Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I wasn’t shocked by an article in The Chronicle, “The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story“.  The writer makes a living churning out everything from master’s theses to medical care plans for everyone from illiterate teachers to hypocritical seminarians. 

This is no causal plagiarism of a sentence or two and not quoting a source.  This crosses the line from theft, which diminishes the original author, to wholesale fraud, which diminishes the institutions of learning and the very professions they teach.

I almost wish I would have been shocked, but I have no delusions about the state of an educational system.  It is a reflection of society more than the other way around these days. But I would prefer to view more like Camelot, though that would make me more like Don Quixote.  No, I was not shocked, but appalled.

There was talk of someone (or perhaps more than one person, as it was very hushed talk) from my own college graduating class who was caught turning in a paper written by someone else.  I myself walked out of the dorm room of a hair-twisting nursing student who, against her usual dismissive attitude toward me, was quite attentive to the idea of my “help” in writing a religious studies paper.

I once turned in a student on the Internet — someone I didn’t even know bragging about archiving their papers for use online by students “too busy” to write their own. Some people argued that I ought be lose sleep over it since she may have been expelled. I do not agree. I’d lose sleep if she wasn’t. After all, the recipients of her work might be assisting surgery on me or teaching my grand-kids somewhere someday. Their credentials would not be representative of their own effort and competency — or at least I’d have no way of knowing. 

That is fraud.  The very possibility hinders one’s faith in a profession, and justifiably so.  And that is the whole point, isn’t it?

The high school senior I turned in was not of the magnitude of the professional ghost-writer in the article.  But her justification need be addressed, since it is the convenient attitude of those who partake of the fruit of knowledge, selling it as their own.

“Hard work is important, and enriching the mind is the way to reach the highest goals. There is, however, a difference between knowing the material and answering questions on what you already know. I mean, if you aren’t familiar with the info, of course you should do the work. The argument is on the flipside: If you already know the material, if you learn better through other means, not wasting time on busy work is justifiable.”

One could argue the stresses of academic output are part of the game, like carrying your own golf clubs in a professional tournament.  One could (try to) argue that the disadvantaged need to work more hours and deserve an equal chance at an equal grade, and therefore deserve to be robed and marched among those who are subconsciously assumed to be otherwise intellectually (and morally) equal.

However, the flaw in her argument most fatal: The individual is deciding for themselves whether or not they know the material sufficiently to deserve the grade.  There is no accountability.  There is a reason there are students and teachers, and it is to shift the responsibility of determining the quality of one’s studies to a trusted institution, not merely anyone who can make tuition.

It doesn’t matter if the individual is correct in their pride.  Deciding for oneself if one deserves the sheepskin is a violation of everyone else’s right to know based on accurate and not fabricated credentials.  It is like the naive, well-meaning salesman who believes in his snake oil and sells it on his personal experience and (lack of) judgment in spite of the public risks outweighing the lack of a peer-reviewed study.  And we are swallowing it after reading the same label put on it by some university as countless other “products”.

Allowing this to happen teaches different lessons than those intended: that the ends justify the means; craftiness is adequate to compensate for merit; and success trumps integrity.  And this is where I am ALMOST shocked, and clearly more appalled.

“I understand that the author wants educators to shoulder the blame for the phenomenon of students paying him and others like him to write everything from one-page responses to their professors to complete dissertations. But we’re not mind readers, nor, given the large number of students many of us are teaching at once, do we have the time to become detectives who compare students’ oral communication skills … to their writing produced outside of class. … It seems he expects Chronicle readers to be as outraged as he was that his independent study proposal was turned down, but the request to have a course set up for his novel-editing was clearly laughable. Yet, both the outlandish request to the English department and his efforts to justify his decision to profit from the laziness of frat boys are unsurprising given the author’s self-aggrandizing and blame-shifting throughout this essay.”

In an ironic projection of his own blame-shifting, this professor has a choice to continue to do the inadequate semblance of his profession, or find somewhere he can — if he is so inclined.  I almost feel sorry for him, but such naivete has a penalty.  My position is that this is every one’s problem and responsibility, and here is “Greykitt”, an anonymous teacher, denying their share much more than the writer in question.

Perhaps technology and the existence of such services will force academia to better understand the relationship between the student, their writing output, and the overall methodology.  Call me sophomoric, but if there is not relationship with the human being — if they are merely a product with paperwork — the point of learning has been missed.  Why do we tolerate it?  Is it because the delegation of competency to others is accepted as vital in the corporate and bureaucratic spheres that encompass nearly all of the professions?  That would be lamentable, but consistent.

The final judgment to be made is if this is acceptable.  The penalties ought to be high.  The reputation of institutions will naturally be adjusted.  But as consequence does not precede action, there is much to learn in the field of learning as to be fertile ground for ethical pestilence.  Is there no longer a minimum watermark of character we would hope present within all people wielding scalpels, gavels, or other tools on our behalf?  The humanities provide the chance for a soul’s foundation, but are not measured into the equations of institutional grants, school advertising budgets, scheduled room for job-training credits, and expected post-graduate salaries. 

We reap what we sow.  If we do not re-humanize the institutions of learning toward the more real “intangibles”, we are destined to churn out nothing more than neatly measurable “human resources” in the world.