In lecture, Notre Dame prof. encourages learning for learning's sake

BY LILLIAN XIAO
For the Daily
Published November 13, 2009

During a lecture last night, Susan Blum, author of "My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture," said sociocultural pressures to succeed in college are a driving force for students to seek easy and efficient means for achievement.

The event was sponsored by the Center for Ethics in Public Life, which provides funding for research, seminars and symposiums centered on promoting the discussion and awareness of ethical issues.

Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, told the 70 people gathered in the Hussey Room of the Michigan League that plagiarism may be symptomatic of a larger issue.

“Individuals function in a system or structure that they themselves did not make,” Blum said. “Our high-achieving students have learned how to compete in a system that teaches efficiency, speed and temporary attention.”

Blum said rules for plagiarism exist as part of an unspoken contract when students enter an academic institution. She described it as an understanding that students offer tuition, effort and completion of requirements in return for credentials and a degree.

“By plagiarizing, students remove the effort — they don’t do the actual task and the contract is violated,” she said.

She identified two types of plagiarism — inadvertent and deliberate. Inadvertent plagiarism involves errors in citing, an issue which Blum attributes to problems of education. Deliberate plagiarism is when a student intentionally steals work from another source and takes it as their own.

But Blum said that solving the problem is a matter of fixing mixed incentives.

“It’s happening because faculty are really busy,” Blum said. “They are rewarded for writing. They’re rewarded for grants. They’re rewarded for research. They’re not rewarded for spending 10 hours tracking down sources of papers that look suspicious.”

She added that most students get away with cheating or plagiarism because it may be overlooked due to discrepancies in training and standards of plagiarism in other countries.

With the recent surge of online media offering pre-written essays and the convenience of SparkNotes, Blum said educators are concerned that these tools are fostering an increase in plagiarism.

“It’s not necessarily making it easier to plagiarize,” Blum said in an interview. “If people want to plagiarize, they will.”

Blum said instead that the Internet has altered our perceptions of sharing. She adds that definitions of authorship are also changing, blurring the line between what is considered plagiarism and what isn’t.

She added that students should embrace education for the sake of learning, which would ideally decrease plagiarism.

“Students have accomplishments such as grades, and accomplishments such as understanding,” Blum said. “Celebrate learning for its own sake, not just for high GPAs.”

Though policy for the College of Literature, Science and the Arts doesn’t require plagiarism to be reported by professors or faculty, LSA senior Justin Bristol, president of the LSA Honor Council, said the University has about 150 to 200 cases of reported plagiarism every year.

Bristol, who spoke at the event, said cases turned in to the dean’s office are subject to a hearing with honor council members in addition to community service requirements and educational sanctions.