An open letter to the plagiarising student

Dear plagiarising student,

First and foremost, I hope it is clear to you that plagiarism is unacceptable to anyone’s code of conduct whether or not you are in a place of higher education. If that is already clear to you, you will need to think more carefully before you think could get away with plagiarism.

There are softwares available to educators that can determine the extent of originality in your digital documents within seconds. We become very suspicious of your written submissions when un-cited passages appear to be more articulate than yourself in person. Of course being an ineloquent speaker but a terrific writer is possible; a few great writers have been known to have difficulty speaking to other people but are gifted with the written word.

I want to properly understand your impulse to plagiarise. You tell me your command of English is shaky. I appreciate the time constraints to improve when there are many things going on in your life to juggle. Maybe you have not been asked to turn in long pieces of written work before and thus the anatomy of the essay or PhD thesis is new to you.

Anything longer than 2000 or 3000 words in the English language is not only daunting, but demands of you skills that you have yet to master and to acquire the confidence to exhibit. All this is compounded with an inadequate comprehension of the work you are assigned to explain in writing. If you do not understand the things I teach, please ask during or after class. You can make an appointment to see me.

Please understand the dire ramifications of plagiarism as there are short and long-term implications. Students have been known to be caught, reprimanded, failed, and expelled for plagiarism. Please be informed that academic staff themselves are not immune from being disciplined and shamed for this crime.

That colleges and universities are lax with students who plagiarise does not mean that plagiarism is excusable under my watch. You might assume that educators are too busy to care or too stupid to notice the dubious quality of students’ work but you are wrong. Your work matters as it is a reflection of my work. We do not have a duty to pass all students without the filter of scrutiny.

The crime of plagiarism is more damaging to you when you are PhD student as it will have long-term effects on your own work, work ethics, and employability. The PhD is not just a book that a dedicated student will work on through blood, sweat and tears but it is a product of one’s engagement with their scholarly community.

By the time you have a PhD that has passed the rigorous scrutiny of your examiners, you belong to the community of experts in your field and through your contribution to the field of knowledge, you are at the frontier of your field. What you write matters. Your writing is the cornerstone of your work.

If you are known to pass other people’s work as your own, you will not have the respect of people whose respect matters a great deal in the long run especially if you aspire to be an academic yourself. That lack of respect can be translated into a refusal to formally and informally acknowledge your academic merit.

If you are not worried about plagiarism today, I am concerned that you are not worried about some important things like being employable, developing a good reputation, and earning recommendations. In academia, what you know and who you know (through the recognition of your merit and recommendations) do go hand in hand. You want to be recognised by people who care about your work and your academic development. Well, I hope you do!

If you have plagiarised and looking to redeem yourself, the door to retribution is still open. Own up to it, repent, and vow to never to re-commit the crime. Consult the many resources on academic writing like books (How to Author a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy is excellent) and websites like The Thesis Whisperer and Explorations of Style.

Learn to be patient and persevere. Read widely at every opportunity and take the time to identify ‘good’ writing i.e. writing that is clear, enjoyable to read yet still deeply informative (the key word is ‘depth’).

Remember that it is a privilege to be given the time and opportunity to develop the rarified skill of academic writing in an institution of higher education so please don’t squander them and as RuPaul reminds us mere mortals: don’t f— it up.

How I teach

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve returned to Malaysia after gaining a PhD. By this week, I would have finished 178 hours of teaching tallied from the lectures and tutorials of seven different courses* (excluding time spent preparing and marking). My proudest accomplishment thus far is less the mind-boggling number of hours within a short span of time than the sheer confidence to stand in front of my class and the commitment to the dramaturgy of teaching. And by teach, I mean an engagement with my audience involving eye contact, the to-and-fro-ing of questions and answers, and an intellectual discussion that sadly does not happen even in my own day-to-day interactions with my academic peers. The dramaturgy alludes to the highly performative aspect of my work as an academic; I seek to inform, delight, and to some small measure, entertain, my audience.

This is not say that I enjoy hanging around students when I am done with teaching for the day. Being an introvert, I loathe small talk and become very awkward when not duty-bound to deliver un-authoritative and un-academic things to say with students. I get nervous and quickly hide in my office when a lecture or tutorial is over. Despite being fiercely introverted and gripped by anxiety fifteen minutes before a lecture, I do enjoy being in front of a crowd so long as the exposure under the glare of the highly anticipating gaze of my students is purposeful and focused solely on me. I must be a closet diva. Seeing people hang to my every word thrills me. Watching students yawn and eyes gaze down into their smart phones makes me panic. I change the pace of my speech; I slow down to emphasise a point or slightly elevate my tone of voice to regain their undivided attention.

For every lecture, I am given two hours to speak. On Sundays where I teach at a private university, I am given three hours. I don’t always use the entire allocated time and usually take a five minute break in between (though ten minutes for the three hour class). During these precious breaks, I would run back into my office and watch a Youtube video or walk down the corridor, not thinking about anything. When I return there is no faffing about, I continue right away in a business-like manner. In class, I stand up because I believe it projects my voice better. I actually like the sound of my voice when I teach, more so when I am reading aloud a passage. That way I can focus on the modulations of my voice like a good voiceover or a reader of an audiobook.

Many a midnight oil was spent preparing the lectures, tutorial questions, exam questions, and quizzes and marking assignments. In my first year of teaching, I am frequently in my office until 1 am preparing my lecture notes for an early class the next morning. Belonging to the unpopular and uncool camp, I am a big proponent of Microsoft Office’s Powerpoint. I would be steered down a rambling path without it. Indeed, Powerpoint has a talismanic quality for me; I just need to glance at the slides and suddenly feel emboldened to speak to my class rather than reading aloud every word from the screen. The latter would be deathly dull even for me.

The slides for every lecture are prepared in the same way in every instance: one week before the lecture begins, by which time I would have done much of the necessary reading. When I re-teach the same courses in subsequent terms, I spend a couple of hours the day before of the lecture re-reading my lecture notes. For a new lecture, I would open thirty empty slides and begin to fill each slide with easy-to-digest two statements in clear and medium sized font. Every lecture consists about fifty to fifty-five Powerpoint sildes.The statements on each slide are prompts that guide my delivery. I don’t use many images although I know I should but don’t because I know I get easily distracted and derailed by a singular image on a slide. Text keeps me focused.

I try to keep the momentum going towards the end of the lecture, like a climax of an exciting film. The pace of my speech may speed up and I check again for eye contact and alertness amongst my students. Most times, I see facial expressions of engagement – nods, a smile, direct gaze or a shake of the head and a slack jaw. By the time I am done with a class, I feel victorious and utterly euphoric. Then as the students walk out the eye of my mind does not see faces anymore, I look forward to packing up and walk quietly away to spend time by myself.

* Of the seven courses, five I prepare and teach alone and two others are co-taught with another instructor.