Why we all have intellectual debts, and how to acknowledge them
Students arrive at Vassar with varied levels of knowledge about citation forms and methods. Whatever understanding of these matters you bring to campus, once you begin your studies here you are entering an intellectual community—at Vassar and beyond—governed by rules about proper attribution. As a student, you will conduct research and contribute to ongoing scholarly conversations. This requires you to read and observe carefully so you understand other people’s ideas, while also learning to trust your own judgments.
For students, the invitation to develop original arguments may cause anxiety. “How,” you may wonder, “will I think of something no one else has thought before?” Don’t panic. Nobody’s ideas are utterly original. We all depend on others’ insights to come up with our own. As one Vassar professor puts it, “Most original ideas stand on a foundation of received thinking which ought, as far as possible, to be acknowledged.”1
Academic discussions can be exciting, passionate, inspiring—and daunting, especially when you first participate. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke uses the metaphor of a party to describe how it may feel to join such a conversation:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense . . . . The hour grows late [and] you depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.2
When you decide to speak up in such a conversation, the success of your contribution depends on how well you understand what others have said and how effectively you present your thoughts so that others may respond to you.
Whenever the ideas of other people influence your own you must say so, because:
When you quote a source directly, place the citation at the end of the sentence with the quotation in it. If your summary or indirect borrow- ing from a source extends for two or more sentences in your own paper, make sure you cite at the end, to cover everything you have borrowed. For examples, see the footnotes in this guide.