Monday, November 15, 2010

My Brain Hurts -- An Exploration into the Business of Cheating

It appears I went about getting my masters degree in English the wrong way.

Here’s how I did it: When a professor gave an assignment, I read books, magazine articles, did a lot of Googling, then sat down at the computer and wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote and wrote some more. Then I’d get feedback, from the professor and my peers. Then I’d go research and read and write some more. I eventually would get to a point where I’d decide the paper was finished, good enough, and ready to be submitted. And when I got the grades I got and read the professor’s comments I could see, yeah, that’s about right.

I earned my masters degree with a 3.96 GPA.

My wife – who is now in the same program I finished in July 2009 – is also doing it wrong. She’s doing her assignments the same way I did them. She’s got one advantage, if you can call it that: She knows a recent graduate from the self-same program whom she can consult for advice, work with as a sounding-board and otherwise check in with when she’s got a question.

But she’s not taking my papers and using them as her own. The only things we’re sharing are textbooks, the notes I scrawled in the margins, and conversations as we take our weekend walks.

But according to Ed Dante, writing this week for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the way my wife and I approached our education is entirely outside the norm, or at least the norm he sees.

Dante (using a fake name for this article) writes essays for an online “custom essay” company, where students desperate for a grade can go to find folks like him to write their papers, their graduate theses, their business proposals, the entries into the seminary, for them.

Both his article and the comments that follow it are enlightening. And kinda scary.

He sees students come to him from three categories: Those learning English as a second language, lazy rich kids, and students he describes as “hopelessly deficient,” and given some of the e-mails he reproduces in this article, it’s clear to see what they’re deficient in, unless they happen to have sent all of the messages to him on International Talk Like A Pirate Day. (An example: “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”)

Dante insists these students desperately need help in learning how to learn, and it amazed that more of his stable of cheaters aren’t caught in the act:
You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students' writing. I have seen the word "desperate" misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren't getting it.

For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you?
Responses in the comments range from “Nobody ever gets by me” to “Online courses are cash cows, cheating considerations go out the window” to “Just roll with it.” I’m not sure I buy into any of those responses.

What’s eerie about Dante’s work is that, frankly, anyone with a modicum of writing and researching skill and a complete lack of moral compass could do this, easily. I’m reminded of the saying “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Or as Mr. Dante says, just lie about your expertise and know just enough to fake it:
Customers' orders are endlessly different yet strangely all the same. No matter what the subject, clients want to be assured that their assignment is in capable hands. It would be terrible to think that your Ivy League graduate thesis was riding on the work ethic and perspicacity of a public-university slacker. So part of my job is to be whatever my clients want me to be. I say yes when I am asked if I have a Ph.D. in sociology. I say yes when I am asked if I have professional training in industrial/organizational psychology. I say yes when asked if I have ever designed a perpetual-motion-powered time machine and documented my efforts in a peer-reviewed journal.

The subject matter, the grade level, the college, the course—these things are irrelevant to me. Prices are determined per page and are based on how long I have to complete the assignment. As long as it doesn't require me to do any math or video-documented animal husbandry, I will write anything.
There is part of Dante’s story that I find a bit laughable and yet at the same time a bit chilling. He is, obviously, a highly-motivated writer, one who wants to write for a living and to be recompensed at the level of effort he’s willing to put in. He tells this story of his college years:
Although my university experience did not live up to its vaunted reputation, it did lead me to where I am today. I was raised in an upper-middle-class family, but I went to college in a poor neighborhood. I fit in really well: After paying my tuition, I didn't have a cent to my name. I had nothing but a meal plan and my roommate's computer. But I was determined to write for a living, and, moreover, to spend these extremely expensive years learning how to do so. When I completed my first novel, in the summer between sophomore and junior years, I contacted the English department about creating an independent study around editing and publishing it. I was received like a mental patient. I was told, "There's nothing like that here." I was told that I could go back to my classes, sit in my lectures, and fill out Scantron tests until I graduated.
Soon thereafter, he recounts, eh fell into writing papers for fellow students, and then for complete strangers who contacted him for help:
I didn't much care for my classes, though. I slept late and spent the afternoons working on my own material. Then a funny thing happened. Here I was, begging anybody in authority to take my work seriously. But my classmates did. They saw my abilities and my abundance of free time. They saw a value that the university did not.

It turned out that my lazy, Xanax-snorting, Miller-swilling classmates were thrilled to pay me to write their papers. And I was thrilled to take their money. Imagine you are crumbling under the weight of university-issued parking tickets and self-doubt when a frat boy offers you cash to write about Plato. Doing that job was a no-brainer. Word of my services spread quickly, especially through the fraternities. Soon I was receiving calls from strangers who wanted to commission my work. I was a writer!
In other words, rather than pursuing his novels (and here, maybe I’m uninformed; he may have published his novel, but given the story he tells in this article, I doubt it) he takes the easy writing path, one that let him immediately benefit from his skill, rather than one that led him gradually to success. He does exactly what he chides his clients for, and what he rolls his eyes at academia for doing: He takes the easy path and doesn’t count on getting caught, or, indeed, doesn’t see much wrong in what he’s done, though he says in the article he plans on “retiring” from the business.

Unfortunately, there are those who read this article and respond in the comments, basically passing along the message that, like Dante’s students, they just don’t get it as well:
THIS ARTICLE IS just f*** awesome. You are such a great writer, the delivery is just great, and I could have read a whole book of it.

Is it weird that I find your amorality just inspiring? (there is no irony there--I'm serious).

This was just such a good read. If you are interested, I'd love to interview you on my blog [redacted].com. I don't endorse ghostwriting, but your writing was the best thing I've read all month.

If you are interested, take a look at my blog or follow me on twitter @[redacted]
And another:
For those troubled by the phenomenon, consider what sorts of assignments you ask students to complete. Consider how long you spend grading.
Term paper writers are cranking out BS--the author is very clear about that. That's how he writes so much in so little time without reading or researching--just using google and amazon reviews!

The fact that students are passing courses while turning in shoddy work is the fault of instructors. Again, it's clear that the term paper author is not concerned about quality.

And for everyone whining and crying about the pseudonymous writer, well, I'd rather make 66K a year with no benefits than 28K a year as an adjunct (with no benefits)! Sign me the f*** up!
Some do, however, understand the problem, and think they know how to solve it:
There is a sure-fire 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. 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.
And another:
I wonder if professors and teachers ever read their students' non-academic writing. If they did, they'd probably be horrified at how many American college students (our "best and brightest") can't write coherent sentences, spell, or correct their own typos. And they'd likely be wondering if the passable papers they're seeing are actually written by these students or by a professional.

I say this because until recently I was involved in accepting (and usually, heavily editing) student submissions for news articles at our college paper. The humorous examples of incoherent e-mails that "Dante" has peppered his article with, are not so funny. They are absolutely the way most students really write. Do professors know this?
In all, it makes one weep for the species.

Still, through it all, I look to Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac for inspiration on how I’d like to achieve my status as a writer:
Ay, and then?. . .
Seek a protector, choose a patron out,
And like the crawling ivy round a tree
That licks the bark to gain the trunk's support,
Climb high by creeping ruse instead of force?
No, grammercy! What! I, like all the rest
Dedicate verse to bankers?--play buffoon
In cringing hope to see, at last, a smile
Not disapproving, on a patron's lips?
Grammercy, no! What! learn to swallow toads?
--With frame aweary climbing stairs?--a skin
Grown grimed and horny,--here, about the knees?
And, acrobat-like, teach my back to bend?--
No, grammercy! Or,--double-faced and sly--
Run with the hare, while hunting with the hounds;
And, oily-tongued, to win the oil of praise,
Flatter the great man to his very nose?
No, grammercy! Steal soft from lap to lap,
--A little great man in a circle small,
Or navigate, with madrigals for sails,
Blown gently windward by old ladies' sighs?
No, grammercy! Bribe kindly editors
To spread abroad my verses? Grammercy!
Or try to be elected as the pope
Of tavern-councils held by imbeciles?
No, grammercy! Toil to gain reputation
By one small sonnet, 'stead of making many?
No, grammercy! Or flatter sorry bunglers?
Be terrorized by every prating paper?
Say ceaselessly, 'Oh, had I but the chance
Of a fair notice in the "Mercury"!'
Grammercy, no! Grow pale, fear, calculate?
Prefer to make a visit to a rhyme?
Seek introductions, draw petitions up?
No, grammercy! and no! and no again! But--sing?
Dream, laugh, go lightly, solitary, free,
With eyes that look straight forward--fearless voice!
To cock your beaver just the way you choose,--
For 'yes' or 'no' show fight, or turn a rhyme!
--To work without one thought of gain or fame,
To realize that journey to the moon!
Never to pen a line that has not sprung
Straight from the heart within. Embracing then
Modesty, say to oneself, 'Good my friend,
Be thou content with flowers,--fruit,--nay, leaves,
But pluck them from no garden but thine own!'
And then, if glory come by chance your way,
To pay no tribute unto Caesar, none,
But keep the merit all your own! In short,
Disdaining tendrils of the parasite,
To be content, if neither oak nor elm--
Not to mount high, perchance, but mount alone!

No comments: