Okay, all you student types. it's time to put down your Xbox controller and remember how to crack the books.
Of course, at universities and colleges, fewer and fewer spines are being broken, since more students mainline research sources from their DSL connection.
I've been talking to some teaching assistants as the academic year begins. Like grad students, TAs are like fish with lungs, still gawping at their first breaths of professorial life, but unable to pull their legs out of the undergrad swamp. This amphibious life gives them insights into what's what for students online, and what those marking your papers are looking for.
Many university residences are now equipped with high-speed connections that keep that steady stream of music videos, porn and all the other good stuff appropriate to higher learning flowing. While this is naturally your first destination when writing an essay comparing Jane Austen's Emma to the Alicia Silverstone masterpiece Clueless, you may want to hold on.
The TAs I spoke to recommend skipping the dorm room and heading out to the library. And not just for the books, but for the amazing array of electronic resources, many of which are only available through the library's accounts. As one film grad student at U of T remarked, "Far too few know about and use the comprehensive academic and reference sites the university already subscribes to."
These vary from school to school but include such trusted sources as the expanded Oxford English Dictionary, Literature Online and massive multidisciplinary launch pads like Web Of Science, which corrals nearly a billion (850,000 and counting) journal articles culled from a century's worth of research into one site (www.isinet.com).
You'll be surprised what a kick in the grades a little journal-surfing can give you if you do it right, particularly through the art of careful keyword searching. Learning how to manipulate the various combinations of "and" "ors" and "nots" on their search engines can ensure you find what you're looking for. Or, as a U of Guelph psych TA put it, "This can make a difference when sorting through 1,280 articles on Mayans and the 50 or so articles on Mayans and human sacrifice that you really need."
However, you can't always make it out to the library. Things come up. Maybe you lost track of time, and suddenly that paper's due tomorrow, which is now today, as you watch your clock blink to midnight. You're thinking, "Now's the time to turn to Google." But think again.
"There are some amazing, impressive academic websites out there," said one experienced English grader, "but there's even more utter crap."
All the TAs polled came down hard on the perils of the search engine. The chances of Googling up articles that will actually enhance your own understanding of Romeo and Juliet are pretty slim. You're far more likely to snag a hundred hits for the Coles Notes condensation or its dimmer cousins, Cliff and Spark Notes. And therein lies the slippery slope to Plagiarism Town.
Yep, plagiarism still raises its ugly head on campus, but it's changing, growing weirder. There are still the classics like hand-me down papers and having your idiot-savant brother write it for you. These have been enhanced through online purchasing, which at least helps keep out-of-work PhD's in Santa Monica busy.
Then there's Google, which provides a wealth of quotes that are as easy as cut-and-paste. But raw quotes aren't the problem borrowed ideas are, again usually cribbed from Spark Notes. All the TAs said these were glaringly obvious, standing out like really awkward similes in technology articles, and can be tracked down with a couple of minutes of Googling of their own.
As extra protection, the University of Toronto and Ryerson University have started using an anti-cheating service called TurnItIn.com. These electronic resources scan essays to search for lifts, a boon for profs, particularly in larger classrooms.
And speaking of scanning, Amazon.com has accidentally abetted potential plagiarism with its Search Inside tool, giving word burglars the option of teefing from books without leaving home. The engine scans for text phrases within many of the books listed in Amazon's vast catalogue.
A number of TAs remarked that surfing the Web, along with file sharing, has made it easy to consider all information fair game.
"There seems to be a sense that reading books counts as research that needs to be documented, but surfing the Net is trivial by comparison and doesn't need to be documented. This, of course, is very wrong."
Fan sites are especially suspect. They quote from dozens of unattributed sources, making the urge to pilfer from them more tempting.
But, then, Google does give students the pleasure of looking up their TAs and profs, something to keep in mind if you're slipping below the grade watermark. A few JPEGs sent to your history TA taken at the faculty Christmas party may be just the thing to get you a pass.