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Writing workshops at LMU

Beating the white-out

München, 04/29/2015

Page 2: What sort of writer am I?

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Students at work during the White Night for Reluctant Writers.

Cornelia Rémi begins with a few cautionary remarks: These classifications should not be regarded as comforting compartments in which you can rest on your weaknesses.” On the contrary, they are intended to encourage one to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of one’s approach to writing and make the necessary changes. The adventure-explorer type is an intuitive writer, who writes off the top of his head. He is in constant danger of straying, and of losing sight of what he is supposed to be writing about. But he is always curious and ready to try anything new. “The gadfly-tinkerer type is also impulsive and emotional,” Rémi explains. He tends to tackle those bits that happen to interest him most at any given moment. He may begin with a chunk of text, then think about how to organize the whole thing, and get around to the introduction only at the very end. He has little trouble getting started. The problems arise when he has to join up all those little text fragments together to form a coherent seminar or a term paper. Moreover, this type tends toward the superficial, and may neglect the less obvious implications of his topic.

The aim of the typological analysis is to show that the ideal writing personality set before us in our schooldays is not necessarily the best: “This is the planner, the strategist-architect who is fixated on structure and tries to analyze the task on an intellectual level from the onset. He usually knows exactly where he wants to go, but that doesn’t mean that he’s going to get there,” Rémi says.

Identifying the approach he instinctively favors has helped Martin. It’s true, unfortunately, that I’m impulsive – if the topic of an assignment doesn’t really engage me, I’m likely to leave it until the last minute.” He says he has noted a lack of guidance in the basics of academic writing at LMU. “I hope that events like Writers Day or the White Night will continue.” he adds.

What exactly counts as plagiarism?
Janine Lünenborg, a trainee teacher, is in the White Night’s Writers’ Café (Schreibcafé) mulling over a term paper. Her problem is not finding a way into her topic – she has already put pen to paper. Her subject is code switching, the problems that arise when speakers who have been brought up bilingually switch between their two native languages, in this case German and Turkish. She’s here, she says, because she finds the Schreibcafé, with its blend of coffee, cookies and writerly advice, more animating for serious work on her paper than a library would be. Indeed, several people are engaged in lively discussion with her immediate neighbor, while other students at nearby tables are doggedly hitting their keyboards. “The level of motivation is really high,” Janine observes. But the crux of the matter for her is that this is her very first term paper, and she is not sure that she is going about the task in the right way. “What I lack is any real feeling for how one writes such a thing as a term paper,” she says. “I keep asking myself whether I have formulated this sentence or cited the source in the correct way. So it’s a great help to have tutors on hand to clear up problems like that.”

Janine is not the only one who is struggling with issues like modes of attribution and citation. Many of the conversations in the Schreibcafé are concerned with precisely that: How does one cite a source found on the internet? Indeed, is such a source worth citing at all? “Students simply have little idea of what constitutes plagiarism,” says Dr. Bärbel Harju, the Head of the LMU Writing Center. “And because the topic continues to make waves in the media, students are afraid of unwittingly plagiarizing someone else’s work.”

Professor Volker Rieble holds a Chair in Labor Law and Civil Law at LMU and has made a special study of plagiarism in the scholarly and scientific literature. His advice to students is not to worry so much about the issue. They should of course cite their sources properly and not simply cut and paste chunks of text they have found on the internet, without clearly indicating that the ideas and concepts they contain are derived from extrinsic sources. When lapses do occur, he adds, it’s usually because one is in a hurry and doesn’t have the time to add a corresponding footnote. “What I really cannot understand are professors who get very worked up about groups of students who discuss the topic of a seminar assignment on Facebook,” says Rieble. “I believe that discussions like that are a part of what academic life is all about. Not so long ago they were held in libraries or seminar rooms, and now they have moved onto Facebook.”

A plagiarized dissertation for 30,000 euros
Professors and lecturers, and not students, should now be much more concerned about plagiarism, he continues: “In many departments, other members of the academic staff actually write the journal articles, and the professor simply adds his name to the list of authors. This is where we must focus our attention – not on the students,” Rieble maintains. Junior academics are trained in a system, he says, in which it is customary for passages amounting to several pages of text to be extracted and published under the professor’s name. Workshops on academic writing, like those held in the context of the White Night, should also try to make students more aware of what constitutes conscientious scholarly and scientific work, he concludes.

“In the case of seminar papers, instances of plagiarism are relatively easy to spot,” says Harju: “If the writing style changes fundamentally within the space of a few paragraphs or only certain sections of a paper are well thought out and well-structured, one can infer that a plagiarist has been at work. And – if necessary – one can do a Google search or use software designed to detect plagiarism to check it out.”

Of course, texts that have been written in their entirety by a ghostwriter will not exhibit such stylistic breaks. Doctoral dissertations are particularly open to such abuse, Rieble says. For here it pays to outsource the writing. The market price for such a “professional” piece of plagiarism is around 30,000 euros. “And the money is well spent,” he adds, “as this sort of plagiarism hardly ever comes to light.”

Don’t start by searching the internet!
Back in the Schreibcafé though, many students are wrestling with the more basic problem of finding the relevant literature, and wondering where to look for specialized literature relating to their individual topics. The tutors have been confronted with these questions many times. They continue to listen patiently as the next student describes his or her precise theme, and then they point to various ways of researching the topic – beginning with the ‘classical’ literature search in the University Library, and going on to sources like scientific and scholarly databases and online journals.

Professor Manuel René Theisen of the Faculty of Business Administration, author of a standard text on scientific research, observes that locating salient literature has become increasingly difficult in recent years: “Many students just don’t know how to go about it.” Navigating the masses of data that information technology has made available presents them with huge problems at all levels, from basic orientation in the literature pertaining to a particular field to targeted literature searches. And since familiarizing oneself with a specific question or topic provides the basis for all scientific work, this difficulty presents students with an almost insuperable hurdle, he says. “Until about 15 years ago, students’ greatest worry was to find any reliable information on their subject,” Theisen explains. “Today the problem is to sift the right information from an immense volume of accessible data.”

It is not always a good idea to begin one’s research with the internet, Theisen says. Instead, he recommends that one should first look for work that the academic advisor who assigned the topic has published, and then consult the literature cited in it to orient oneself in the field. Only after one has found one’s bearings should one undertake more specific searches. There are such enormous of information on even the most obscure and exotic subjects on the internet that the average student is likely to be overwhelmed and will probably give up before he or she even gets started,” says Theisen. In addition, the student is likely to lack the level of knowledge needed to make a critical initial selection of really relevant information.

Hold on to your curiosity!
In spite of all that, learning how to do scholarly and scientific work is quite easy, according to Theisen: “All you need is boundless curiosity.” But more and more students seem to believe that they have to match Einstein in research, and these unrealistic expectations lead to writer’s block, lack of imagination and ultimately to failure to complete one’s university education. “I believe it would help if young students, but more advanced ones too, were encouraged more often to hold onto their curiosity.

In the lecture halls in the Lehrturm, students are still sitting, calm and collected, in front of their laptops. Only a few are engaged in conversation, most of the coaches can now relax. Manuel Beck is still on station. In the meantime he has taken his shoes off and there are several books and papers on his desk. And the therapy seems to be working: He types another sentence and makes a note of a new idea before glancing up briefly. “I’ve written three whole pages already,” he whispers triumphantly. “And the night is still young!” cdr

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