A Culture of Sharing: Susan Blum’s My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture

cover_mywordAs you can see from my bio, I’m the Director of Writing-Across-the-Curriculum at St. Norbert College, a small liberals arts college in Northeastern Wisconsin. I spend a lot of time, in other words, thinking not only about student writing in my classes, but talking with my colleagues in many disciplines about student writing in their classes. These conversations turn frequently to the issue of student plagiarism. My colleagues are frustrated by how frequently their students copy and paste information from the internet without attribution. Many see plagiarism as a problem particular to the digital era. No one argues that plagiarism never happened before computers, but many professors argue that it never happened so often or with such abandon before the internet.

In her article on “Preventing Plagiarism” here at ProfHacker, Amy argued, “I’m convinced that a lot (certainly not all) of the plagiarism committed by undergraduates is less than fully intentional, and that much of it stems from poor information-management practices.” I tend to agree, but this can be a hard sell, particularly because instances of plagiarism do seem to be increasing, as is the number of students who think such practices aren’t serious problems. Given this reality, calls for more effective plagiarism detectors—such as Turnitin—sound loudly, while calls for better education and dialogue about citation in the digial age can sound merely idealistic.

When I saw Susan D. Blum’s book My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture on our new books shelf in the library (I know—I first found it as a physical book on a physical shelf! This might be my last ProfHacker post), I hoped it might clarify some of these issues for me. For the most part, the book does offer valuable perspective to debates about technology, plagarism, and modern students. I won’t belabor this review with a summary of Blum’s argument, in part because you can find a brief overview of it in her Chronicle article, “Academic and Student Plagiarism: A Question of Education, Not Ethics.” Instead, I want to highlight a few of the book’s most valuable contributions to this discussion.

First, and I think most importantly, Blum grounds her claims in evidence from modern college students. Blum is an anthropologist, and she approaches her central question as an anthropologist would, by interviewing several hundred undergraduates about how they understand issues such as intellectual property and citation, as well as about their research and writing practices. As a result, the book doesn’t just get at what modern college students do, it grapples also with why they cite (or don’t cite) and even what citation means to them.

This leads to several interesting spins on the question of plagiarism. Blum challenges the notion that academics have a perfectly clear and consistent idea of what constitutes plagiarism. When, for example, does erudite allusion end and uncited borrowing begin? If such lines are unclear even to academics, she argues, how can we expect students—new inductees into the discourse of academia—to understand where they fall, especially if we provide no guidance other than “Cite your sources.”

Blum also describes an intellectual disconnect that modern students face when confronted with issues of intellectual property. Though “digital native” is a vexed term (and not one that Blum uses), Blum argues that modern students have grown up in a culture that prizes online sharing of texts, videos, pictures, and the like. She also describes a youth culture that delights in quotations—as markers of taste, group identity, even, paradoxically, individuality. For these students, Blum argues, the idea of the footnote is antiquated, and its value not immediately apparent. Again, were the book about “kids these days,” her argument might not hold up. Grounded as it is in the words of undergraduates, however, Blum’s argument convinces more often than not.

Blum describes a spectrum of behaviors that currently all fall under the heading “plagiarism.” Some of these behaviors are morally wrong—outright cheating and/or intellectual theft. These behaviors, however, are much less common that those that are morally more complex—inadvertent copying, missed citations, etc. Blum makes a convincing case, in line with Amy’s thoughts here at ProfHacker, that most student plagiarism is “less than fully intentional.”

Unfortunately, Blum offers few solutions to the dilemma she describes so well. Her conclusion—”Conclusion: What Is to Be Done?”—makes a series of suggestions for greater dialogue and transparency about intellectual property issues on campus. There is, as she rightly points out, no “magic bullet” that will solve a problem embedded in cultural changes. I doubt, however, that Blum’s suggestions would offer much succor to the professor distraut about how to respond to plagiarism in his or her classes.

Blum’s insights also might not surprise many ProfHacker readers, who think about these issues regularly. However, Blum’s book could jumpstart productive conversations about plagiarism in wider campus communities, and give Profs. Hacker solid evidence to back up their hunches about why students plagiarize. I’m hoping to use Blum’s argument as starting points for a Writing-Across-the-Curriculum seminar on student plagiarism this spring. For anyone wrestling with this issue (or helping others wrestle with it), My Word! offers a valuable introduction to broader thinking on the topic. Blum’s argument, if taken seriously, might help programs avoid unproductive, binary thinking about plagiarism, student ethics, and the effects of technology on student research and writing.

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