To Frighten, To Inspire: An Open Letter To My Students

The question from the audience was about attribution. A sophomore student asked the doctoral candidate if they needed to cite sources. Her response is what made me choke on air.

"Always! Plagiarism is a zero in my classes," says the doctoral candidate.

I would've been okay with this response if it weren't for the follow up her superior, also a guest on our campus, added, saying something like, "We don't have a fancy grading system at our school."

My blood still boils as I write about this exchange. Not because of the high level of ignorance chuckling with a wink at my students. Not because of the shame I felt as these people represented my alma mater. It was because they had no right to impress such a lack of academic professionalism on my students.

Let me explain.

The reason we cite sources is to communicate to the reader where they can find this information. It's about connecting ideas and points of view to engage in a conversation. This is the primary reason we cite sources. It allows readers to determine what's yours and what's not so they can address your work appropriately. I know this because I studied with the best.

I'm sorry that attribution is taught to you in such a negative way. It's suppose to be something that connects people and increases the value of your work. Sure, malpractice is unacceptable, especially when it's negligible. But to teach it like you're always about to do it would be like threatening to cut off your hand just in case you were thinking about stealing.

To be fair to the graduate candidate, she probably wasn't taught any differently. Fear must have been a motivator that has helped her get through academic challenges in her life. I hope at some point she, and others with this burden, wake up to the fact that real progress will come from those who aim to inspire, not frighten.

Sickened for the moment,

Kevin Zahner