Family History, Research, & Citing Sources

I have been doing a ton of genealogy research over the last two to three months and I have noticed one thing, you have to cite your sources properly. If you don’t cite your sources properly, then the next person who comes along and tries to verify that their uncle is related to my father’s father, will not be able to do so. Of course, this goes along with any type of research and writing project, which is the reason that I am writing this post.

I am always telling my students that they MUST cite their sources, but I don’t think they have a clue about what I mean. They have no idea what plagiarism is either. They can recite the school policy or the definition of plagiarism that they have been taught, but in reality they either don’t care–they think that I won’t be able to tell if something is copied and pasted into a document with their name at the top–or maybe they really don’t understand the ramifications.

I go through several exercises with them:  defining plagiarism and the showing examples of the different types, pointing out that each semester I find at least one plagiarized paper among my students’ work. I teach them how to paraphrase, show them how to cite their sources properly using free programs available on the internet, and how to create a bibliography in Microsoft Word. But there is always one student who feels like they are better than everyone else, that one student who will copy and paste something word-for-word from Wikipedia, and expect to get an A+ for not doing any work. These are adults that I am talking about, for the most part, not young children.

I do have to say that many of them have never written a formal research paper in their lives, which makes me very sad. I know, I know, I can hear you asking yourself, “How can that possibly make you sad, Hilary?” Well, here’s the thing, if they have never written a formal research paper then they have probably never learned what to look for when researching. They have probably never written an essay properly either, because they have never been taught the format for writing an essay. Many of them have never been taught how to write a paragraph, much less a complete sentence, and many don’t know the difference between a noun and a verb. How can I expect them to write a formal research paper when I know all of this? It’s part of the requirements for most of the courses I teach. I try to ease them into all of it by giving them homework each week that builds from the previous weeks work–I take them through baby step by baby-step. For example, the first week they choose a topic. The second week they write their thesis statement. The third week they do a bit of research and create an outline. The fourth week they write their introductory paragraph, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, there are only 10 weeks in a course and the last one is reserved for final exams. So in essence, I have to teach them grammar and the parts of speech, how to write a sentence, how to write a thesis statement, how to write a paragraph, how to create an outline, how to do research, how to quote from a source, and how to put it all together into one neat package that includes a bibliography, in 9 weeks.

I am ranting right now, and I do apologize. Now can you see why I am so sad? It’s not fair to them that they never learned this stuff in primary and secondary school. It’s not fair that I have to expect so much from them. Of course, I am also realistic. I know the students who have worked hard, who want to learn, and those who are just trying to skate by. I am sympathetic to the fact that they have lives outside of school that involve work and children. I take all of that into consideration when I am grading their work, all of their work: homework, class work, and the final research paper. But if they plagiarise or don’t cite their sources, then I get angry.

Anyway, doing the research for genealogy reminds me of all the teaching I have done. Many of the people who have been doing genealogical research get very angry if you use their work and use it for yourself without citing where it came from, and I don’t blame them. The other side of that is that if everyone is citing that one particular source, and there is nothing to back up that source, then all the people who have used and cited that work as a reference point have done so for naught and must start their research again.

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