almost a decade in grad school, is the eerie absence of graduate students. At a university, grad students are as ubiquitious as Oompa-Loompas; at Harvard, for example, grad students outnumber undergrads by a factor of more than two to one. At Macalester, it’s like the Rapture has happened and the grad students were finally rewarded for their thankless labors by being assumed into heaven, leaving the exploitative faculty behind to wail and gnash our teeth as we grade our own papers.
The differences aren’t just matters of size and ambience, though: this liberal arts college effortlessly evinces the kind of serenity that universities have to work strenuously to achieve. (University brochure: “Our students relax! Really! DON’T YOU SEE THOSE TWO STUDENTS LYING ON THAT PATCH OF GRASS?! THEY’RE RELAXING, GODDAMIT!”) Mac students work hard, but they don’t wear that mask of determination that comes from having to claw your way into everything from the most desirable dorm to the best research apprenticeship to the last scrap of chicken parm.
The faculty members’ attitude is different, too. Though we all should have been overwhelmed at the faculty orientation, the only faculty members who showed any signs of stress were the ones who had recently relocated from big universities and hadn’t let their engines rev down yet. A couple of my new colleagues are ABD doctoral candidates at the University of Minnesota; they look around, raise their eyebrows, smile, and mention esoteric theories I’ve never even heard of even though I’m in their department. Distinctions among faculty titles are commonly ignored—those of us coming from universities were taken aback to learn that even non-tenure-track faculty, the untouchable caste of research universities, were welcome at faculty meetings.
This liberal arts college seems like a safe place, with a collapsed hierarchy: after class the other day, a student called out to me from the curb where she was sitting smoking a cigarette and nonchalantly apologized for neglecting a certain reading in her response essay. It’s not that the students are less respectful than they were when I taught at Harvard—they’re less uptight about everything. With no hierarchy of teaching assistants (as an undergrad you’re graded by your teaching fellow, who reports to his head teaching fellow, who reports to the professor) to go through, in the classroom every day is like casual Friday.
(Teaching colleges are notorious for faculty-student liaisons, and no wonder. At Macalester there’s actually a dedicated fund to support faculty members who invite their classes to their own private homes for dinner, which sounds like the setup for a Tom Perrotta novel. There’s little danger of scandal for me, though—I live in a studio apartment, and thus will be hosting a well-chaperoned class dinner at my mom’s house.)
If this all sounds like a dream, in many ways it is. For those of a certain mindset, there’s something immensely attractive about the prospect of being wrapped up in a cozy cocoon of crisp autumn leaves and non-ironic school sweatshirts. Though you’re less likely than at a research university to see your professor on PBS, you’re more likely to see her in the bleachers at your sporting event (at faculty orientation we were urged to attend football games: “Sometimes our team isn’t terrible”). She’s also less likely to be fired for failing to publish prestigiously enough, or to jump ship for another job with a bigger research budget and a lighter teaching load.
With the economy struggling and tuition rising, there’s a national debate about the value of a college degree—and it’s the enormously expensive, quietly thinky sort of liberal arts degree that you get at a place like Macalester that’s most controversial. The liberal arts college has never been a particularly democratic institution, and in years to come an education like the one my students are getting may become purely a luxury. Truth be told, it certainly feels luxurious—in all the nerdiest ways.
Font games. You made it bold just for aesthetic purposes, did you? Readability? Sized it to 16 points to go easy on our eyes? Uh huh.
Plagiarizing the top Google result for the essay topic. This same essay has been assigned every quarter for the last three years, so your instructor has seen at least half a dozen other people try to insult his/her intelligence by plagiarizing that exact same paragraph.
Making the margins extra wide. This is not a poetry broadside.
Turning in a paper written for another class. You just happened to stumble on three articles assigned in the Introduction to Medical Assisting class while in the library researching your paper on social networks?
Putting the paper in a fancy binder. What an amateur bootlicking maneuver. Throw in an eight-ball and a couple Benjamins to snort it with, and then we can talk.
Adding extra spaces between the paper title and the first sentence. When your paper starts two inches from the bottom of the first page, you can’t really count that as a “page”—especially when it ends two inches from the top of the second page, and the required length was two pages.
Changing one word from a plagiarized sentence to foil Google. Even Google isn’t that dumb.
“It might also help to show, over time, that the supposed superiority of an Ivy League education is highly over-rated. […] In time, people would see that the very top schools are like those celebrities who are merely famous for being famous. Harvard would be recognized for what it is, the Justin Bieber of higher education.” (Forbes)
Brown: the Lena Dunham of higher education
Duke: the Chris Brown of higher education
NYU: the Patti Smith of higher education
Wesleyan: the Pink Floyd of higher education
Dartmouth: the Ashley Olsen of higher education
Cornell: the Mary-Kate Olsen of higher education
Georgetown: the Michael J. Fox of higher education
Princeton: the Snooki nip-slip of higher education
Columbia: the Al Pacino of higher education
UCLA: the Encino Man of higher education
Barnard: the Winona Ryder of higher education
Wellesley: the Hillary-Clinton-but-only-in-a-pant-suit of higher education
Notre Dame: the Jesus of higher education
Brigham Young University: the Brigham Young of higher education
Boston University: the John Belushi of higher education
Boston College: the Jim Belushi of higher education
University of Oxford: the David-Beckham-in-a-bowler-hat of higher education
University of Cambridge: the Victoria Beckham of higher education
University of London: the Pete Doherty of higher education
Yale: the chimpanzee riding a Segway of higher education