Interview with Susan Blum

The ethnographic nook is a new series of interviews with scholars who participated in a recent, NET-organised workshop entitled “Fakery, Insincerity, and the Anthropology of Humbuggery.” The ethnographic nook is a space of conviviality and intimacy, situated in the backroom of an undisclosed café which possibly does, or does not exist outside of the internet. It is furnished with worn yet beautifully-aged lacquered floors. It has comfortable, cocktail armchairs from the 50s – although patrons sometimes choose to sit on the rugged carpet and place their beverages on the Paulownia low-table in front of them. We invite scholars to sit down and talk to us about what makes them tick in their work and everyday life. We talk about what they are reading, their writing habits, opinions about current affairs, and of course ethnography.


Our guest this week is Susan Blum, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Susan’s rich corpus of ethnographic work in China focuses onaspects of alterity, deception and ethnicity, and how people construct and enact their identities in relation to those of others. Her latest work is a critical exploration of education and in the US and elsewhere, and focuses on dimensions pedagogy, learning (and its relationship to schooling), and authorship.

[NET]: Welcome to the nook Susan! Your book My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture is a fascinating exploration of cheating and plagiarism in US colleges. What made you interested in these particular topics? Do you understand cheating and plagiarism as something confined in college culture, or are these practices that can unveil more foundational dimensions of human behaviour?

[SB]: I was interested for a number of reasons. One was that I had previously studied truth and deception in China, and I was interested in the ideologies connected with following prescriptive rules about the referential nature of language, where some version of the truth conditions governed evaluation of utterances—despite a century of anthropological research on “phatic communion” and the last half-century of focus on pragmatics. In some sense I was interested in ideologies of “how to do things with words,” in different times and places.

One of the common human affordances of language is the possibility of lying, and our ability to predict others’ responses, or what is sometimes called Theory of Mind, means that we can easily deceive others. The rewards for cheating, deception, and lying are often great, and the punishment may or may not suffice to keep people on the straight-and-narrow path of truth telling. Human cheating, deception, conning, lying, and more are found in every society alongside prescriptions for honesty. The specific guidelines for who deserves what kind of truth and why always require fieldwork to uncover.

As a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, I am of course interested in authorship: Where do our words come from, and where do we think they come from?

6203491._UY400_SS400_It is a cliché from Bakhtin that “the word in language is half someone else’s.” In contemporary White Anglo-American middle-class society, we have a celebration of originality, of uniqueness. But it is also obvious, as for example when I type on my phone or iPad, that a lot of people have constructed sentences a lot like mine. I am scarcely original, most of the time. Yet not only are our words not our own entirely, we have this absolutist rule—impossible to follow—that we must give credit to anything we ourselves did not create, as an individual. I had come to suspect that students did not have quite the same strict ideas about tracing all influences of our utterances that govern academic notions of citation and “academic integrity”—ideas that actually vary considerably from field to field, even within academia and in the world of letters. But grown-up academics forget ever having learned this, and take it as natural and obvious.

The relationship between speaker and self similarly gives rise to longstanding interests of mine in the nature of the self and the person—whether in terms of ethnic identity in the context of an authoritarian nation-state or in terms of performing a certain version of selfhood for a certain perceived good—a high grade, in the case of school.

I also had come to want to understand my students better. All around me colleagues were either complaining about student writing and entitlement, or they were celebrating their stellar achievements. (I’m at a high-achiever-filled institution.) I wanted to see both what they were doing instead of re-writing their drafts, in terms of their preoccupations outside classes, and what they thought was happening in classes.

One of the biggest surprises to me, as someone who had always focused on the academic side of things, is how little I—not generalizing entirely to all college faculty—shared with my students—about their understanding of writing, authorship, the importance of reading, the goals of college, and the importance of a singular(-ish) sense ofself.

But I could understand them, once I got over judging and used my anthropological perspective. Isn’t that the classical outcome of ethnography? But in some ways it was even harder to accomplish in that I was living in my fieldsite, all the time, but carried with me judgments from another universe.

This led me on to my subsequent book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College, which sent me deeply into the anthropology of learning, which is really a classic anthropological topic, though it surfaced in the early days in terms of “socialization.” Language socialization and the linguistic anthropology of education were rich sources of my thinking, and I ventured once again, as I had in Lies That Bind, into studies beyond the human.

[NET]: It must also be said that the aforementioned book does not vilify plagiarism and cheating but rather problematises the disconnect which often exists between pedagogical structures and social dimensions of learning. As a professor and teacher yourself, do you go about doing things differently than what is ‘normally’ expected in a university classroom? Do you think that a teacher can address the concerns you have with college pedagogy through a particular style of teaching, or are we faced with a larger, structural problem?

[SB]: The problems are large and structural, and my deepest wish is that we completely overthrow the conventional types of schooling that have been naturalized over the last hundred and fifty years. Meanwhile—and there are many profound experiments being done at all levels of schooling from preschool to medical school, and at all different scales from a single exercise to entirely new movements such as unschooling or new colleges being created (I highly recommend Cathy N Davidson’s new The New Education)—in addition to writing about all this, I’ve experimented hugely in my own classes. I’ve revolutionized the ways I think of students, of “the material,” of what I want them to get out of it, how we do it, how it is assessed, and the student-teacher relationship. Doing this in the context of a conventional college where students arrive with standard expectations means I’ve had to become very explicit about what I’m doing and why.

One substantive shift for me has been to completely get rid of the idea that my job is to sort and rank and evaluate, and to focus on really creating conditions for every student to learn. For many, that requires some effort at identifying goals beyond just “it fulfills a requirement” or “it fits my schedule.” I also ask students to assess their own work, and I provide feedback. I just don’t do any grading of any assignment. I try to meet students where they are as best I can, and have lots of conversations with them. At the end of the semester we meet for a portfolio conference.

It is not as good as having the learning motivated by need, use, or passion—as we find IRL, outside schools—but it has helped me avoid a focus on what I call “the game of school”—something I thought I’d invented, but as is so often the case, something that must be in the air, because I’ve subsequently encountered others using the same phrase. Plagiarism? It’s what our early anthropological ancestors called “independent invention.”

[NET]: In your website you have a photo of Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society teaching while standing on his desk. Did you try something like that?

[SB]: I haven’t stood on the desk (yet), but I’ve sat on the floor and I’ve talked to my students facing away from them and we’ve turned off the lights and spoken in the dark and we’ve gone to a farm. Does that count?

But actually the thing about Robin Williams’s model is that he is still the charismatic center of the class. I prefer having my students’ learning occupy the central space. (I don’t say that only because I’m less charismatic than Williams, of blessed memory; the whole point of school is for the students to learn, not the teacher to teach.) The anthropology of learning does not only show teaching. Pedagogy is a particular invention. You can read Basil Bernstein on the “totally pedagogised society” (TPS) [1] that he critiques.

[NET]: Your book Lies that bind provides a nuances explana9780742554054tion of the importance of lying and deception in Chinese culture. With the rise of ‘fake news’, the need for people to develop a sixth sense of sorts, of whether something they read or hear is true seems more important than ever! Do you think the way ‘fake news’ circulate amid the global media zeitgeist and everyday conversations reconfigures our anthropological understanding of lying and deception? Should we, as anthropologists, or ordinary citizens, do anything about it??

[SB]: In both our roles we should do a lot!

This current era, beyond the “truthiness” of the 2000s and into the era of Trump lying 5.5 times a day, on average, according to The Washington Post, where people shout “fake news!” whenever they don’t like what the media report, where we have PolitiFact and and Snopes, and evaluations by numbers of Pinocchios, “pants on fire”—citing, quoting, invoking the English child’s rhyme “Liar, liar, pants on fire” of which most origin stories are lies—in this climate it is almost impossible to analyze quickly enough, when we are pulled in amazement each hour, it seems, to absorb yet another blow to honor, decency, truth….Yes, there is much to do as anthropologists and as citizens—and, I’ll add, as teachers.

We need to keep a record of what is happening and what the reactions are, in order to capture the motivations and gains and risks of bald-faced lying. There are quite a number of anthropologists working on this, such as here and here and here and here. I think we all realize that we are living in an unprecedented moment where really significant history is happening, and a lot of people are paying attention to what is “not normal.”

I am puzzled by the utterly brazen way people like our current resident can say “there were record crowds” and the evidence is there that there were not record crowds and yet nothing terrible happens, except a kind of cheer by supporters. I believe we are seeing people recognizing the constraints of social interaction and rejecting them—almost as if the id threw off the shackles of the superego and celebrated some kind of pre-cultural desire for boorish impulsive behavior.

I’ve been amused that for many drawn to social construction and post-objectivity approaches, the current anti-fact and anti-science administration is moving a lot of them into the arms of science and fact.

Librarians, journalists, and others are doing heroic work trying to teach people how to sort out legitimate (not to say, “objective”) from “fake news,” news that is sponsored by corporations. The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has done groundbreaking work. Here are some other sites: here and here and here and here. Here’s an infographic on “How to spot fake news” based on a longer version put out by

The ubiquity of information and the ability to select sources that already express our own position mean that we have to have mechanisms for assessing their makers and intended audience. Anthropology should provide tools for that, as we try to make sense of things people tell us—and why. Don’t forget Charles Briggs’s classic book, Learning How to Ask. It’s about interviewing, but it’s also about being critical of asking and hearing answers and focusing on the relationships, contexts, rules for speaking, and the usual nuanced details of human society.

[NET]: Anthropologists tend to specialize in regions and ideas. You possess a particular skill set of linguistic, cultural and cognitive anthropology and, despite focusing on particular topics, you often mention that your work is about larger, universal behavioural aspects and patterns of human sociality. How do you go about addressing and grounding these ‘broad’ topics and projects – a task which most anthropologists find quite daunting?

[SB]: I have become impatient with small, possibly trivial answers to questions. (No offense intended here. I’m not naming names.) I haven’t written a general Humans book, but in most of my work I try to introduce the tension between universals and particulars, between our nature as parts of a species and an order that contrasts with others, and as very specific individuals quite unlike any others, though with some shared characteristics. Some people talk about macro, meso, and micro perspectives. I like the kitchen sink approach—all of the above. But I’ve been profoundly influenced by my colleagues who are biological anthropologists and am deeply committed to the idea that we are biological—biocultural—biosociocultural—psychobiosociocultural. Et cetera. There is never a generic human being. But we are never biological first and cultural second, or psychological first and biological second. If anthropologists have anything to contribute to the world—and I’ve devoted my life to this pursuit in the conviction that we do—it is that we are extremely complex and that everything matters. We can’t take an individual as a unit of analysis. I’m currently obsessing over the notion that while humans are nearly infinitely malleable, as our colleagues have delighted in demonstrating for a century or more—to show that we are not genetically or racially determined—there may be limits. We see the limits in human suffering, such as what happens when people are given conflicting goals that they as individuals must champion but which hurt them—as Lauren Berlant shows in Cruel Optimism, or when solitude is taken to the extreme of solitary confinement. We can also look to older work such as Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (whatever its flaws) to see that we do not all live in the best of all possible worlds.

There are development organizations trying to improve the lives of people around the globe, and the Human Development Index tries to get at the nature of life according to many measures. For an anthropologist this may be problematic, but it does acknowledge that it is better to live in some social formations than in others.

I’ve also been influenced by ideas of permaculture and ecological perspectives. We need to look at humans this way too. For me the posthuman perspective includes not only other animals but also the very planetary context within which all is constrained.

[NET]: As you mention in your blog you are also an avid reader of fiction! Do you see any benefits  for your thinking, writing and/or teaching in engaging with non-academic literature in your everyday life? Do you have any other particular habits or hobbies in which you find inspiration for your work?

[SB]: Don’t you think academic writing is sometimes boring and sometimes way too impenetrable? Come on, be honest! I’ve studied lying and deception, after all!

Given my teaching, and my aim to communicate outside academia, it is really important to me that I be able to write and speak to people who are not experts. Having at least one ear on beautiful writing, I try hard to explain myself, so that my audience—live or on the page—is not insulted by an implied value that says some of them aren’t worthy or respected.

I’ve grown to love blogging, and very short messages. Twitter. But of course like all good academics I can go on and on, in an academic vein, when given the proper audience.

And in my spare time (hah!) I do dabble in creative pursuits….

I have a few habits that help me, when I remember them. (I tend to re-learn them a few times each semester) I make my most important project my first priority of every morning; I keep a log; I use the Pomodoro technique to help me focus. I try to exercise and go outside and when I’m really good I stay off the Internet and keep my phone in another room….

[NET]: Thank you very much for your time Susan – is there anything else on your mind? Any other projects you are working on, or plans for the future?

[SB]: First, thank you so much for the tea! It was lovely, fragrant, and just warmed the soul. We should meet again soon. Conviviality is a topic that not only food theorists have addressed; it also has to do with warm social interactions, and we could all use more of that.

Second, my mind is always way too full. But the thing I’m working most directly on right now is a book, the third in my College Trilogy, called Wellbeing, Suffering, and Schooling, in which I address more directly the non-cognitive effects of schooling. I’m looking especially at notions of meaning and alienation, and emotion and affect. I’m maybe halfway through the first and messiest draft, which I’ve been comforted to read about in John McPhee’s new book, Draft No. 4. This prolific writer, who has been teaching writing at Princeton for decades, writes: “You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” [2] So maybe I’m not a writer—or maybe thinking I’m not a writer is proof that I am a writer. You’ll have to figure out the truth of that confusing statement.

Third, my responses are far from a blog post! I’ve rambled on, invited by your hospitality and perhaps the hygge nature of this ethnographic nook. I look forward to learning what other guests have to say about our collective obsession, filtered through their own particularities.

Finally, you are a great conversationalist! Thanks for asking such great questions and for listening so carefully. Let’s do it again soon!


[1] Bernstein, Basil. 2001. From Pedagogies to Knowledges. In Ana M Morais, Isabel Neves, Brian Davies, & Harry Daniels (Eds). Towards a Sociology of Pedagogy. The Contribution of Basil Bernstein to Research (pp. 363-368). New York: Peter Lang.

[2] McPhee, John. 2017. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 158.