Sunday, June 07, 2009


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

Susan Blum demonstrates that plagiarism is a confusing topic, far more complicated than it first seems, in her book on the subject. However, this is about far more than plagiarism, with its focus on the university college, especially relationship between students and faculty. I had expected to find a book mostly about student writing. What I discovered was a book exploring the nature of teaching and the expectations students bring with them into college (and by extension, graduate school). While Blum offers actions that can be taken, her acknowledgement of the complexity of plagiarism in this student culture lead to highly involved recommendations that I found less useful than her characterization of why problems such as plagiarism persist and may even be growing.

Blum gives us a vivid glimpse into the world of students, considering some matters with direct implications for what we do in an I-School. Here is her assessment about what students’ use of Wikipedia suggests about why plagiarism may be so prevalent: “If faculty are attempting to force students to individual authorship while a non-authorized work is at the top of most Google searches, this constitutes another mismatch between authentic and performance selves, between the generation of teachers and administrators and that of today’s college students. The prohibition on plagiarism – the unacknowledged use of material by a named author – makes no sense in a context in which unnamed series of people offer their work free of credit, free of charge, free of attribution” (p. 71). Hence, this is why plagiarism is so much more complicated than simply using without attribution another’s work.

What I found most useful is Blum’s exploration of student culture, and how it impacts on issues such as plagiarism. Drawing on extensive interviews with students, she notes, “Students even justify cheating, at least in the abstract, out of ‘need.’ If education is regarded by students at elite universities as putting in a certain effort to attain the desired end – a good grade, a degree, fun – then knowing how to achieve that goal is a measure of their competence” (p. 81). While I have not had direct experience with students plagiarizing, I have had considerable experience with students who seem to think that any aspect of required work (especially reading and class participation) as a burden. And Blum addresses these issues as well: “I have read hundreds of student evaluations of teachers when hiring new colleagues. Some questionnaires ask how much time the students spent on the class. The average seemed to be about four hours per week per class, even at first-rate universities. Sometimes students responding that they worked as little as three to four hours complained that the course had too intense a workload or had too much reading for them to finish” (p. 118). While this is an observation about undergraduate students, I think it applies just as much to many students at the graduate level, especially in professional schools where an emphasis on credentials seems more intense than in other university programs.

This study also suggests some of the reasons why faculty members have such a difficult time relating to their students. Blum notes, “The era when it was considered cool to sit up all night discussing Nietzsche and Marcuse is long gone. It is no wonder that faculty, who tend to be of that idealized earlier generation, lament the absence of ideas in student life” (p. 122). I admit that it is hard to understand why so many students seem uninterested in learning, even resistant to it. Blum offers this explanation: “Education specialists distinguish intrinsic motivations for learning (a love of knowledge for its own sake, or a need for knowledge in application) from extrinsic motivations (good grades, teachers’ or parents’ praise, a diploma, a job). Students who value the work of learning for its own sake are less likely to cut corners, to rush or cheat, because they savor the experience itself” (p .125). The nature of professional schools put such notions to the test because the students come there for particular credentials and exposure to practical knowledge, but my sense is that the university, in its rapidly evolving corporate mode, is becoming more like professional schools. Where once commentators on higher education often discussed professional schools as square pegs in round holes, now it seems unnecessary to characterize the relationship in this fashion.

Blum also has a lot to say about teaching and its evaluation. Here is her assessment of teaching evaluations: “Grades reward students; teaching evaluations reward teachers. Teachers who are known to give high grades are popular, while those who give a broader range of grades are avoided, or receive less positive course evaluations from students. Many who study teaching evaluations argue that there exists a clear correlation between average student grade and the evaluations student make of their professors” (p. 126). It might seem silly to worry about such issues in an environment where even the mechanics of teaching evaluations are problematic, but I think Blum’s observation clearly demonstrates why teaching evaluations have to include far more than students’ immediate reactions to their classroom experiences. She connects such matters to why plagiarism occurs: “In these circumstances plagiarism might strike many students as a logical option: for those who are focused entirely on external goals such as high grades, a degree, or admission to the next level of education; for those who are in college to have fun; for those who whose notion of education involves checking item off a list rather than reveling in a process of discovery; for those who are busy with other activities and obligations; for those who lack the ability to earn their rewards to which they feel they have a right” (p. 140). My sense is that such issues are going to get worse in our current problematic economic situation. Blum notes that students coming into the university have often been long accustomed to getting high grades, and they become averse to taking any risks in learning because they are under great pressure to find jobs down the road. This is getting even worse as we watch the economy tank and good jobs become scarcer.


Stephen Hirtle said...

Interesting commentary. I look forward to reading the book.

Richard J. Cox said...

I also recommend reading Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned By Becoming a Student (New York: Penguin Books, 2006). Nathan is an anthropologist who uses her sabbatical to observe firsthand what the first year in college is like. Blum cites the book, and the Nathan book provides a close and useful description of student culture with implications for later years in the university (including what we encounter with masters students in professional schools).