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(cover picture) Blum, Susan Debra
2009 My Word: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Notes: 229 p. ; 24 cm. ISBN: 9780801447631
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 25 Nov 2009 by:
Adam Pacton <>
English Department, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee, USA
Medium: Written Literature
Cheating (Education)
College students - Attitudes

ABSTRACT:    Plagiarism in higher education is contextualized within the cultural institutions that give rise to it. It is shown to be a consequent of an appearance-prioritizing cultural milieu, and practical solutions to finding common ground among administrators, instructors, and students are proposed.

If more than fifty percent of a country’s citizenry reported breaking a law, would those people be considered miscreants or civil disobedients? Would the blame lie with the people or the culture that gave rise to their deviant behavior? Would the law itself become suspect? According to Susan Blum, in My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, this is the situation in the academy concerning plagiarism. If more than half of college students admit to having plagiarized during their college careers, what does this say of the concept of plagiarism and the culture that paradoxically condones and condemns its practice?

In this book, Blum interrogates the concept of plagiarism, explores why and how college students plagiarize, and generally contextualizes and demystifies the academic unforgivable sin. Rather than assuming an us-versus-them position, or approaching the situation as a struggle between authority and delinquency, Blum continually questions the presuppositions of plagiarizers and academics and attempts to frame the issue as a cultural rather than a criminal one. She begins this task by delimiting the various extensions of the term "plagiarism".

In chapter one, subtitled Plagiarism is Not One Thing, Once and for All, Blum explores the different types of plagiarism from cheating (the outright buying of a paper and presenting it as one’s own) to inadvertent plagiarism (making a mistake in proper citation) to copyright infringement (stealing another’s work and presenting it as one’s own) (pp. 12-13). If plagiarism is as rampant as self-reports would indicate, it cannot be a sign of moral depravity; rather, there must be larger pressures that push individuals to plagiarize.

In chapter two, Intertextuality, Authorship, and Plagiarism: My Word, Your Word, Their Word->Our Word, Blum argues that quotation or paraphrasing without attribution is a culturally-acceptable practice in students’ lives outside of the academy. In conversation with their peers, quoting with citation is the exception and not the norm; in fact, the need to explain a quotation’s source indicates a lack of inclusion within a particular social group, a social awkwardness. In addition, Blum argues, the current generation of college students defines originality not in terms of creative genesis, but creative synthesis; in other words, individuality or creativity is evidenced in new combinations of others’ words or ideas. This generation is concerned with sharing, collaborating, and belonging; as such, plagiarism is not depraved or a breach of social norms. This mindset is largely a function of the dichotomy between what Blum calls the performance and authentic selves.

Beginning in the third chapter, Blum argues that plagiarism is commonly accepted by people whose selves are mainly performative. While the authentic self prizes individual achievement and originality, the performance self focuses on social interaction, appearance, and goals. The academy lauds the authentic self, but contemporary culture pressures individuals to embrace the performance self. By focusing on appearance and objective deliverables, the performance self is naturally led to plagiarism as an acceptable means of achieving its ends. This creates a tension between the aims of the academy and those of the student. As Blum says:

For the performance self, the notion of ‘owning’ an expression or viewpoint is foreign. For the performance self, identity has to do with selection and consumption rather than with creation, with sampling rather than with composing. For a performance self, intellectual property is a quaint yet meaningless notion…Accusations of plagiarism are at odds with the positive value placed on working collectively on producing a joint product, making a team effort. (pp. 89-90)
The notion of the self as performative, and above all else concerned with the appearance of achievement, is a direct result of childhood pedagogical and social requirements.

In chapter four, Growing Up in the College Bubble: The Tasks and Temptations of Adolescence, Blum argues that contemporary culture predisposes students to plagiarize through the prioritization of appearance and achievement. As she says, "Today’s students have been groomed to be successful, clever, and above all calculating: 'Will this look good on my résumé'" (p. 102). High school students are pressured to engage in myriads of extracurricular activities not for enrichment, but as prerequisites to entrance at competitive universities. When these students gain entrance to those universities, various arenas continue to make demands on their attention. Work, socializing, partying, and student organizations (to name a few) demand time and attention from students, and plagiarism becomes a rational outcome of a cost-benefit analysis: it shortens the time required to complete an activity and may increase the probability of producing a higher-quality product (or, at least, one that appears to be of higher quality). Blum feels that individuals who plagiarize are thus only partly to blame because "they have absorbed the cultural messages about competition, success, multitasking and the bottom line" (p. 140). With this in mind, how should the academy treat plagiarism?

In the fifth chapter of the book, No Magic Bullet: Deconstructing Plagiarism, Blum wonders if plagiarism should be treated as a sin, a crime, or something else. If plagiarism is a sin or is dishonorable (as in a breach in an institution’s honor code), then should a student’s decision to plagiarize be considered an intentional, selfish, moral breach, or should it be considered an understandable outcome of incomplete moral development? Could it be that plagiarism is the prioritization of one morality over another? In addition to being described as a moral infraction, plagiarism can also be seen as a crime. If this is the case, then the vague and often contradictory information regarding citation makes the crime and punishment seem rather arbitrary, and academic reality seems to support this: "When we look closely at what is expected of students writing as apprentice scholars, we see that the academic standards for proper citation are fraught with contradictions; they are a recent invention and perhaps will be short-lived, coinciding with technological, artistic, and social movements. Furthermore, they conflict with the mores of quoting that apply in student’s lives outside the classroom, where they celebrate their freedom from the need to cite" (p. 171). The arbitrary nature of plagiarism and the increasingly fluid nature of authorship thus make plagiarism seem like an intractable problem. Is it, ultimately, a struggle between the 'authentic' academy and the 'performative' student body? Is there a way that some common ground may be found?

In the conclusion to the book, Blum offers a number of concrete solutions to the problem of plagiarism in higher education. Perhaps the most important step, and the one most consonant with her findings, is the idea that citation should be taught as a function of a particular discourse community. Citation practices (or lack thereof) from other student-relevant contexts should be discussed, and differences between them and academic contexts should be spelled out. Then, citation can become a context-dependent practice akin to the other context-dependent practices that students observe in instant-messaging, social utilities, and so forth. In such a manner, the fundamental conceptual issues surrounding textuality, authorship, and originality can be obviated in favor of a practical common ground.My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture is an incisive and clear-sighted look at plagiarism as both concept and cultural phenomenon. Blum even-handedly treats the issue from academic and student perspectives (student interviews figure prominently throughout the book) and clearly demonstrates that plagiarism is ill-understood, ill-defined, and arbitrarily punished. Her book is a call to action for administrators and teachers: if contemporary culture pressures students to plagiarize in order to keep up appearances and level the playing field, then the academy needs to recognize this and approach plagiarism from a more reasoned, and perhaps less draconian, perspective.

Blum’s book is directed to administrators and undergraduate instructors. Any instructor of writing-intensive courses would benefit from reading it, and it should be required reading for all composition instructors.