Sometimes I wonder whether I have really learned anything from studying History for two years. Obviously, I don't remember any of the plethora of tiny little factoids about Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler. I certainly don't remember anything about the Korean war, the Crimean war, the Vietnam war, or even the Gulf war for that matter. Personally, it raises no concern. But it makes me wonder because I'm always used to taking something concrete out of the courses I take. I was able to take something concrete from two years of IB Physics. I was able to take something concrete from two years of IB Chemistry.
I have written elsewhere that the study of History and Astronomy serves, if nothing else, to expand our intellect in the z-dimension. I say this because even if we remember nothing from these courses, they make us enormously humble when it comes to considering how little an impact we have on the things that surround us.
So even if history itself did not teach me anything memorable, it taught me what I really needed for the rest of my life: exceptionally good reading and exceptionally good writing skills. In academic writing especially, I find most of my colleagues struggle when it comes to citing and paraphrasing. We don't really know or understand the difference between the two. Or maybe we just don't care. But we should. Because good writing means defensive writing. And defensive writing means you somehow show that other smart people in your field are also thinking the same way you are.
Here has been my observation so far on matters pertaining to citing and paraphrasing:
- The absolute amateur uses citations all over the place because his high school History teacher taught him that citations make a paper more "credible". Indeed they do, but taking quotations straight off a book and giving them their own paragraphs serves little in the way of adding "credibility" to your essay. The absolute amateur further understands that citations are far easier than paraphrases, because he can simply copy and paste other people's sentences so long as he ensures a pair of double quotation marks surround them. Or perhaps paraphrasing is just too hard because he doesn't comprehend the citation itself in the first place. The 'citations can't possible do any bad to me, so why not' kind of mentality.
- The novice is far better. He understands that generally speaking, paraphrasing is better than citations. He realizes that paraphrasing illustrates his own understanding of the idea being paraphrased. He's also sure that a paraphrased idea can never be attributed as a plagiarized idea. His more experienced high-school teachers have said numerous times that "one or more cited sentences themselves don't show any of your own insights." Even better, if he paraphrased well, he may not always need to cite the original author. This gives our novice an opportunity to pass the idea off as his own, and while he's at it, he can also leave out those words that don't really support his own argument.
- The expert writer is the best of all. He understands that poor citations are worse than no citations at all. He also understands that even the best paraphrase does not lend his paper as much "credibility" as does a well-integrated citation. He knows that a citation well-integrated in his paragraph, or even better, his sentence, demonstrates his personal insight quite dramatically, and puts his argument in the expert category. He leaves the interpretation of the citation to his readers because he knows his readers are smart and don't need to be spoon-fed. The citing draws attention because people are not always interested in what you have to say but rather what other smart people have already said about what you are trying to say. Go figure.
Citations, when you're anywhere near the expert range of the writing spectrum, are far better than paraphrases. They preserve the pristine nature of the quotation, and allow very little room to morph the meaning or the original intention of the author being cited. How many times have we seen paraphrases that selectively choose only those words that are in support of our argument, and too cleverly leave out the rest because you're sure your reader is not actually going to take the pain of looking up the citation. And who is to say that our interpretation of a quotation is correct? Paraphrasing inherently comes packaged with bias, and bias—according to our high-school History teacher—is certainly bad, right?