Thursday, January 28, 2010

My Word!: Chapter 3, "Observing the Performance Self"

Susan Blum begins the third chapter with clear, if limited, definitions of two types of people. Authentic selves “insist that their words are theirs and theirs alone. . . . Nothing could make them pronounce what is not intended as an expression of their own thoughts and feelings. . . . [They] would never plagiarize because they believe to their core that all they say should be theirs and theirs alone” (60-61).

On the contrary, the behavior of “[performance selves] is mutable, depending on circumstances. All that matters is the effect of their actions. . . . They will say what is expected, whatever suits the occasion, whether it is their personal truth or not. . . . They don’t feel a tight connection between their words and their inner being, so they don’t sweat it if others use their words or if they use the words of others” (61).

Blum goes on to associate the authentic self with the ethos of the 1960s while claiming that the more recent emergence of a performance self stems from the 1980s. As broad trends, Blum’s observation may serve as a thumb thrust into the wind to determine its general direction, but as a guide to the behavior of individuals or, as Blum uses it, large groups of individuals, her characterizations are entirely too binary and limited.

The authentic self as she describes it is such a romantic ideal of a type that it would be almost impossible to find a representative example. (Moreover, it sounds like they are so committed to their own ideas, it seems unlikely they would even agree to do research.) Her descriptions of this type seem to derive from the romantic vision of Thoreau or sixties-style communal living. And therein is a flaw.

While she extols the virtues of this singular authentic self, she ignores a very important trait of the human species. Just as statistical trends tend to regress toward the mean, human beings, no matter how authentic, are pulled by the gravity of the group and tend to regress to the norm. In short, human beings tend much more regularly toward the behavior of the performance self that Blum tries to paint as an ethical blight.

Blum derides the performance self for its conformist nature, but she fails to recognize the conformity often found among authentic types as well. The sixties may have had a visible movement toward authenticity, but those very soul-searchers she lauds often pursued the authentic self in groups that formed their own norms of dress, hairstyle, music, drugs, and behavior. I would argue that the authentic self shares more in common with the performance self than Blum wants to admit.

Take Edward, one of the students interviewed as part of Blum’s research and someone offered up as an example of the new performance self. In his interview, Edward says, "personally . . . I would rather care less what people thought of me. . . . I will be my own person, . . . most of the time, . . . unless I'm in . . . a really uncomfortable situation . . ." (73). Edward doesn’t sound like someone unconcerned with authenticity. In fact, he shows a preference for it, but also understands that compromise is a social lubricant. He sounds reasonable enough to me. I’m not sure what cause he gives us to question his ethics.

Blum also misses the mark in suggesting that the performance self is something new. Sure, there have been individuals and cultural movements that stress authenticity, but a performance focus, which Blum seems to equate with a propensity toward duplicity, is historically common, even dominant. Dr. Blum, I’d like to introduce you to Nicolo Machiavelli. I think you two have much to discuss.

Blum has tortured her reasoning to reach the conclusions she's presented. She claims the performance self is obsessed with achievement and concludes, "[t]he performance self is more prone to cheat and plagiarize than the authentic self, given its focus on results rather than on the expression of a singular personal essence. Whose words are spoken is irrelevant; what matters is that the words fit the requirements" (89).

I have my doubts, but let's pretend for a moment that these two "selves" exist and that recognition of them is in fact useful. Her conclusion that the performance self is more likely to cheat because it means meeting the requirements strikes me as poor reasoning. After all, if the requirement is to cite your sources, why wouldn’t the requirement-obsessed performance self not just cite the sources? Come on Performance Self. You don't have to understand it. Just do it. Be like the rest of us. It's easier and we'll like you for it.

Blum demonstrates the danger of spending too much time immersed in research. It seems to me she has created her own echo chamber of ideas that make perfect sense as long as you don’t listen too closely. It's what allows her to make this statement with a straight face:

"The value of citation stems from the authentic self's focus on an individual's singularity: you give credit to the author, the unique person, because the book is 'the imprint of a living human soul.' But how can the performance self see the point of tracing the products of a unique self when it doesn't believe in the unique self?" (79)

As a scholar, I can see where Blum can make such a statement. It lines up with her research and deeper analysis about the roots of the concept of intellectual property. But my student self -- one that grappled with the issue of how to understand the need to document my sources for many years of undergraduate and graduate work (not to mention high school) -- never thought like this. I would bet good money today's students don't think like this either.

Moreover, I think it’s irrelevant whether they do or don’t. The authentic self, if it exists, is a type so pristine as to be virtually unattainable. It certainly does not now, nor has it ever described the mainstream of students, faculty, or humanity of any kind. We’re all more or less some version of the performance self in practice, and nothing about that characterization necessarily leads to unethical behavior. We’re still left with the difference between unintentional plagiarism (for whatever reason) and cheating.

The answer, then, to Blum’s last question about getting today's students to understand the point of tracing information to its source is "teach them." Understanding the need to cite your sources is no more difficult than understanding that your reader may want to look at those same sources. Or, if you prefer, that faculty need to be able to confirm your research. Either way, the performance self should be able to understand that, in order to succeed in their papers, they'll need to do this. Blum’s own argument suggests that students will want to conform to this expectation. It does not require any deeper navel gazing.

As for the cheaters among the plagiarists, Blum has already cited evidence that cheating on written work hasn't shown signs of increasing (2). Perhaps students have more options for cheating, but then again, there are more options for catching them. Certainly, today's cheaters are no more immune to the threat of being caught than a cheater of any generation. Any self should be able to understand that.

Quick aside: I'm sure you've done the math by now, as I have, and realize that there is no realistic way that I'm going to finish this book, let alone blog on the rest of it before the book group meeting on February 3 (which is next Wednesday). While this whole thread of posts is somewhat off topic for the blog, I might consider extending the conversation after the meeting as well. I'll leave that decision up to you. If you want me to continue, please leave a comment letting me know.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Word!: Chapter 2

So I'm on to Susan Blum's second chapter entitled, "Intertextuality, Authorship, and Plagiarism." As the title suggests, there are a number of ideas in this chapter, but the one that I find most interesting relates to how students value and use quotes or citation in their social communication and their differing view of academic citation.

Blum posits, "that rather than being entirely ignorant of the principles of citation, students are often aware of them but do not entirely accept them" (29). It would seem that students intuitively know that, as Blum quotes Mark Rose (one of her primary sources on the history of the legal framework of authorship), "Copyright is not a transcendent moral idea, but a specifically modern formation produced by printing technology, marketplace economics, and the classical liberal culture of possessive individualism" (35).

This framework is being transformed by digital technology in much the same way as print technology helped to form it in the first place. This transformation is revealed in the ways that students use quotations in their social circles. The sources for their quotations are not books, but rather television shows, movies, and music. These sources are not, however, often attributed.

The source of the difference is that knowledge of the references is assumed. In fact, it is what marks you as part of the "in group." Quotations become a shorthand for a shared experience. More academically, they are metaphors, in some cases, for entire situations or conversations. And often, as the students in Blum's book point out, it's fun and humorous.

What Blum calls "[s]hared unspoken recognition of the source" is a very similar phenomenon to what students from countries like China bring with them. Students from similar academic cultures often struggle with our citation expectations because attribution is seen as unneccessary and even insulting to your readers and the source. The words of the masters are used precisely because they come from the masters and it is assumed all informed readers know their source. To document those sources would be like me saying to you, "Hey the sun is out. You know about the sun, right? That big orange disk in the sky that sheds light and heat?" You'd think I was joking or making fun of you.

Blum ends the chapter by reiterating how students' social use of quotes differs from their attitudes about and the requirements of academic quoting. She talks about how the joy of social quoting comes from the shared influence of the source. "And when it is shared," she concludes, "there is no need to cite explicitly" (58).

I find it interesting that use of quotations in these social contexts is a form of inclusion. This actually mirrors much of the point of academic citation. The difference is that there is an opposite value assigned. In the social situation, not quoting invests value because it's a nod to the shared experience while in the academic sense citation adds the value, ironically, for the same reason. This suggests that the value of academic citation can be communicated.

I think this is a great opportunity to talk to students about the rhetorical context of academic writing. There is a kind of academic joy in sharing sources, but because we can't be certain who will read our work once it is published, even in the classroom, we must account in our writing for those readers who might not share the context or experience. This is why when we quote in writing, the reader who is familiar with our source has one experience of our work (a feeling of inclusion and being "in the know") and the reader who does not share the experience of the source has another (the feeling of exclusion and perhaps a sense that the writer is "putting on airs").

According to Blum, students already have an intuitive sense of the limitations of text. It's one of the reasons they don't quote from texts as much as other media -- because they can't be sure it's a shared experience. Our job, then, becomes to show them how to share the experience. This shared desire to share experience is at the heart of quotation in both social and academic contexts. Motivating students to cite properly should be relatively easy once we can show them this similarity. Then, of course, we need to show them how. That seems an easier step if they understand the why.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"My Word!": Intro and Chapter 1

So I've made my way through the Introduction and the first chapter of Susan Blum's My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. It's difficult to organize my response to what I have read so far.

On the one hand, Blum raises interesting and important questions and ideas about plagiarism and how we treat it in the academic and professional worlds. On the other hand, all she's really accomplished to this point is to note that there is a difference between cheating and improper documentation and to assert that we need to understand plagiarism better.

That's a good start, I suppose. After all, I'm only 28 pages into a book that tackles a very difficult issue. I am moved to comment about two specific bits here in the early going -- one each about cheating and poor citation.

Blum points out the growth in articles about plagiarism in the past ten years or so and says, "Many see this increase as evidence of a crisis; others see it as evidence of moral panic" (21). She soon makes it pretty clear that she is one of the latter by giving an interesting history of pervasive cheating for more than a millenium in imperial China.

Her point is not, of course, to pick on the Chinese or to justify cheating by American students. Rather, her story illustrates that given sufficiently high stakes, just about anyone is prone to stacking the odds in their favor, especially if the odds seem slim to begin with. While I'm not sure where she is going to take this idea, I'm intrigued by the implications it has on academia given our culture's growing awareness of the value of education (especially the economic value of it) and our insistence on providing "access" at almost any cost.

Her story also points out the futility of trying to stop such cheating, so clearly this is an issue that we'll need to apply some ingenuity to. (On a side note, her story also has interesting analogs to attempts by our growing security state to make us all "safe." I'll leave you to read her story and make of it what you will.)

Blum also shares some insights from Rebecca Moore Howard on what Howard calls "patchworking" (26-27). Patchworking, according to Howard, is the process by which novice academic writers re-work material from a source by changing its grammatical structure, word order, and word choice and then present the newly composed text as if their own.

Most academic faculty would view this as a form of plagiarism, but Howard sees it as an important step in a student's learning process. I agree.

The further we are from understanding, the more we have to rely on what some people call our "monkey brain." That is, in order to learn, we must first immitate. I have the great joy of watching my not-quite-two-year-old niece going through this process now.

My niece, you see, has a cat which she has learned, through imitation, to call "kitty." Of course, she isn't very sophisticated about language or animals yet so while she can correctly identify a kitty at 100 paces, she also identifies any four-legged and furry creature as a kitty. Luckily for her, she's very young and very cute so no one really cares that she doesn't know what she's talking about most of the time because, well, we expect it. We know it will be some time before she has catalogued enough furry, four-legged creatures to begin asking, "What's that?" when she encounters, say, a horse.

College students don't get the same pass as my niece. (Quick aside: In retrospect, isn't one of the most depressing moments in our lives the day people stop cheering because we can tie our shoes? Expectations go up so fast, don't they?)

We're often quite harsh about students who should have been taught something -- or so we still suppose -- but who either haven't been taught it or haven't learned it. We complain that our students don't intuitively understand our arcane documentation "standards" -- as Blum points out, standards that are anything but consistent or, in fact, actually standardized -- and then hold them accountable for knowing a whole host of assumed arcana that is never actually documented by the standardizing bodies (or, all too often, the faculty holding them accountable for it).

This is misplaced anger if ever there was such a thing. Shouldn't we be holding their previous teachers accountable? Or perhaps teaching them what we want them to do? Many of us do just that, but as Blum reveals, the standards applied to students are often not so uniformly applied to people at our own level of academic accomplishment.

In any case, Howard's point is that students need to pass through this imitative stage on their way to deeper understanding. This seems manifestly true. As we accrue knowledge about a subject, we are better able to make connections between and among various facts and even make intuitive leaps in our understanding of the subject. Our ability to navigate the subtler regions of a subject increases as we learn more. Once enough pieces are fit together, we can proceed without imitation and begin to create on our own.

There is much left to read, but it already seems clear that part of our challenge is going be meeting (with limited time) students where they are and guiding them to the place of academic understanding we'd like them to occupy with regard to source use. Perhaps we need to jetison some of our old assumptions in the process and learn a new process even as we seek to introduce our students to new territory.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The “P” Word

I hate plagiarism. Hate it. Don’t like the word. Don’t like how it sounds. Don’t like spelling it. Hate it. And I particularly hate when people ask me to come and talk to their students about plagiarism or how to avoid plagiarism. I don’t like having that word associated with our writing center. Why this visceral reaction?

First, the concept of plagiarism is messy. It is a word used imprecisely. It means the act of cheating or stealing (and those are perfectly accurate and usable words, so let’s call those forms of plagiarism what they are). It also means not documenting your sources correctly which covers a range of “sins” from not documenting your sources at all to forgetting to include the publisher in your reference list. It seems nonsensical to me that we have a word that means both an active deception and a lack of training.

I’m also irritated by the approach many people take to plagiarism. I’m often asked to present to students on how to avoid plagiarism. This seems counter-intuitive to me. It’s like asking someone not to think about purple frogs. As soon as you say it, all anyone can think about is purple frogs. How absurd! Let’s focus on discussing proper documentation procedures and advocating academic integrity (which, I should point out, many individuals and groups on campus do).

Another reason for my visceral reaction has to do with the writing center. Our center is a place where students need to feel safe. They need to trust that they can come to our center and make mistakes and not have to pay an academic price for those mistakes. My stance is that the cheating form of plagiarism hasn’t occurred until a paper is turned in for credit. Up until then, students can turn back. At our writing center, we’re very careful how to approach these situations. When our consultants see text that looks like it comes from a source other than the writer and that text isn’t documented, they begin to discuss proper documentation procedures. (By the way, for those students reading this: it’s a lot easier to pick out plagiarized material than you might think.)

Finally, it really irritates me how pedantic some people are about documentation. They seem to want to claim plagiarism or at the very least drop the grading hammer any time a comma is out of place in the reference list or a date is missing from an APA in-text citation. Most of the worst sticklers are people who aren’t even that knowledgeable about the style they’ve required.

So imagine my reaction when the American Psychological Association (APA) released its 6th edition of their Publication Manual complete with numerous errors of just the type likely to set off pedantic professors. Most of the errors were cosmetic, but several were substantive and have caused genuine confusion and concern for students. The APA’s subsequent refusal to issue more than web updates seemed to fly in the face of the rigor they try to impose with their standards. After all, if errors don’t really matter to the APA, why should we care? Finally, however, the APA has relented and agreed to reprint the edition with corrections.

In an article discussing this fiasco in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I found a sister from another mother in the person of Barbara Fister, academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College. As quoted in the article, Fister asserts that plagiarism pedants should “stop spending hours trying to correct student work using new style manuals as unfamiliar to them as to their students and go play with the baby or take a walk instead." Hooray! According to the article, Fister believes “being correct [in the minutiae of style] is not that important, but that understanding the rhetorical reasons for bringing good sources into your argument is.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

All of this coincides with the recent announcement of a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) book discussion group set to meet on February 3 to discuss Susan Blum’s latest book, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture. I’ve signed up for the group and received my complimentary copy of the book. If you’re a member of the Wright State University community, you can too. Contact the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at 775-4522 to reserve a spot at the discussion and to arrange for your free copy of the book. I’ll be blogging my reactions to the book in this space as I read it. Please read along with me and share your comments here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


One of the most annoying traits of public debate in recent years is how often people dismiss one another’s views out of hand. Too often I hear people proclaim, “Well, that’s just your opinion” or “Well, you’re biased.” These dismissals ignore the possibility that an opinion has been arrived at through deep reflection and are a way of not having to engage in any real thought about a subject.

The inaccurate charge of bias is one that particularly annoys me. Bias is a real issue in academic debate. It is something that scholars and students are urged to avoid. We’re also taught to look for it in the sources we use for our research. It really does exist, but too often in public debate it is assumed from someone’s viewpoint. Ironically, though not surprisingly, it is often present in the very people who charge others with this argumentative fault. People's own biases can so blind them to the facts that the only reason they can see for someone else to draw different conclusions must be bias.

The academic definition of bias is “A preference or an inclination, esp[ecially] one that inhibits impartial judgment” (American Heritage College Dictionary). So, for example, a Democrat might be prone to support President Obama’s policies since he, too, is a Democrat. Similarly, a Democrat may have been more critical of a Republican President such as George W. Bush. That kind of partisan bias occurs all the time, and it is wise to be on the lookout for it. However, it is possible for someone to support a member of their own party, to stay with the political example, without exhibiting bias.

So, how do we tell the difference between an opinion that is overly influenced by bias and one that is not?

The real answer to this question is that we can’t always tell; however, we can take steps to help us find out. Research is a key tool in helping to determine a person’s bias.

For example, let’s say you read an article by a particular political pundit. By reading this article you find out that when the Republicans were in charge, the pundit supported certain key policies. If you only read this one article, you might assume that he has a Republican bias. But if you read another article by the pundit -- one written as a new Democratic administration announces that it will continue those same policies -- and the pundit continues to support them, then we can be pretty sure that he wasn’t supporting those policies just because they were proposed by Republicans. Of course, the pundit might have other biases that contribute to his support of those policies, but through our research we’ve eliminated one of them.

Detecting true bias is very difficult. We all have biases that influence how we develop opinions. The key to honest debate is to try to recognize bias (our own and that of others) and mitigate it by keeping an open mind. We must remain open to new information that might change our opinion of a subject. This is very difficult to do even when we are aware.

What we can do rather easily is stop using the charge of bias as a cheap way of dismissing what others think. If your opinions are so fragile that you can’t bear to hear what someone else has to say, perhaps they aren’t worth keeping.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Last week we talked about how argumentation is at the core of academic writing. I was going to attempt to spell out how to make an argument, but that is too complex a subject for a mere blog post. There are a number of good sources to help you learn how to create a good argumentative paper. Dartmouth’s Writing Program has created this very worthwhile source for making the transition from high school writing to college writing. More specifically, Wright State’s Writing Center has this guide to creating thesis statements. In fact, our wiki has a number of useful links to help you with making the transition to academic writing.

We talked last week about how the process of argumentation is geared toward building an understanding of a subject. Still, it’s difficult to get past the connotation that the goal of an argument is to win. So what is a “win” in an academic argument?

There are a number of definitions I can think of, including the obvious one: winning an argument means making readers change their minds about the subject. I think this is a valid definition, but it can be difficult to achieve. It also can lead to bad scholarly habits. If our goal in an argument is always to convince someone that we are right, we create the temptation to cheat toward that goal. We might hide relevant information that might not support our conclusion. We might misrepresent the viewpoints of certain experts. In short, we might not be honest with our readers. That’s bad.

I think a better goal in an academic paper is to get your audience to take you seriously. This goal is well-aligned with other goals you might have. In a very personal way, much of your life to this point may have been devoted to getting people to take you seriously. After all, you’re not a kid anymore.

The key to being taken seriously in an academic environment is to demonstrate reason and objectivity. Biases born of prejudice or emotional reactions are not well thought of in college. Your readers (e.g., mostly your professors) are going to be far more impressed and persuaded by your dispassionate discussion of a subject.

So how do you achieve this tone of objectivity?

First, find out as much as you can about the subject. This is the reason professors assign research. Their requirements for the number of sources you should look at are the minimum they think you will need to review to begin to understand the subject well enough to discuss it intelligently. Don’t limit yourself to the minimum; read everything you have the time for. Remember, though, not all sources are of equal value.

In your reading, you are looking for factual data about the subject and informed opinion from other scholars and experts on the subject. Sources that deal honestly with counterarguments and differences of opinion will generally be of value. The side benefit to your research is that as you discover valid sources of information on a subject, you will also be exposing yourself to the types of writing and the tone that you will be trying to achieve for your readers.

Most importantly, be open to learning something. Try not to cling too tightly to your preconceived notions about the subject. By being open minded about the subject, you will more naturally seek out opinions on both sides of the argument. Being one sided is the perfect way to convince people that you are NOT serious.

By avoiding bias, addressing potential counterarguments, and generally trying to create an aura of competence, you will appear reasonable, and get your readers to take you seriously. It isn’t always important to win the debate – you will not always convince your reader that you are right. But if you can get your reader to take you seriously, to consider what you have said and think about it seriously, then you will have gone a long way toward being successful in your academic writing.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Is Everything An Argument With You?

When most students hear the word “argument,” they think of angry people yelling at one another. When you tell them that academic writing is about making an argument, they picture those uncomfortable moments with family and friends where they fought with one another. No wonder students have so little enthusiasm for “making an argument” in their classes.

An academic argument isn’t an angry fight, though. When you hear the term “argument” in an academic context think about two people having a reasonable conversation. Envision two people who aren’t emotionally attached to the subject. Instead, these two people are actually curious about what the answers to a question might be. As each proposes a possible answer, the other gently tests the proposition with questions and offers new facts to be discussed.

Even given this slightly less combative vision of arguing, students are bound to ask, “Why do I have to argue at all? What’s the point?” It’s a good question.

The point of arguing is to help us better understand something. Anyone can have an opinion. In fact, opinions are among the most common things around. But what is the value of those opinions? Many opinions only have real value to the person who holds them. Typically, these are opinions based on an emotional response to something. For example, I can say, “The Oakland Raiders are my favorite team.” That statement reflects my opinion, and it is factual. But so what? It isn’t really an arguable statement, in part because it has no real value outside of my own personal preference. It doesn’t matter to anyone but me. The fact that I like the Raiders doesn’t preclude you from liking another team.

But what if I claim, “The Oakland Raiders are the best team in the NFL.” That statement is also an opinion. Furthermore, it might matter to you (if you care about football) because if I am right, then your favorite team isn’t the best team in football and maybe you think they are. We don’t have to fight about it, though, because my opinion is arguable and, therefore, potentially provable in a meaningful way. We can actually establish criteria for evaluation, look at data, gather the informed opinions of experts, and evaluate the facts to make a reasonable assessment about which team actually is the best team in football.

We can have a heated argument – the personal kind – about whether the Raiders are my favorite team, but why would we? It doesn’t matter. We can also have an academic argument – though it need not be heated – about whether the Raiders are the best team in football. That argument, though, actually has a good possibility of yielding a factual conclusion. We might not discover who the best team really is, but we are sure to discover that, in fact, the Raiders are not the best team in football (actually, over the past several years, they are one of the worst teams – if not the worst team – in football).

For an opinion to have broader value, for us to have a chance to establish it as fact or truth, we have to take a more intellectual, critical approach. The process of challenging assumptions or opinions; of asking critical questions; of looking for data, facts, expert opinion; and analyzing a subject is a process that can lead us to the truth or at least a better understanding of the subject. It can lead us to better answers about all sorts of things like what you can do about global warming, who you should vote for to be President, even what kind of car you should buy.

Argument – even internal argument – is how we come to understand the world around us. It is a form of critical thinking, one of the most valuable skills you can possess. And academic writing is one of the surest ways to learn that skill.