Case illuminates English Department policies

Chronicle Staff


By Nicki Resnikoff Wikipedia? Sparknotes? What websites are okay to use as supplementary resources for English class?

In the December Honor Board Recommendations sent out to the student body, a case concerning “Carter” ’11, as the Honor Board recap calls him, was described.

According to the e-mail, Carter researched author Ralph Waldo Emerson on Google to “help him gain a better understanding of the question at hand and thus strengthen his understanding of the writer’s overall message” for his essay comparing Emerson and Walt Whitman’s works. Carter told the Honor Board that he had no intention of plagiarizing.

What triggered suspicion from his teacher, called Ms. Anderson in the recap, was a sentence characterizing Emerson as an expressionist and individualist, which is not accurate.

In addition to the issue of accuracy, Anderson was concerned about the statement because no such information had ever been brought up in class discussion.

The Honor Board recap states that Carter originally maintained that the biographical information was well known, however he then confessed to using Google. After being told that the fact was not true (in addition to the inclusion of it being prohibited), Carter said he realized he meant to write it about Whitman, and not Emerson.

“Ms. Anderson stressed that she not only thought the English Department policy to be clear, but also emphasized that she went over the policy in class and even handed out copies of it to all of her students,” the Honor Board wrote. “She specifically warned students about using secondary sources, particularly via the Internet.”

The recommendation acknowledges that this may seem like a very insignificant “infraction” to be presented to the Honor Board. Although Carter used a secondary source, the words were his own.

 “The Honor Board understands the potential confusion in the student body over why a seemingly minor incident became an Honor Board case,” the e-mail said. “At this time we would again like to stress that Ms. Anderson herself would have handled the case if this had not been Carter’s third offense.”

“We don’t want to give the idea that students shouldn’t be curious about books,” Head of English Department Laurence Weber said. “The primry goal is to engage with the language of the author.”

Even so, this brings up the question: What is allowed and what isn’t?

The English Department states “We consider it unethical and a violation of the school’s Honor Code to consult any source other than the primary text being studied and a dictionary, unless otherwise directed by one’s teacher” in the policy on published study guides.

On the English Department’s website page, there is a “Plagiarism Q&A.” One question is “Is it plagiarism if I research my topic on the internet?”

“As a department, we discourage you from consulting other sources, including the internet, because we recognize the difficulty of being able to differentiate your own ideas from the influence of other sources,” the answer says.

“To intentionally or unintentionally take ideas or words from any source–internet, print, or unpublished–and to present them as your own is a serious violation of our honor code,” it continues. “Ultimately the work you turn in must reflect your personal perspective and thinking about the topic.”

While most students understand the department banning the use of online study guides, many don’t see a need to prohibit all supplementary internet use.

“With most of these books, it’s the first time we’ve read anything by these authors, and it helps to know their background,” Alex Mao ’10 said.