The “Ideas Guy” Is a Gas Guzzler

If you work in a field that produces intellectual content, you’ve probably rubbed elbows with at least one “ideas guy.” That’s the person in your organization who, like a constantly humming machine, generates countless ideas for others to implement. He’s usually an extrovert—glib, quick on his feet, intoxicated by his own “genius” (if politically savvy, he tempers that with just the right amount of self-deprecation). Sometimes this guy’s the boss, sometimes not. He may be widely liked, or disliked, or something in between. And he’s not always a guy, although more men than women play the role.

If you’re really lucky, you’ve got a whole bunch of these types running around your institution, belching out one idea after another while the rank-and-file scramble to figure out how to turn clouds of smoke into concrete realities. A few of the ideas turn out to be wonderful; most don’t. But that’s supposedly okay. You see, the ideas guy—and those who enable him—believe that the way to find the perfect specimen is to let a thousand flowers bloom. In fact, at “ideas meetings” that very metaphor is often invoked to add fragrance to a room where freshly conceived possibilities waft liberally through the air.

For a long time, that way of operating was highly productive. Finding the best idea was the most essential step on the path to success. Efficiency was reserved for downstream efforts, undertaken well after the “big idea” had been found. Brainstorms were not only messy, as they must be, but also enormous. Large-scale cleanup was a small price to pay for the gem that emerged from the wreckage. The process was organic, or at least it seemed to be.

But perceptive front-line employees have always known that most of what you find on the landscape after a storm of ideas has blown through is hard-to-recycle rubble and debris, not expanses of sweet-smelling flowers. Working through bad ideas in order to find—and then to implement—the good ones takes huge amounts of time, energy, and resources. Still, if the alternative is to never generate a great idea, there’s no real choice, is there?

Not so. In an era when we’re rethinking the very notion of waste—in materials, time, and space—the American ideal of the “ideas guy” is a yesteryear behemoth in need of an overhaul. Nevertheless, organizations have become so top-heavy with these characters that instead of a field of a thousand flowering ideas, we’re often confronted with tons of trash so daunting that finding anything worth a darn becomes almost impossible. Like a big car that guzzles gas, the old-style ideas guy consumes too much energy and hogs most of the space that others need to actually keep things moving. In short, he takes so many vital resources away from implementation in the name of invention and innovation that the end product is, de facto, a rush job at best and a hazard at worst, even though it may come in a handsome package.

It’s a rarer, humbler breed of intellectual that we now need to cultivate and elevate. Let’s, for a change of personage, call her a woman—one who

  • acts as her own filter, not because she is inhibited, but because she has the judgment, restraint, and good sense to recognize that early, judicious winnowing allows you to execute good ideas effectively and, thereby, make them great.
  • is not afraid of messy beginnings but abhors unnecessary waste, and knows the perils of squandered time—both hers and that of others.
  • envisions the outlines (and even some of the details) of implementation almost from the moment she conceives an idea, because the art of execution is in her bones.
  • has foresight and knows that the most important aspect of revision is having the luxury of time to revise.
  • is deft with words, both oral and written, but is not intoxicated by her own or others’ awareness of that mastery.
  • appreciates the dangers of getting into the weeds—but knows that not all weeds are bad and, when needed, can kneel in the dirt amid those details without feeling sullied.
  • values intrinsic more than extrinsic rewards and fosters an appreciation of the former in everyone she leads—and everyone she follows, too.
  • aims for the best but recognizes that there are times when the best-case scenario is to prevent the worst—and isn’t afraid to be forthright about that cold, hard reality.
  • uses resources, both human and material, in ways that reenergize the people and the things she draws from, so that everyone can see and look forward to the long-term benefits ahead of time.

In short, the alternative to the ideas guy produces more than she consumes. She doesn’t suck up all the air in a room, only to start spewing smoke that others try desperately—and inefficiently—to capture. She is not a machine. Guzzling gas isn’t her thing.

How Adult Literacy Programs Stimulate the Economy

image from the National Coalition for Literacy

A new school year is upon us, and as usual nearly all of the focus is on K through 12. As a former high school teacher, I value the attention on young learners that September brings. After all, investing in the future by investing in the education of children and young adults is a no-brainer. But in times of economic distress, investing in the present is also essential. One of the most overlooked opportunities for stimulating the economy is in adult education. As current (rather than future) members of the labor force, adult learners immediately use the skills they acquire in the classroom on the job and, thereby, directly and quickly improve business productivity. And, in the U.S., the skill that is the gateway to almost all other skills is, of course, literacy in English.

Many of the more than 2.5 million adult literacy students in the U.S. are immigrants, and the vast majority are highly motivated to learn English and use it every day. I know that because I now teach at two adult education centers in Massachusetts. In fact, shortly after the economic crisis beset us in late 2008, I quit my full-time job in publishing to return part-time to teaching. My decision to focus specifically on adult education was grounded in a firm conviction that this is where I would have the greatest and most immediate impact. And the reality I found in the classroom has exceeded my expectations. My students are champing at the bit to learn everything they can and to explore all the ways they can apply their classroom experiences to the real world. Together, they and I are effecting change.

When people think about adult education, even those who believe in the cause of funding literacy programs, they often see the issue in charitable terms — helping disadvantaged people who deserve a chance. Well-intended as that impulse is, this endeavor isn’t merely about stemming the flow from hearts that bleed for the needy. Funding and publicizing adult literacy programs is practical, plain and simple. It’s in the acute economic interest of local communities, states, and the nation as a whole. Making that point in clear, convincing terms will help to expand the pool of people who are interested in investing in adult literacy.

There’s no doubt that teaching students to speak, read, and write effectively in English takes time. But we don’t need to wait until adults finish a program, or earn a certificate or a diploma, before we see the benefits. These folks walk out of classrooms every day and put their newly acquired skills right to work. And many of them bring their education home to their children (my students frequently ask for extra handouts so that they can use them with their kids). That twofold, mutually reinforcing investment — in the parent now and in her child for the future — makes the concept of “trickle down” a concrete reality, not an economist’s fantasy. Let’s face that hard fact, and put our money where our mouth is. Then we all can reap the rewards together.

For more information about how you can help adult literacy programs fulfill their mission, visit the websites of the Cambridge Community Learning Center and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences.

Is That Professor a Plagiarist?

image from

Plagiarism is alive and well among America’s tenured faculty. Non-tenured too, for that matter. I’ve worked as an editor for academic authors in a variety of disciplines for 15 years, and from my perspective, the situation is getting worse. Not because the profs are all turning crooked, but because many of them are allowing laziness to trump rigor and because some, strangely, don’t seem to be schooled in what plagiarism is.

As a writing teacher, I have an ear for detecting “borrowed” words. Clues include a suspicious shift in voice, syntax that doesn’t fit the writer’s usual forms, and outright non sequiturs of the copy-and-paste variety. Indeed, it’s the copying and pasting in the age of the internet that helps to explain why plagiarism is cropping up more than ever. I still can’t help but be surprised, though, at how prevalent it is among people who are supposed to be the bastions of academic integrity and protocol: university professors.

To be fair, my encounters with plagiarism of the most nefarious sort have been rare. Only once have I worked with an academic who knowingly tried to pass someone else’s entire argument off as his own. And that situation was handled by folks above my pay grade at the time. What’s become rampant of late are, rather, smaller-scale shrug-the-shoulders sloppiness and just flat out ignorance about what counts as using someone else’s ideas, language, or both without proper acknowledgment. Here’s what I’ve seen, and how I’ve handled it.

Careless Omissions

These come in two varieties, both of which some people prefer to call “misuse of sources” rather than plagiarism. I don’t.

One involves chunks of text hastily regurgitated with the intention of adding attribution later. The problem is when later never comes. In some cases, the original is nearly identical in language, but some key data point has also been misreported so that the lack of acknowledgment is made worse by an inaccuracy (see my previous post “Has Anyone Checked the Numbers?”). Authors who make these kinds of errors sometimes apologize; others admit to the respected editor, “I knew you’d clean up after me.” In the latter scenario, I remind the author that if I can’t find the offense, I also can’t rectify it — so remember to give me enough of a tip so that I’m looking for a needle in a hairball, not a haystack.

The other kind of omission amounts to incomplete source attribution. I’m talking about quotations correctly ascribed to the person who uttered the words but without acknowledgment of where they appeared. For instance, I have encountered statements such as “As my colleague Jane Expert said, . . .” without any source mentioned, only to find that Ms. Expert made this comment in, say, a New York Times interview. I remind the author that crediting the speaker is not enough, as it leaves unclear how the quotation was obtained. I’ve even heard other editors say things like, “Oh, I assumed it came from an interview that the author had done with Ms. Expert.” Assume that, and you may be publishing a correction later.

Clueless Commissions

Much more disturbing than finding an academic to be careless about reporting his source material is facing the reality that he doesn’t understand the basics about attribution. One author who had lifted material from a somewhat older text actually said to me, “But that’s in the public domain now.” Um, Professor, just because a text is public doesn’t allow you to claim it as your own. (I’m paraphrasing myself, of course. The actual quotation was much more diplomatic.)

Far more common are instances in which the author thinks that if he changes a phrase or two, plagiarism has been avoided. “Is that what you teach your students?” I wonder to myself. Again, my actual approach is more practical. I simply propose an alternative that either includes appropriate attribution or avoids the need for the passage altogether. That works almost every time.

The Editor as Teacher

Diplomacy is, indeed, at the heart of all the efforts to help an author avoid embarrassment (or even a lawsuit) for having plagiarized, whether due to sloppiness or ignorance. What you say obviously depends on your relationship with the author. If you have an ongoing and strong professional bond, a mini-lesson on best practices in academic writing can actually be a welcome offering; if you don’t have that kind of trusting tie, suggesting intelligent alternative language usually does the trick. Occasionally, you’ll work with someone who bristles at the very thought that she plagiarized (even if you didn’t say that outright). Again, a deferential “Here’s what you could write instead to make your excellent point” often dilutes the defensiveness.

And, of course, there are cultural differences in what constitutes plagiarism. Don’t be afraid to take an information-sharing stance as you politely explain how an American audience might perceive a particular use of another author’s material as inappropriate. With academics from abroad who may be unfamiliar with U.S. standards, focus on the perceptions of prospective readers rather than the rectitude of your position. After all, the definition of plagiarism is, like that of any intellectual practice, culturally bound.

The Editor as Policeman?

As it becomes easier for authors to commit acts of plagiarism, it’s also getting easier to identify — and to prevent — instances of it. Even without a nifty plagiarism-spotting application, a keen ear and simple online searching will turn up much more than you might expect. Will you find it all? Certainly not. Should you even attempt to look down every alley to find evidence of crime? No way. Editors are not police officers, for good reason. You certainly don’t have the time to walk that beat, given how many other important duties are on your roster. Besides, editing with a crime-fighting mind-set comes through in your communication with the author.

As with any editing task, your radar must be on at all times, but you mustn’t spend all your time listening to it hum. That kind of self-consciousness gets in the way, as good editors well know. Mindfulness is an asset; compulsiveness is a liability. Vigilance about plagiarism is one line item on the balance sheet. Give it its increasingly important due, but don’t let it overwhelm the bottom line.