Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

For Students

This page is for my students, but it might help you even if you are not my student.

I have tried to list general research resources below that will help all students who take my classes. These include important resources offered by Pratt Institute. I have a brief guide on how to avoid becoming a plagiarist. I also offer general advice on writing, a citation guide, tips on technology, and information on how to make a PDF. I also have compiled a list of common student misconceptions, which you can read about and perhaps avoid.

Interested in taking one of my classes? Check out my courses or contact me. You can also check out my page that provides summary statistics from past course evaluations provided by my students.

Tips on Technology:

Increasingly, students are expected to negotiate the technological systems of both their schools and the outside world (also known as “the web”). Here are some basic tips on how to successfully negotiate the technologies required of modern students:

  1. Don’t rely solely on the webmail system to check your school email account. Although webmail systems are a great way to check in on your emails remotely, they are a very poor means of managing your emails, which means organizing them so that important emails do not get buried in the ever-accumulating inbox. If you have your own computer, I recommend that you use an email client such as Microsoft Outook, Mac Mail, or Mozilla Thunderbird. If you rely solely on using school computers, I recommend that you have your school email forwarded to a web-based email address, such as those provided for free by Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or countless other services. The key to good email management is keeping that inbox clean, reserved only for emails that you need to read and/or respond to.
  2. Setup an automatic backup for your digital work. Consider it absolutely taboo to have any of your work stored in only one place for any significant amount of time. If you have your own computer, either purchase a backup drive and use software that constantly backs your work up or sign up for a web-based backup system. If you rely on carrying your data around on an external hard drive, sync that drive with another form of data storage daily. So-called “cloud-based” data systems offer a means of having your work available whenever you can connect to the internet, but make sure that the cloud service you employ is actually backing up your work for you. Loss of data can be catastrophic, leading to loss of time, lowering of grades, and frustration beyond compare: get into the habit of backing up so that hardware failure never causes loss of your hard work.
  3. Use a digital note-taking system. Although I still love and honor the good old paper notebook, smart phones and ubiquitous web connections are slowly making the conventional notebook obsolete. The problem with paper notebooks is that they are linear: data is stored in a “first page to last page” format, making it difficult to find the particular note you want. And of course paper notebooks exist in the analog world, where you must carry around the only copy of your notes at all times if you want access to them. Modern note-taking programs solve both of these problems by providing “cloud-based” access to your notes on your own computer, on your phone, and on any web browser; by syncing all of your notes made on all of the devices you use and providing searchable access to those notes, note-taking systems assure that you won’t ever lose your notes. Many note-taking systems also provide web-clipping features that make taking notes on web sources easy. My favorite note-taking service is Evernote, but there are countless others available.

How to make a PDF :
PDF’s are the best way to share your work! Don’t know how to make a PDF? Check out my How to Make a PDF guide.

General Research Resources:

Google Scholar: Yes, Google wants to have a hand in everything in the world of information. That is to your advantage as a student, however, because Google Scholar aggregates published scholarly work, much of which can be directly downloaded as PDF’s or in full text format. The advantage of Google Scholar over a regular Google search is that it excludes a lot of the bogus “catch site” content that often pops up on the first page of any regular Google search. But, just like regular Google searches, you should cite the actual source that Google Scholar leads you to, not just the Google link. If you can download a PDF of a published article, use the print citation rather than the web citation.

PubMed: Your tax dollars fund a ton of research, so why shouldn’t you have access to the results of that research? That is the rationale behind the PubMed site, which aggregates access to all publications made using funding from the National Institutes of Health. You might assume that this would only be useful for medical research, but the NIH actually funds a lot of research with relevance to environmental science, evolution, behavior, and ecology. Just type in what you are searching for in the search dialogue box and enjoy free PDF’s.

E-Print Network: This site, which is supported by the federal Office of Scientific and Technical Information, aggregates the many sites on which scientists post their “e-prints” (PDF versions of their papers). Using the search engine on this site, you may be able to find all the primary scientific research you need.

Public Library of ScienceThis open-access journal is now where many of the most prominent scientific studies are published. All research articles are freely downloadable as PDF’s, and there is a valuable advanced search page that should allow you to identify research relevant to your interests.

arXiv: Although this is mostly a collection of open-access pre-print articles chronicling physics and astronomy research, occasionally a bit of theoretical biology creeps in.

You may also want to check out my links page, which includes sections on scientists’ blogs, scientists’ homepages, popular science periodicals, and scientific journals.

For Pratt Logo students:

Direct access to Pratt’s Learning Management System:

Direct access to Pratt’s Library:

Pratt’s Library also contains a number of valuable resources for students in my classes. The PrattCat system allows you to find analog resources available at the Brooklyn and Manhattan libraries. The library’s collection of books related to animal behavior, ecology, and evolution has greatly expanded in the past few years, and there are abundant resources in these areas sitting on the shelves. The Pratt library also has limited digital resources available to all students. For my classes, one of the most valuable digital resources is JSTOR, which contains a very rich collection of ecology journals. For reasons I cannot yet explain, we do not have as good access to journals in evolutionary biology. Although we have somewhat limited access to journals in the ScienceDirect collection, it does contain some good ecology and evolution sources.

General peer-reviewed literature is available via Gale Academic OneFile.

As a Pratt student you can also get access to WorldCat, which is an excellent resource for finding sources in our library and making sure that all of your sources are properly cited and in a consistent format.

You can also search for my course reserves through the Pratt library site.

Some Help on Citation:

Students often become frustrated by the process of citing sources in their formal papers because there are so many different — and sometimes conflicting — citation guides out there. There is no “universal citation method”, just a variety of local methods that meet the needs of a particular audience (Rule #1 in citation: try to know the needs of your audience). I now require all of my students to use MLA format for citation of sources.

How to Avoid Plagiarism:

In the simplest terms, avoiding plagiarism is pretty easy: just don’t steal stuff. If you consider that every idea, image, or word you consume had a producer, all you need to do to make sure that you don’t plagiarize is to credit the producers of any and all material that informed and influenced your own work. It also helps to avoid presenting the work of others as your own: using quotes around other people’s words is a good start.

But as it turns out, there are also more subtle issues that can lead to plagiarism:

  • Plagiarists are lazy and sloppy researchers. As you do research to support your own work, you need to take notes on the inspiring and informative ideas you encounter. These ideas, once you synthesize them in your own unique way, will help make your work brilliant. But if you do not keep track of where these ideas came from, it is far too easy to forget that not every brilliant idea in your work is your own: if your research is meticulous, you will not forget to give credit where credit is due.
  • Plagiarists are struggling to understand the material that forms the basis of their work. Really bad plagiarism makes no sense. No, literally: many people plagiarize and their resulting stolen work is nonsensical. This tells us a little something about plagiarism: it is often the product of intellectual fear and hopelessness. Rather than seeking out the help needed to actually understand a challenging subject or problem, the plagiarist tries to blindly cobble together the insights of others, with predictably painful results.
  • Plagiarists are procrastinators. There is no reason to plagiarize if you allow yourself enough time to complete your work. Many plagiarists turn to intellectual criminality out of desperation: they could produce great work without stealing, if only they had gotten working earlier. Stealing is always a way of avoiding working, and so is procrastination.
  • Plagiarists are self-deprecating. Oddly many plagiarists fail to credit themselves properly. If you are skilled enough to curate important material and repackage that material into your own work, you should give yourself credit for being such a brilliant curator. The way to do this is to properly cite all your sources. And yet many people seem a bit bashful about presenting such a detail-oriented version of themselves, so they just skip most citation and thereby plagiarize.

Honesty is the key to avoiding plagiarism. I would suggest that every person who produces their own work (whether that work be written or something else) should be honest with themselves: do I have any of the characteristics of the plagiarist? If so, in order to avoid plagiarism, I need to deal with my own shortcomings.

General Advice on How to Become a Better Writer:

Below are some of the things that I have tried to do to become a better writer. My primary goal in writing is to communicate ideas, so this advice is aimed at those with similar aspirations.

  1. Read a lot: You can analyze what comprises quality writing all you want, but there is no substitute for actually experiencing good writing first-hand. Your taste is your best guide: if you read what you enjoy you will internalize the style and techniques of good writing. Reading makes you a better writer.
  2. Think simple: There is a tendency to confuse more proficient writing with more complex writing. The best writers keep things simple: use the fewest possible words to express your ideas effectively.
  3. Write for others, not yourself: The best writers create with an end-user — the reader — in mind. What does your reader need to know in order to understand what you wish to communicate? How do I sequence information in a manner that builds understanding incrementally?
  4. When in doubt, avoid pronouns: Obviously pronouns serve a purpose: they reduce redundancy. But all too often writers overuse pronouns, befuddling their readers. Referring to “him”, “her”, “they”, and especially “it” can confuse readers if it is not obvious to whom or what these pronouns refer.
  5. Keep it lyrical: Good writing has good flow. Good writing uses punctuation and sentence structure to create smooth-reading sentences, sentences that foster — rather than interfere with — understanding.
  6. Quote very judiciously: Although finding valuable quotes that support the major contentions of your writing is essential, you should resist the temptation to pepper your writing with the quotes of others. Only use quotes when it is critical to include the actual voice of the person you are quoting, or on the rare occasion that a quote is so poignant that it needs to be stated exactly. Otherwise, you should be paraphrasing what you have learned from your sources, paying close attention to crediting each paraphrased source with a citation. It is far better to keep your written work in a single voice (your own!) than to turn it into the prose equivalent of a cut-and-paste ransom letter.
  7. Citation makes you an authority: Although the style of citation will vary with the style of writing, it is always important to cite the sources of any information you incorporate into your writing. For term papers and formal academic writing, the best method is to cite your sources “inline”, meaning that you place an abbreviated reference to your source list inside parentheses. This inline citation should either appear in or at the end of the sentence that contains the information linked to the source you are citing. Often books and other forms of popular writing do not use inline citation; this is fine, so long as there is a “notes” section at the end revealing and explaining which sources were used to inform a particular chapter or section of the work.
  8. Read your writing aloud: After a few proofreads of our work we begin to miss obvious errors. The best way to compensate for this tendency is to shift the mode of proofreading by reading the work aloud. You will discover that your brain processes silent reading differently than reading done aloud. You are far more likely to detect grammatical and typographic errors as well as awkward sentence structure if you read your work aloud.
  9. Practice, practice, practice: Becoming good at anything requires practice. If you have rationalized your current level of writing skill by saying “I am just not a good writer”, it is time to take a look in the mirror and ask: “How hard do I work at becoming a good writer?”. Anyone whose writing you appreciate has likely spent countless hours honing her craft. Finding opportunities to practice writing can be difficult, especially if your everyday job does not require you to write. Not having an opportunity to write regularly becomes particularly problematic when we suddenly have an important piece of writing to complete: this puts us in the position of competing in an important race after a long period of not training. The best form of regular “writing training” is to write regularly about topics that interest you. Not surprisingly, I recommend that you start a blog.
  10. Drop the ego, submit to editing: This last piece of advice is perhaps the most important. The editing process can be excruciating: a good editor — whether that be a friend willing to review your draft or the professional editor you hope will publish your work — is ruthless in picking apart every problem. And in the end this should be your goal: to gain enough advice and guidance on your current work to push that work to the next level. But in order to make this editing process productive, you need to allow your ego to be battered a bit. It will come out better for the wear.