• November 24, 2014

Something Is Rotten in Academe

The article "The Shadow Scholar" (The Chronicle Review, November 19, 2010) received more than 640 comments, the most on any article published by The Chronicle. Written by the pseudonymous Ed Dante, the article describes the writer's experiences writing student papers for a custom-essay company. Following is a selection from the comments.

Despite Ed Dante's convincing "exposure" of the dark side of higher education, I am appalled by the level of cynicism that he sways us with. If there is so much cheating in universities, it also has to do with the rot in the culture that we've built for ourselves. As a contingent faculty member, I know that we are treated like teaching machines by administrators. They think more about business, money, and how to exploit their dear little customers as well as their powerless teaching machines to maximize their profit. The two goals mutually reinforce each other. The university is a ground of distrust and cynicism. Some star academics also cheat and exploit others to pump up publications while relegating their teaching duties to grad students and contingent faculty members. Aren't we feeding off each other and the likes of Ed Dante? There has to be a thorough cultural transformation of the university.

***

I am a junior faculty member in a small program at a highly ranked, large public university. The university has responded to budget crises by reducing requirements, increasing class sizes, cutting TA positions, and eliminating writing-center services. Many faculty members teach large classes with no TA's or grading support. My colleagues care about teaching but recognize that our career advancement is based mainly on research. Even though my own classes are relatively small, I am not able to respond to essays as thoroughly as I did as a graduate student teaching only one course.

Most of our students, many of them English-language learners, come from public-school systems that have far greater problems. There is simply too much to do for a single course to make up for all deficiencies. At the same time, grade inflation means that students feel that if they are good enough to get into this school, they deserve at least a B, and giving lower grades leads to many hours of tearful office visits, low course ratings, and reduced enrollments, which can jeopardize our own continued employment or the future of a small program.

Although I lament students' preoccupation with grades, I find it understandable. Admissions to graduate programs and professional schools are competitive, and at a large university, where instructors rarely have the opportunity to know their students personally, grades are the most obvious way for a student to stand out. I can understand how students in lectures with several hundred other students might not feel much personal responsibility toward an impersonal system.

***

I'm just a lowly TA, but I'd like to add that I've worked for a number of professors who don't even bother to look at any of the assignments. They just hand me a stack of papers, and I hand them back a stack of grades. Sometimes I read them seriously, and sometimes I just skim them enough to get a sense of where they fall within the distribution of quality, so I know how to disperse the grades. I feel bad about the kids who try, knowing that the professor hasn't bothered to look at any of it, but mostly, I'm too overworked with my own schoolwork to care. It often feels like a completely pointless process, and on bad days I can't help but think that every school is little more than a diploma mill.

But mostly, the quality of work is so bad that professors and TA's alike have just stopped caring. When so many students are just so terrible, it's hard to care without losing your mind at just how insurmountable the problem seems.

***

My first thought after reading this article was, as an adjunct, I make less than Dante does, and I hate grading because most of what I grade is garbage that no one spent any time on. My second thought was, how can I get a job like his that will pay me more and be more interesting?

***

I can imagine that there are some TA's out there who are secretly grateful for ghostwriters. If you've ever sat before a stack of 50 student essays that need comments by Tuesday, it's hard not to be thankful for even a handful that present their argument in an engaging, logical manner.

***

This is a bad game that we're all being forced to play. What is a faculty member to do when she's being pressured to pass a student who doesn't belong in college? Why doesn't the term-paper writer in this article put the fault where it belongs—on the admissions committees that solicit too many applicants and then don't actually have any time to screen out the incompetent students, or maybe don't care to do so?

Why doesn't anyone blame the administrators who don't back the professors when the professor says: "I'm pretty sure the person getting the A in my online class is the husband of the woman who's actually signed up for the class. When I called her up to discuss her midterm, she put her husband on the phone."

Why doesn't anyone blame the administrators for pressuring the faculty to cave every time a student threatens to sue the professor because she didn't get the grade she wanted?

Why doesn't anyone blame the undergraduate's parents who apparently pay for these essays to be written, and then call the department chairman to explain why it's not their child's fault because she has a learning disability? My understanding here is that the parents justify their behavior because they can't afford to lose their investment.

***

Although I do not condone the type of work discussed in the article, we as educators are solely responsible for the thriving business of ghosted materials. From teachers misunderstanding the purpose of stream-of-consciousness writing during the 1980s, to college professors grading mostly for content and passing over poor writing skills, we are responsible. From firing teachers whose students are not scoring high enough on standardized and (mostly unstandardized) state qualifying exams, to condoning (through allowing) sloppy composition by pre-service-education undergraduate and graduate students, we are responsible. Have we stopped caring, or do we simply lack the time and/or ambition to help our students succeed?

***

As far as I'm concerned, there is one issue here, and one puzzle. The issue: Students cheat because they are assigned papers, as if that were the only way to prove one's intelligence, learning, commitment, integrity. Their assignments are cheatable. Stop depending on such assignments, and education (and graduation rates) will radically change. The puzzle: How can any human being, however skilled with language, churn out meaningless garbage hour after hour on anything? If he can and does, doesn't it prove that the assignment was meaningless, too?

***

America has placed a high premium on quantitative results but has completely undervalued the process necessary to achieve those results. As a nation, we have become acutely aware of certain concrete "goals" (increase test scores, improve high-school graduation rates, ensure that students enter college and exit with diploma in hand). However, we have become so absorbed by meeting these goals that we've lost track of our reasons for having them in the first place. As a result, we have students who emerge from high school well versed at filling out Scantrons but hardly capable of articulating their thoughts, out loud or on paper. They see college graduation as the key to future professional success (and in many cases they're correct), but they see their classes as merely a means to an end. The true purpose and value of education have been obliterated by our orientation as a society toward having the correct documentation.

If we are really interested in reducing academic dishonesty, then I recommend that we stop pointing fingers at professors, administrators, admissions personnel, students, or even Dante, and instead focus on the real problems. We need to support social services so that children can come to school physically and emotionally prepared to learn. We need to value teachers: Train them, pay them, and respect them. We need to stop seeing test scores as an end unto themselves, and instead get back to the business of guiding and nurturing our children to be creative, critical, and capable thinkers. For the vast majority of students, I am sure that they would write their own papers, if they only knew how.

***

Parents pressure their kids to succeed, not necessarily to learn. The focus is on getting good grades, not getting the finer points of critical thinking. This is the environment that allows cheating to flourish. Not everybody needs to or should go to college, but we've set up a system where they almost have to in order to survive.

***

Open enrollment and remedial services for barely literate students (who clearly have no business being in college) have created a costly bloat in higher education. In addition to sucking up valuable academic resources, this bloat has ultimately brought down the value of a college education for everyone—because everyone is getting a college degree these days.

This dumbing down needs to stop. It's all part of the "spread the wealth around" mentality. The result is a vast sea of mediocrity and incompetence, leaving no one who knows how to repair a toilet. Or a V-8 engine. Or draft a blueprint. Or properly fertilize a rose garden. Or build a cabinet. Make four-year-college admission much more difficult. Let those who don't qualify go somewhere more appropriate for their career training.

***

For-profit colleges knowingly admit students who are known to be deficient in written and spoken language skills, then expect them to write 75-page scholarly theses in perfect English. Sometimes there are well-funded learning-support services for these students; often, there are not.

I see this as an admissions issue. Either admit students who have a fighting chance at completing the program or adapt your standards to screen those who can't cut the mustard. In the short term, your profits may suffer. It's a tough pill to swallow.

If you decide to admit those without mustard-cutting aptitude, then dramatically increased funding for learning support services is imperative. Your college's brand reputation (and long-term profits) will suffer otherwise, as these students continue to buy degrees.

***

I refuse to play detective. If students want to pay Dante $2K to write their papers, they can go ahead. When they fail to learn the material in the course and end up inferior on the job market, it won't be my problem. We all live with our choices.

There is no structural problem that "causes" cheating any more than there's a structural problem that causes theft. That some people steal iPods isn't a sign that we need to restructure iPod sales. That some students cheat isn't a sign that we need to restructure higher education. It's an inevitable facet of any worthwhile enterprise. Some folks will try to game the system; some folks will do the hard work to pass on merit.

Yes, we are failing some of our students: They're the ones who can't afford Dante's services. I'm not terribly concerned about the international ESL students paying Dante to write their M.B.A. theses and the lazy rich kids. I'm concerned about the public-university and community-college kids who come from crappy, underfunded schools. That Dante seems to want to conflate these problems (cheaters versus the underserved) is simply a sign of his conscience lashing out for equilibrium.

Luckily, he seems like a more or less decent person. Hence, he'll retire soon and, after a year or two, look back with mild shame at his previous profession and with relief at having left it.

***

The question that troubles me most is, what can be done about these free-enterprise scholarly privateers? I'm affronted by the author's quickness to blame the academy for what he perceives as its failure of him. Mightn't he blame publishers and editors for also failing to see the staggering genius of his fiction work? What this person is doing is committing fraud and then slapping academia in the face with it. The author of this article is a criminal, pure and simple. I have rarely read such a work of unmitigated denial of one's own wrongdoing.

***

Reading the comments on this essay, I have noticed that many readers are trying desperately to blame somebody for this unsavory situation. Many blame Mr. Dante. While I agree that his actions are rather unscrupulous, I think placing the blame on his shoulders misses the forest for the trees.

Others attempt to blame the students or the educators. Clearly, engaging in aca­demic dishonesty reflects poorly on the character of our students. Further, that such dishonesty slips by so many educators is indicative of instructional shortcomings. But again, I think that there is a greater issue at play here.

Mr. Dante hints at this in his writing, but we must acknowledge explicitly that something is deeply wrong in our educational system. Plagiarism of this sort is merely symptomatic of a philosophical plague upon education. In his 1996 book, The End of Education, Neil Postman called this plague the "god of economic utility." By worshiping this god, we convince our students and society as a whole that the only value in education resides in the diploma. The goal of education is not to learn or to teach but to serve as a machine that churns out students as standardized products.

We should not be surprised that students pay others to write their essays. Why spend the time thinking and learning if all that matters is that piece of paper at the end of journey? From an economic-utility point of view, our students are making completely rational decisions.

***

The unedited student e-mails that Dante quotes, with their egregious problems with idiom and verb management, strongly suggest that a lot of these ghostwriting requests come from ESL/ESOL students, for whom writing fluent, near-native English is a problem, and for whom plagiarism and other forms of cheating are less of an issue in their home countries than here in the United States. That possibility suggests a need to administer on-grounds language-proficiency examinations for all international and domestic students for whom English is not the first language, and get those who need it into English-remediation courses as a first order of business.

***

The issues here are: (1) chronic laziness on the part of students; and (2) the general decline of writing/thinking skills required at the primary and secondary levels, both of which lead to (3) admitting students who are woefully unprepared for college but feel that a degree (or two, or three) is a right rather than an honor. The under­graduate degree has become what the high-school degree was only a few generations ago: a must-have, regardless of one's true desire to learn and accomplish.

I don't blame Dante any more than any other prostitute—he's providing a service, however distasteful. However, as a vice cop will attest, both parties are to blame and both should get busted. And contrary to Dante's pompous claims, there are ways to keep this out of your courses. How about short, in-class or in-library essays using books (gasp!) rather than relying solely on online sources? For larger research and writing assignments, require submissions during the course of the assignment: step-by-step microassignments that will keep the Dantes swimming in text messages and e-mails at all hours ... and their customers refilling their PayPal accounts at every turn! Get angry, get crea­tive, and the students may actually learn something despite their best efforts.

***

Our university standards and faculty often fall short by insisting on absurd, uninspiring assignments that amount to little more than busywork. If you want to produce literate, articulate, honest graduates who write well and never resort to academic dishonesty, then you, too, must make some effort:

1. Hire real faculty instead of using and exploiting adjuncts.

2. Eliminate meaningless "papers" that students dread writing and teachers hate reading and grading.

3. Include in-class presentations with major written assignments so students can develop well-rounded communication skills, so they may easily share their ideas and work with others.

4. Teachers hate grading, so each week why not have a group of students write their own ideas on the board and ask for peer review and comments? This is meaningful, saves you from hours of grading papers, and gives a realistic instant sample of student writing skills.

***

There is a surefire way to put Ed Dante and others like him out of business. I know, because I've done it. You supervise every piece of student writing from first draft to final submission. Along the way, you actually teach people instead of complaining nonstop about their ignorance. You will have to (gasp) give reasons for rejecting this or that piece of writing. Yes, you do have to read reams of not very good writing. And you do have to fail the truly incompetent. That will make you Not the Students' Best Buddy. But perhaps all this sounds too much like real work.

***

The solution is simple, if instructors can be bothered. Many of my graduate courses required a substantial in-class presentation of the course paper. As the presentations were always given a week or two before the papers were due, drafts or outlines of the paper were due at this time and graded as part of the presentation.

Tough to pull off a cheat under such circumstances, especially if a significant percentage of the grade on the paper is the grade for the presentation.

***

I taught at a selective liberal-arts college and routinely made students turn in rough drafts, which I made notes on (and which I made copies of—clearly this was easier when I required them to submit the drafts electronically). I figure that some of them cheated anyway, but I'd make them cough up a bunch of money for the low grade. If you know your students, it's not all that hard to tell when the paper wasn't written by them. Error-strewn test answers, incoherent comments in class, and then a pitch-perfect paper always sent me on a chase. My favorite was a student who turned in a paper with "termpaper.com" periodically embedded in paragraphs. I still laugh about that one.

***

How to bust the custom-essay scam: Have the student sit in plain sight at a desk with nothing but pen and paper, and write five paragraphs explaining what the essay is about and how the ideas behind it were conceived. Then compare those paragraphs to the essay. If the student can write something qualitatively indistinguishable from the essay, she deserves the credit even if she didn't write the essay; otherwise, she's toast.

***

In-class essay writing is a terrible way to evaluate students. If you are teaching a class about writing, the best way to see if students are writing better is to have them write the way writers—even Mr. Dante!—write: draft upon draft, in and out of class. Sitting in a room and watching them handwrite essays only tells you what they are able to regurgitate in an hour, with no time for proofreading or revision.

Dante is simply exploiting a systemic problem, like any good capitalist. My husband works in the for-profit/online-education industry, and I can totally see students like his paying someone to do the work for the class they're paying for, so they can get the degree they want to qualify for a promotion in their job or at their hospital. When all you need is cash to get a degree, why not farm out the intellectual work as well? Writing is incidental to most professions because we teach it only in introductory first-year courses run by graduate students: Is it really that shocking that students get the message loud and clear that writing isn't important?

I get so frustrated by all the blustering about integrity and the importance of writing when so few people actually want to teach writing in a way that is relevant to students' lives and careers. People are so offended that students might not care about something our institutions have devalued as much as possible. Dante is our own Frankenstein monster, the horrifying offspring of the bad teaching, required courses, outcomes-based evaluation, and No Child Left Behind testing all mixed together in one semilucrative contracting position. (Do you get dental with that job, Dante? Or is it an awful lot like grad-school life—all work and no benefits?)

***

Some of you educators on these posts talk about how dumb some of your students are. How they should think about their grammar and spelling before considering grad school, and how they barely know what they're talking about. It would seem to me that they, and I, know more than you think we do. We don't pay attention to you because you've given these lectures to someone else, and we got the notes from them. We don't pay attention because you don't have an attendance pol­icy. We don't pay attention because you use the same recycled garbage that our fraternity brother, sorority sister, best friend, or sibling learned from you one year earlier.

***

As a high school student, I see how tempting it would be to use such a service. The grades at my school are skewed to the higher end of the scale, and many of the students, myself included, would be crushed by anything lower than a B. We're all so fixated on getting into good colleges that it's the letter grade, not the material learned, that we care about. Really, today in AP English, I heard more cries of "I got a C on the essay" than "I don't understand Pride and Prejudice." (Granted, this was an in-class essay, so a paper mill wouldn't have helped.) I know I was more shaken by my uncharacteristically low grade than the fact that I totally misread the passage.

I know cheating isn't a good thing, and I know that plagiarism is grounds for expulsion at my school. I know that it's better not to care so much about grades and learn for the sake of learning. But still, Mr. Dante's paper mill sounds quite tempting.

And they say there are no jobs for English majors.

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