Ben Zimmer has a great column in today’s New York Times about chunking. A chunk is a fixed piece of language that frequently occurs in particular contexts to fulfill the same function. Zimmer gives examples like “make yourself at home” as well as Halliday’s classic observation that we drink “strong tea” but get caught in a “heavy rain” (and never “heavy tea” and “strong rain”).
In academic writing, chunking (or collocations, or fixed expressions) is essential for proficiency. In the last week, I’ve been teaching phrases like “yield reliable results”, “pose a threat to” and “raise an issue.” And it’s hard to imagine empirical research papers without clauses like “the results are statistically significant.”
There are several interesting implications of this phenomenon. Obviously, as Zimmer notes, language needs to be taught in chunks not as individual vocabulary items, and it is not even necessary to understand the grammatical structure of the chunk in order to use it, which further supports Halliday’s contention that grammar and vocabulary are just different ways of analyzing the same text. I remember learning the form “Je voudrais …” to make a polite request in my first year of French, long before I understood that this was a conditional verb.
But even more interesting is the somewhat philosophical conclusion that we are not romantic creators of language, but rather proficient users of linguistic formulae (Swales and Feak make a similar point in Academic Writing for Graduate Students). This has important consequences for the way we view plagiarism. We teach students to paraphrase source texts “in their own words,” but we know that the notion of “your own words” is a myth. Sophisticated writers also know that some phrases are in the “public domain” and are available to be re-used. Ultimately, there is a gray area between idiomatic writing and plagiarism, which we need to recognize when we teach the important skills of paraphrase and summary writing.
For my take on this topic, check out the three-part video presentation I made an UNC (you can also just read the PowerPoint slides!).
My last major task before leaving UNC-Chapel Hill was to finish a series of video presentations on paraphrasing and plagiarism that I’ve been promising to make for months! They are finished, and you can watch them here.
I had already done a video on this topic last year, but after hearing some great sessions at TESOL in March, I wanted to revisit this important area for academic writers. In particular, the second-language writing interest section’s colloquium on plagiarism (handouts here) stressed the importance of teaching learners good use of sources and not just threatening them with the consequences of plagiarism.
So, that’s what I’ve tried to do in the video presentations. I start by discussing how to use sources — or rather, I give writers questions to ask about sources in their field — and then go on to show the language tricks and techniques that make for acceptable paraphrases and summaries. The series is written for ESL graduate students, but others might find it useful, too.
Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment!
Yesterday, I was excited to receive my copies of the new TESOL publication, Effective Second Language Writing (in the Classroom Practices series), which opens with my chapter: “Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: A Content-First Approach.”
In my essay — which is far longer than five paragraphs! — I set out the arguments against teaching (only) the five-paragraph essay/theme form, which I have been making for several years along with my former colleagues Andy McCullough and Ruelaine Stokes at Michigan State’s English Language Center. I then describe the sustained content-based writing course Andy and I developed at MSU for the advanced level of the IEP. (Another article we all wrote together appears in this month’s Second Language Writing Interest Section newsletter.)
The volume was edited with remarkable thoroughness and patience by Susan Kasten, and includes a total of 18 chapters on different aspects of second-language writing from around the world. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it. Come to think of it, it’s so long since I wrote my chapter, I should probably re-read that, too, and see what I said. (This project was launched at TESOL 3 years ago!)
One of my arguments for the importance of understanding plagiarism is that it is not just an academic obsession: in the “real” world, real writers can face scandal and even legal action if accused of plagiarism. Traci Gardner has this detailed summary of the latest such case over on NCTE’s InBox blog. I need to brush up my German and read the novel at the center of the controversy, Helen Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill. (If I’ve translated the blurb on amazon.de correctly, it’s a semi-autobiographical novel about excessive drugs, partying, and speech in Berlin. Excessive speech? Now I’m curious what Sprachexzesse really means …)
This reminds me of the most famous recent case in academia, in which Steven Ambrose, a well-known historian, was accused of plagiarizing from a book by Thomas Childers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (a Penn undergraduate wrote a nice article about this for the Penn’s alumni magazine). The situation here was more complex: the issue was whether Ambrose gave adequate credit to Childers — in the German novel, there are (apparently) entire pages lifted from other sources.
Regardless of the merits of the accusations and defenses in either case, you don’t want articles and blogs about plagiarism to be the first hits in a google search for your name! Another reason to teach and learn plagiarism well as early and often throughout every stage of higher education.
You can watch my video introduction to plagiarism and paraphrasing for ESL (mostly graduate) students here.
Teachers are social creatures, right? Well, here‘s a disturbing story from just down the road in Apex, North Carolina. A teacher has been suspended after a parent complained to the school board about a comment she posted on her Facebook page.
I don’t think we know all the facts about the situation at the school, but this incident does highlight the importance of maintaining professional distance online. My policy is not to accept “friend” invitations from any current or former students, and if I taught in the school system, I would extend that to parents. I’m sure that can be hard if the parents are also your friends in the community, but personally, I need to draw a line between my”public” persona as a teacher/faculty member and my private opinions.
For the teacher to sound off to her friends about a situation that sounds very difficult is one thing; to do so in virtual earshot of her kids’ parents is another entirely. And information can spread on Facebook, especially in a smallish town like Apex.
Time to take the pruning shears to the friends list?