It’s simple, really, but laborious.
A couple weeks ago, Ed Dante, “The Shadow Scholar,” told his story in The Chronicle Review. He’s a ghostwriter for a “custom-essay company,” drafting paper after paper for students who can’t complete them on their own. According to Dante (a pseudonym), he has written in fields ranging from labor relations to film to theology to sports management to architecture to marketing to ethics (!) to anthropology. He writes undergraduate papers and graduate theses, proposals . . . whatever: “The subject matter, the grade level, the college, the course—these things are irrelevant to me,” he declares.
Students come to his employer desperate and hopeless and frenzied and cynical, the “lazy rich kid,” the ESL student, and the “hopelessly deficient” ones. It’s a full-time job, he announces, and the courses he writes for, he suggests, have clueless instructors. “You’ve never heard of me,” he boasts, ”but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work.”
If the practices is as widespread as Ed believes, academia has a serious problem. Either teachers aren’t paying close enough attention, or students aren’t recognizing the ethical crime, or grade mania has grown too intense, or students assume every bad grade destroys their future or . . . Whatever the reasons, Ed doesn’t think it can be stopped. ”My customers are your students,” he says. “I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.”
Can’t defend against? Yes, we can, but it takes time and labor. All that is required is for teachers to get involved in their students’ writing process. I often teach freshman courses, and I assign short papers to students (3 to 4 pages) every two weeks. On Fridays, I schedule 30-minute editing sessions with each one, making for a long day of revision, but a productive one. We go over commas and verbs and syntax and transitions, sentence by sentence and word by word.
With that much focus on the composition, students won’t risk the exposure. They know they can’t pass off someone else’s prose as their own when under the microscope. Moreover, because they have a rough draft to do first, they don’t put the final version off to the night before it’s due, and hence don’t suffer the discombobulating need to find someone else to do it.
I’m lucky to have only a 2-2 load, of course, with only 10-15 students in a freshman class. People with heavier loads and larger classes, often on a multi-campus itinerary, can’t afford to take that much time to do editing sessions. But if the plagiarism problem is as bad as Ed alleges, then colleges and universities ought to provide them with editing assistants of some kind who can assume the task and monitor students away from the paper providers.
It would be easy for English and comp departments to justify the request. Perhaps the worst revelation of Ed’s exposure is the awful e-mails in garbled prose that he receives from student-clients. As he puts it, “You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students’ writing.” With Ed around, students proceed to the next course without having improved their writing one bit. “The Shadow Scholar” should be a prime exhibit in the need for more funding and more support for writing courses and instructors. Perhaps with an intense writing experience with heavy surveillance in their first year, students might not take the shadowy route later on.