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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

On academic dishonesty

<ay, it was doom-gray outside by 3 p.m. There was snow, and then hail, and more snow, and finally thunder. “Thundersnow!” Everyone in the CAMS lab rushed to the window. I made a joke about the apocalypse being caused by Justin Bieber’s voice dropping, no one laughed, and I was too excited to care.

A long time ago, I seriously considered having someone write a paper for me.

It seems ridiculous now, as my godlike writing talents have won me mountains of fan mail (I swear there have been at least three), but at the time, I doubted I could ever impress Carleton with words.

I’ve never been a good student. Even in middle school, at the top of my class, I went through hell trying to do homework; I’d sit at the dining room table for hours on end, only stopping for dinner, not because I wanted to over-study, but because I would just stare into space, thinking about god knows what, until the guilt resurfaced.

In high school, my GPA plummeted. The material got harder, and I used the same philosophy as always:  skin of your teeth. Do well on tests. It wasn’t enough.

And yet I eventually conned my way into Carleton, a place where Type-A personalities came to make love on piles of books. I had to change. I had to learn good study habits and rhetoric, a language I’d heard in bits and pieces from my parents and NPR but had never been forced to speak.

But I had so much fear and pride. I’d written enough college papers not to seek out the Writing Center, but for the first time, I was surrounded by people who seemed smarter than me. The day before deadline, I saw only one solution. Find someone who knew what they were doing. Ask them to help me out, just this once. I couldn’t afford to screw up my second college career.

Never mind that I could write. I’d been writing creatively since I was 15. But there was an untraversable rift between that and this damn Linguistics paper.

Why does this happen to so many of us? Why do papers destroy us? Why have there been 70 cases of academic dishonesty in the past three years?

Let’s go back to the 18th century. In the days before individual bedrooms and Internet passwords, reading was considered the most private activity you could do. Conversely, writing was one of the most spiritually demanding. You were inviting someone to watch you think.

But this hasn’t changed. When you break it down, a college paper is personal. You take things you’ve read and pit them against each other and yourself. The first part is moral bumper bowling; it’s easy to cite old dead white men the way Chicago wants you to. But inside, where you’re watching yourself think, you know you should be citing everything you’ve ever experienced. That’s where ideas come from.

They come from 7th grade AIM conversations, from the buttery French horn in an old sci-fi film, from your dog’s pointless dewclaws, from that invincible feeling you get when the sun passes behind a thin layer of clouds and you can look straight at it. When you think about it, there’s something unsettling about not being able to use the word “I” in any of this.

Only one sentence from this column has been quoted back to me multiple times. “Every paper you bullshit is a tiny act of suicide.”

Most of the time, rules about academic writing seem like a minor concern. If you play sports, or dance, or do music, you might not mind them at all. You have a resilient brain. You get to say “I” every time you tackle someone. But chances are you still put off a few papers that should, in a perfect world, be fun to write.

For a year, I boycotted writing. It seemed like a waste of time not to read instead. But the more I read, the more I realized that good creative writing and good academic writing had something in common. From the love-struck Austen, to the outraged Orwell, to the reluctant Darwin, the basic belief that their insights could not afford to be lost to us made precise language the only option. They were all brilliant, but more importantly, they were sincere.

In an Aesthetics course last winter, we were struggling through a particularly dense reading by a contemporary art scholar when a frustrated senior (it’s always a senior) picked up his book and held it in the air like a stale sandwich.

“This was the single most offensively meaningless article I’ve ever read. Every sentence made me so angry that I actually had to stop several times because I was getting physically ill.”

This delighted me, of course, but I think it will help us to forgive The Man his shortcomings. I’m currently taking Visual Studies, a course not so different from Aesthetics. Our professor reminded us that while some of the readings are ridiculous, that’s kind of the point.

“When the rubber band of your mind snaps back, you’re able to see things you couldn’t before.”

Academia is loving you the best way it knows how. You can forgive bombastic writing the same way you’d forgive a smirk on a stranger. Maybe that’s the best smile they can give you today, and maybe they’ve read so many research papers they can’t help sounding a little pretentious. It isn’t a reason to copy them. Read between the lines. Listen for thundersnow.

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