Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blum, Susan D. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture

Blum, Susan D. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. Print.

Blum, an anthropologist, bases her examination of plagiarism on today’s campuses upon interviews with and observations of students. As with most examiners of plagiarism, she argues that the issue is more complex than commonly understood, and spends a portion of the book exploring the history of citation practices, intellectual property, and plagiarism. Through this review, she suggests that, despite the current hysteria over plagiarism, it may not be a larger problem today than it has always been. However, given increasing collaboration in education (think of the many group projects students do at Ursuline) and the ready availability of texts of all sorts through the Internet, students’ attitudes towards citation and individual ownership of ideas may have undergone a profound shift from that of the previous generations who make up the faculty. In fact, Blum finds that “Today’s college students have been groomed to be successful, clever, and above all calculating: ‘Will this look good on my resume?’” (102). In short, they may have mastered the art of rhetoric so well in their ability to provide audiences with what they desire that what Blum terms “the performance self” has erased any authentic notion of self underneath it. Blum argues that as a result such students may not view writing as “the expression of a singular personal essence” (89), and so plagiarism would just be viewed as a means to an end. As long as it brings results about, then any moral component is irrelevant. As such, Blum suggests that honor codes as a means of preventing plagiarism will be unlikely to be effective. However she doesn’t suggest that a generation of sociopaths has been created; instead, she examines other factors of today’s culture that may also encourage plagiarism. One factor she finds is that the academic component of college is not central to students, who instead focus their college experience on co-curricular activities, internships/work, and partying. She writes, “For students who don’t care about the content of courses, or who only go through the motions of learning, plagiarism and cheating are strategies like any others, aimed at producing the best outcome (high grades) without impinging on what they really want to do with their time—socializing and relaxing” (124). Faculty who read the book will likely be shocked at how little students study, and even more shocked at how little this lack of studying seems to affect their grade point averages. Blum suggests that while we may want to blame plagiarism on the faults of individual students, the culture in which they were raised is also at fault, whether it be the higher cost of college (which Blum traces to the growth of administration) leading to greater pressure to succeed at any cost, the practice of student evaluation affecting faculty grading (i.e., faculty succeed by pleasing students, and not necessarily educating them), or parents loading students up with habits of taking on too many extracurricular activities in order to impress others and not because students are actually interested in them. And, though Blum, on pages 177-78, provides a variety of recommendations to lessen acts of plagiarism by students, she really can only suggest that the individual instructor teach “the genre requirements of academic writing” so students understand the importance of citation in academic culture (169), and that the larger culture needs to “lower the water table and return the youth of our society to drier, calmer ground, where they can hop, skip, and jump rather than cut, paste, and graduate” (180). Ultimately, Blum seems to trace the plagiarism plague not to a lack of education on the part of the students, but to the fact that they have learned all too well a larger lesson from a society that in the past decade has praised with money and other “honors” those who faked evidence to start a war, stole votes to win an election, made up accounting figures to pump up a company’s stock price, and cheated to win a Super Bowl: Any means is acceptable as long as you succeed. The book is available through OhioLINK.

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