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State Senators Fail Freshman English, Lack Integrity

Recently, as I was reading through letters of support for the Keystone Pipeline on TransCanada’s website, I was taken aback by the content of the letters sent to Sec. Hillary Clinton by Nebraska State Sens. Mark Christensen, Ken Schilz, and Jim Smith. Although I wasn’t surprised that they supported the pipeline (I had already lumped them into the category of “so-called ‘leaders’ who do nothing to protect our land and water but will do anything big corporations want them to do”), I was very disappointed to see the remarkably similar, or more accurately, the obviously identical script of their letters.

I used to be a college English professor; one of the courses I taught was English 1, otherwise known as Freshman English. The class had many basic goals, but the main three that students had to achieve in order to pass were: 1) demonstrate the ability to effectively gather, organize, and present information about a topic;  2) formulate one’s own thoughts and opinions (usually through research) and present those in a compelling manner; and 3) correctly document outside sources and information in order to avoid plagiarism. For some students, it was very difficult for them to meet those requirements, especially the last one.

Some of the difficulty was due to inexperience coupled with the added pressure of a college schedule. Also, because the class was a general education requirement and most of the students were in their first year of college, there was the inevitable attitude that they “had to be there,” and would never in a million years take the class by choice. Often, however, it was the students’ own priorities (or lack thereof) that caused them to fail. Many of them thought it was more important to play beer pong until 3 a.m., sleep all day, and skip class instead of doing their homework.

Inevitably, students would turn in assignments that had obviously been thrown together, in a rush, at the last minute, with little or no effort on the part of the writer. Or, even worse, I would get an essay that had obviously been plagiarized. From the text of the essay, I could tell that either A) the student had blatantly copied the work of someone else; B) Someone else had written it for them, or C) a combination of both A and B.

These essays were much worse than any sloppily-written piece of crap slipped under my office door by an unwashed, half-asleep frat boy who still reeked of last night’s booze. The plagiarized essays were a slap in the face to me as the instructor and to the other students in the class. Using someone else’s ideas and passing them off as one’s own is, in the academic world, the ultimate sign of disrespect–not just to others, but also to oneself. It shows a lack of backbone. It smacks of ineptitude. It’s lazy. It violates what many colleges and universities have come to define as the Code of Academic Integrity, and students who do it fail the assignment, often fail the class, are reported to the Administrative Judiciary Board and are sometimes even expelled.

Given that attitude about writing, you can imagine my sentiments when I discovered that three of our Nebraska elected officials had submitted almost identical letters in support of the Keystone XL pipeline to the State Department. Looking at the letters “written by” (I use that phrase loosely here) Mark Christensen, Ken Schilz and Jim Smith, it is easy to see that somebody copied someone else’s work. While Christensen’s letter and Schilz’s letter are word-for-word identical, Smith’s letter has only slightly different wording in a couple of places. To be fair, these Nebraska elected officials aren’t the only unoriginal, intelligence-insulting supporters of Keystone XL. In fact, just take a look at the letters by the Oklahoma state representatives to see that others elsewhere are copying the words and ideas of someone else in the absence of their own originality and serious effort.

Had these three pieces of writing been turned in for an assignment in Freshman English, they would fail. Clearly these three jokers haven’t done their homework. Because the letters are the same, they display no semblance of independent thought and show no evidence of critical thinking skills. They do, however, display the blatant ineptitude and sheer laziness behind all plagiarized writing. What is sad here is that avoiding plagiarism is so easy. Even someone as lazy and inept as State Sens. Christensen, Schilz and Smith, who, having taken time to properly cite (the same) information from the State Department’s SDEIS, could have taken one more slight step and indicated that their letter was written by someone else, whether that be a legislative staffer or (God forbid) a TransCanada lobbyist.

Writers have full license to steal ideas from anyone, anytime, anyplace–they just have to acknowledge their theft and identify where the ideas came from and from whom. Just as the optimist in me wants to believe that we don’t have idea thieves in our state government, the English professor in me wants to offer these three foolish freshmen the chance to own up to their mistakes.

What I want to know, Sens. Christensen, Schilz, and Smith: who really wrote the letters that you supposedly wrote? Or do none of you have the backbone to own up to your open disrespect for the people of your state that you supposedly represent?

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