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Doctor of all things, master of none.
November 14, 2010 5:45 PM   Subscribe


 
First off, I don't trust him. I'm not sure we can believe a thing he's written in that article (assuming he wrote it himself, but we can't be sure of that either).

Second, I came away feeling I had read pages and pages about why he isn't guilty of anything.... Sorry, whoever you are, but cheating is cheating, no matter which side of the transaction you're on...
posted by HuronBob at 5:55 PM on November 14, 2010 [20 favorites]


I liked it. I've been reading these essays for years -- I think the Chronicle has published previous ones, too -- and it's a fascinating phenomenon. When I was a TA in grad school I had some students who I thought might have been using a service like this, or maybe just buying their smarter roommate some beer in exchange for typing. There was no easy way to prove it, and there was no need to go in search of hard-to-prove plagiarism when there were so many stupidly obvious cases close at hand. (Every semester brought a new crop of kids too clueless to know to change the font color after pasting in text found online, for example.)

Cheating is cheating, and it's certainly wrong, but the author is also correct about the failings coming from within the academic system as well.
posted by Forktine at 6:00 PM on November 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


I got about a third through this and zoned out. It's not telling me anything I don't already know (and I read some essays written by a guy who worked for a paper mill aaaages ago, when I was taking some college English classes in 9th grade).

A few thoughts, as someone who has taught Freshman comp, and has a useless graduate degree in writing:

I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students. I've worked there full time since 2004. On any day of the academic year, I am working on upward of 20 assignments.

I have a friend who worked for one of these companies. Eventually, she poached three clients from them, and charged three times as much for personalized "tutoring." It was a more sensible financial arrangement for all involved. Not something I agree with morally, but if you're going to do something like this, you might as well do it privately.

You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students' writing.

No, I wouldn't. I required that students complete in-class writing assignments, written in their own hands. And I tutored students in a writing center on drafts. And I grade GRE essays for a living now. I'm well aware that many, many students are unable to string together a simple sentence.

I did what I can for individual students I tutored and taught, but it's a pervasive problem, one caused by issues at all levels: a lack of carefully crafted assignments, lazy professors who don't want to grade things like in-class writing, people who will pass students despite the fact that they can't write (often athletes; there's a lot of institutional pressure for that kind of thing) and grade inflation, which makes students desperate for a 4.0 no matter what. I got tired of it all. Good for this guy for getting tired of the role he played in it, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:02 PM on November 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


Yeah, this is awesome. I'm strongly considering going to work for one of these places after I fail to get a tenure-track job.

"It's certainly wrong"? What exactly is wrong about this? Who is the victim here?
posted by nasreddin at 6:03 PM on November 14, 2010


Quite apart from the fundamentally detestable nature of the practice, I have no trouble imagining holding the higher educational system in such contempt that one would take on work like this. No trouble at all.
posted by pts at 6:04 PM on November 14, 2010 [15 favorites]


It seems like another one of these essays emerges every year around the end of term, like some new seasonal ritual: oh, look, the leaves are off the trees and it's time for the Revelation of the Slimeball again!

I am so very tired of these simultaneously guilt-ridden, self-congratulatory, and exculpatory pleas from the enablers and profiteers of cheating; somehow it's never really their fault that they sold term papers, because the system creates the demand! And really teachers should catch my cheating, anyway, but somehow they never do because I'm so smart that I've beaten the system! Memo to scumbag: of fucking course it's possible to cheat without getting caught; if teachers had to investigate every student on the assumption of outright plagiarism or work-for-hire, we'd never be able to do anything else. Educational institutions are built on the assumption that people are there to learn.
posted by RogerB at 6:06 PM on November 14, 2010 [49 favorites]


You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students' writing.

No, I wouldn't be. Seriously.

I'm really not. Not anymore.
posted by King Bee at 6:07 PM on November 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


Honestly, I'd like to see a coherent case made for why this is morally wrong. I can think of a few arguments, but none of them seem convincing. (I don't think cheating is morally wrong either, because there's no victim there. I might make an exception for surgeons or pilots or something, but your ability to save someone's life is in any case not going to be affected by your willingness to crank out 10-12 pages of bullshit as opposed to farming it out to someone else.)
posted by nasreddin at 6:09 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Honestly, I'd like to see a coherent case made for why this is morally wrong.

By attending a university, every student tacitly agrees to that university's honor code. Usually contained therein is a phrase that "the work I turn in will be my own".

So, basically, they're telling a boldface lie by turning in someone else's work with their name on it. I don't know what morality you subscribe to, but most eschew lying in this way.
posted by King Bee at 6:11 PM on November 14, 2010 [23 favorites]


Educational institutions are built on the assumption that people are there to learn.

No, that assumption is wrong. People are by and large there to get a degree, without which is it increasingly difficult to feed your family. The fact that the process of getting a degree may at some point involve learning is irrelevant.
posted by nasreddin at 6:13 PM on November 14, 2010 [67 favorites]


The morality, I suppose, really depends on what you believe the purpose of the university is. If it's just a load of obligatory bullshit that students have to go through for a degree so they can get jobs--if you're completely fixated on the outcomes of grades--I suppose there's nothing wrong with this and students might even be acting commendably by farming out their work as a means to success (this would also mean having mom or dad call your professors to yell at them about your grades is awesome).

If you believe the relationship between a professor and a student exists for the improvement of a student's body of knowledge--if they're supposed to learn and improve their skill set--then this is a big problem, because no improvement of the student's skills can occur if they're not doing the work.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:15 PM on November 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


nasreddin: I'm strongly considering going to work for one of these places after I fail to get a tenure-track job.

Exactly. I can only assume many a humanities grad student falls into this kind of work.

What I'd like to know is if the educational system's failure to teach students how to write is so broad and systemic, how do hired-gun paper-writers acquire those skills? The question is a sincere one. I actually have no idea. I mean, when it was time for me to learn how to write an essay, I looked up "how to write an essay" in a writing manual (Writers Inc, I think it was) and that was that.

That any other basically literate person couldn't do the same thing is totally mystifying to me.
posted by pts at 6:16 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't know what morality you subscribe to, but most eschew lying in this way.

I don't think the fact that a lie is involved necessarily affects the morality of something. I lie to people every day when I tell them I'm "great" instead of "annoyed and embittered." If I don't see a victim, there are no moral issues involved, period.
posted by nasreddin at 6:16 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


"It's certainly wrong"? What exactly is wrong about this? Who is the victim here?
What's wrong:
The problem is that written exercises are intended to teach, and their evaluation is principally meant to review the extent to which the student has absorbed information. This mission is muddled by the need to scale students on a variety of measures for whatever rewards lie at the end of education. Cheating sacrifices the didactic mission for the evaluative one, but the proximal cause here is the student who decides to cheat; the distal cause is the decision that scaling students (especially publicly) is a major part of education.

The victims:
The teacher whose time is wasted evaluating work that isn't the student's. Other students who, in good faith, submit their own work instead of farming it out. The student who cheats but is spending time (and usually someone's money) on an education. In a setting with limited educational resources, the people who would have taken that opportunity and written the essay themselves but were shut out because they "underachieved" the cheater in the previous educational step. Those whose business records will be kept or children will be taught or medical treatment will be coordinated or legal transactions will be conducted by people who do not know how to think and write about the ideas they were supposed to be learning in school.
posted by gingerest at 6:19 PM on November 14, 2010 [126 favorites]


If you believe the relationship between a professor and a student exists for the improvement of a student's body of knowledge--if they're supposed to learn and improve their skill set--then this is a big problem, because no improvement of the student's skills can occur if they're not doing the work.

I think it's pretty clear that this kind of relationship isn't something you can force the student into by cornering them and making their future livelihood dependent on its success. If a student wants to learn things in college, that's great! More power to them! If that desire is sincere, they probably won't even be tempted to use this kind of service. (I've never been.) And if the student doesn't want to learn, well, you can lead a horse to water and all that.
posted by nasreddin at 6:19 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Let's say a student A pays someone to do all her homework assignments, and I mistakenly think she's really mastered the math I'm teaching her.

1. She might apply to graduate school, and I might write a great letter for her. And student B, who also attends our university, and who is actually be our most talented math major, might have more modest letters, and thus might get rejected from graduate schools that admitted student A instead. Student B is a victim.

2. I might hire her as a research assistant; I would quickly discover that she wasn't actually very strong, but at that point I already would have wasted a certain amount of my time and federal research money. So you and I are both victims.

3. Students A1, A2, and A3 are all buying papers and making no secret of it. At some point, students C,D, and E start feeling like chumps for working so hard -- maybe buying papers is just what you do in college. So they start buying papers too. Now C,D,E are victims. So are any of the people who end up in scenarios 1 and 2 by virtue of C,D, and E cheating. And so on.

Look, it's not as bad as arson or writing fake checks. But there's a reason we throw kids out of school for it.
posted by escabeche at 6:21 PM on November 14, 2010 [85 favorites]


People are by and large there to get a degree, without which is it increasingly difficult to feed your family.

That's so inefficient; it would save time if, in order to get a job, you just had to pay a flat $40K to the department of education.
posted by mittens at 6:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


I don't think the fact that a lie is involved necessarily affects the morality of something.

I'm never going to really believe anything that nasreddin writes here on MeFi again.
posted by hippybear at 6:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [15 favorites]


nasreddin, degrees are valued because they're taken as a sign that an individual has some level of education and ability. Unqualified people earning a degree and then going out and showing the world their ignorance dilutes the value of the degree for other people who did earn it. If I'm an employer who hires someone with a BA StateU who ends up unable to write a coherent email I'm gonna think pretty hard before I hire someone else with the same degree.
posted by ghharr at 6:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


Honestly, I'd like to see a coherent case made for why this is morally wrong.

It's the process to obtaining a false degree, then a license or certification under false pretenses, then committing fraud on paying customers, with the employer assuming liability. This could result in disasters, personal and public. Licenses and certifications are used as quality control by governing boards, so they can pull it if you are deemed criminal, incompetent or dangerous, precisely because of the level of trust involved.
posted by Brian B. at 6:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Again, this is why I want to go back to my dream way of grading. No tests, no homework, no quizzes. You have a 30 minute conversation with me at the end of the semester. If you know your shit, you get a good grade. If you don't, you don't.

No asshole who works for one of these paper mills can help you in these conversations, and finally, the students who work hard will be rewarded. Cheating is basically eradicated.

Of course, I'm "weird" and what I propose is "impossible". I have to offer quizzes and partial credit for students who can't be arsed to write a sentence. Alas.
posted by King Bee at 6:23 PM on November 14, 2010 [81 favorites]


Damn I wish I had cheated in college. I would have learned to effectively delegate, pass off others work as my own, I would have gained valueable management experience. Instead I learned valuable things about the themes of of transmutation in the works of Ovid and how to date stained glass windows from photographs.

Yeah very few people are there to learn, they are there to party and and get the sheet of paper that will get them the a job.Cheating will probably prepare them for life after college better than actually learning the material.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:24 PM on November 14, 2010 [12 favorites]


I considered posting this earlier today but didn't because I don't necessarily believe anything that the anonymous author, an admitted liar, writes.
posted by grouse at 6:24 PM on November 14, 2010


I think his pay worked out to about a nickel a word, based on a 250-word page. When I was freelancing, I wouldn't answer the phone for less than ten times that.

All other things being equal, I'd call him a failed writer.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 6:24 PM on November 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


HuronBob : Sorry, whoever you are, but cheating is cheating, no matter which side of the transaction you're on

"Academic dishonesty" only matters to the person in an academy. The author of TFA, if not completely full of shit, has done nothing wrong. He works as a writer for hire, nothing more, and nothing less.

Although we could argue semantics here, I don't think we can even solidly call this "plagiarism", which generally includes an element of misappropriation; No such situation exist here, with both the author and the student coming to a perfectly kosher arrangement between them as to the end-use of the text. As King Bee points out, it almost certainly still counts as grounds for some sort of sanctions, but clear-cut plagiarism, no.
posted by pla at 6:24 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are they hiring?
posted by SansPoint at 6:24 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


That any other basically literate person couldn't do the same thing is totally mystifying to me.

It's mystifying that people have wildly differing abilities, and the differences in those abilities are only exacerbated by, say, the wide scale failure of our public school system to adequately address basic writing and research skills? I mean, I had to tell one of my brightest students that he didn't need to define words in-context because some high school teacher had "given him bad grades because he used vocab she didn't understand." You spend a lot of time playing catch up for 12 years of English education many students should have gotten. Many are not basically literate. Luckily, some are. But still.

Look at the three groups this guy says he worked for: the incompetent and second-language-speakers are likely attempting to rectify very real deficiencies in earlier stages of their education. They don't know how to do this stuff and for many, it may be, or seem, like it's too late to learn.

(For the lazy rich kid, this is nothing new, and I suspect no amount of dedicated personalized teaching would help it).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:25 PM on November 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


nasreddin: I can see a few victims right off the bat.

First, he mentions having written law briefs. Research and writing skills might not matter so much for surgeons, no, but for lawyers it's pretty much the whole ballgame. In addition, law school grades are curved, and pretty harshly. So, for the victims there, look to any other students in the class, as well as any future clients.

Secondly, he's writing tons of admissions essays. This process is competitive. Every student he gets into Wharton or Brown is another more deserving student who thus didn't make the cut.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:28 PM on November 14, 2010 [18 favorites]


If you want to get into why it's "morally" wrong and worry about absolutes and big cultural issues and stuff like that, well sure, you can justify pretty much anything ("when you think about it, isn't murdering your professor actually necessary to an effective education?"). But as gingerest and escabeche have pointed out, it's far from a victimless crime, and it seems pretty clear to me that misrepresenting oneself so completely is a bad thing to do.

I'm about halfway through the article now, and yeah, this guy has the appearance of someone who can't think of any respectable exit from this type of work other than to shed light on his methods and say "see what you made me do?"

It's not very convincing, but "entitled people in distress" is popcorn to me, so I'm going to finish it.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:29 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess cheating would be "morally" wrong if by doing it you deny someone else his or her legitimate reward (i.e. if for example, if the class has a limited number of students that can pass, with everyone else below this limit failing - but does that really happen?), but other than that, I guess, it is a victimless crime.

Although it probably isn't good for your soul or karma or psyche, or whatever it is you believe in, if you believe in it ("your" meaning the person who is buying the paper).

Besides the "Coles Notes" versions of novels have been around for years (well, that was the name of the publication here, which pretty much summarized a novel in about 60 pages, for those who were too lazy to read the book). What's the difference? They're about as much as a "study guide" as a mafioso is a "legitimate businessman"

Full disclosure: I tried to get into "the business" when I was in Uni.
I kept on writing papers for a girl with whom I was madly in love with - I thought (à la Milhouse VanHouten) "When she sees you'll do anything she says, she's bound to respect you".

Anyways, the only thing she did do for me was introduce me to a few people (actually 2) who needed their papers written. Problem, was that I didn't know much of the subjects, so much of my time was spent researching the topic. The money was so not worth the time I spent. Then I felt guilty because one "client" didn't get that good a mark, and the other client ended up getting a virus on his computer thanks to the 3.5 floppy disk that I provided.

posted by bitteroldman at 6:31 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


The teacher whose time is wasted evaluating work that isn't the student's.

The teacher is paid equally whether the students are cheating or not, and suffers no actual harm either way.

Other students who, in good faith, submit their own work instead of farming it out.

How? I've always written my own essays, and I've never felt disadvantaged by cheaters. Of course, if your humanities class is graded on a curve, that's a separate question, but that's an awful idea anyway.

The student who cheats but is spending time (and usually someone's money) on an education.

And they're getting a degree from it! Where's the harm? Mommy and daddy will never know, and how's it hurting them, anyway?

In a setting with limited educational resources, the people who would have taken that opportunity and written the essay themselves but were shut out because they "underachieved" the cheater in the previous educational step.

I guess I concede this one, but it seems to prove too much. Every time I get drunk and skip class, there's someone who could have used the opportunity better! So what?

Those whose business records will be kept or children will be taught or medical treatment will be coordinated or legal transactions will be conducted by people who do not know how to think and write about the ideas they were supposed to be learning in school.

This right here is the crux of it. The kind of bullshit "ideas" undergrads write papers on are totally irrelevant to keeping records or coordinating medical treatment. They're just arbitrary hoops we've set up to keep too many people from getting middle-class jobs. Record-keeping was done effectively for centuries by people with considerably less education than the average street crack dealer today, and with considerably less advanced technology. The kind of education that is supposed to accompany a bachelor's degree is neither useful nor necessary for the vast majority of office jobs out there, which is demonstrated by the ability of businesses to keep functioning even while staffed by 61% cheaters.
posted by nasreddin at 6:31 PM on November 14, 2010 [18 favorites]


I think it's pretty clear that this kind of relationship isn't something you can force the student into by cornering them and making their future livelihood dependent on its success.

Nope, you can't. But the existence of people and companies like this make it far more likely that my students wouldn't even come to me for the help I was willing to offer.

I honestly thing the requirement that white collar workers get irrelevant degrees is grossly problematic in our society, and I agree that this union between academia and job training gives students little incentive to actually learn. But I was there, willing to help teach them to write. When it worked, it felt great for both me and the student. They were proud of their accomplishments, and so was I (oh god, the way my heart broke for the poor student who had nearly failed his comp I class and came up to me and told me that he felt like he could handle being in college after working really hard and doing really well in my comp II class). But for many students, I can't compete with an easy A. And that seems wrong.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:36 PM on November 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


I wrote a few papers for university students while I was a junior in high school. The first ones just dropped into my lap and it was word of mouth after that. It was nice money for a kid my age but left me with a sense of real disgust and I had to stop doing it. I probably could have been tempted again for perhaps five times the money, and with a little effort or the help of an agency I've no doubt I could have made that happen, but I'm glad I didn't go down that road; what a shitty way to live.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:36 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you pretend that the degrees are evidence of your mastery in some subject, and that this mastery will allow you to produce good work in some area that you could not without this mastery, ie, that colleges are not a waste of time in general, then this is a misrepresentation of your abilities to your future employers.

Imagine you buy a chair on e-bay, and it has a certificate of Being a Chair, and instead, it was a bob-cat who hired someone to forge its certificate of Chairitude. You have essentially had your money stolen. If you try to sit on it anyway because you also forged your certificate of Being Able to Tell What a Chair is, you will sit on it anyway and it will RUIN your butt.

Cheating on papers is ruining the butts of society.
posted by EtzHadaat at 6:38 PM on November 14, 2010 [41 favorites]


Universities are hidebound and very slow to change. They have a hard time seeing how the Internet has changed everything. They've responded with online classes, but haven't dealt with the very real possibility that a student could easily hire someone to produce the work for those classes.
posted by theora55 at 6:39 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lying and cheating are perfectly acceptable, according to nasreddin. Logically arguments with someone with such a perspective are valueless. No good will ever come from attempting to fathom such a seriously aberrant world-view. All it makes me want to do is ask someone for that grease-monkey script that blocks comments from some users. Because anything this person ever says now has to be viewed through a filter that understands that the commenter has a truly alien perception of what life and human society is about.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:39 PM on November 14, 2010 [11 favorites]


First, he mentions having written law briefs. Research and writing skills might not matter so much for surgeons, no, but for lawyers it's pretty much the whole ballgame. In addition, law school grades are curved, and pretty harshly. So, for the victims there, look to any other students in the class, as well as any future clients.

Presumably the bar exam will reveal if you've been full of shit this whole time. As for the other students, if they can write papers that are equally as good as those cooked up by a coffee-swilling non-expert Googler in twenty hours, they're not at a disadvantage. And if they can't, my heart doesn't bleed for them very much, sorry.

Secondly, he's writing tons of admissions essays. This process is competitive. Every student he gets into Wharton or Brown is another more deserving student who thus didn't make the cut.

Admissions criteria are effectively arbitrary at this point. If you can get rejected because someone didn't like one of your extracurricular activities, and you can, then there's no tenable claim to a spot based on an essay except in the most abstract sense.
posted by nasreddin at 6:40 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am reminded of a previous post on the blue with an article from Nick Mamatas about his time at a paper writing business.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:41 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


The teacher is paid equally whether the students are cheating or not, and suffers no actual harm either way.

You are clearly not a teacher and have not had to grade the work of sub-par students who try to cheat. I suffer a great deal of harm while grading, and every moment that I have to spend extra looking at the dishonest work of a cheater is 10 times worse every other moment I spend grading.

And yeah, in my subject, I can tell when you're cheating.

Anyway, I wanted to mention something from TFA, where the author mentions how the worst subject (for cheating) was education, and how ironic that is. I had a number of "mathematics education" majors in a cryptography class I was a TA for about 3 years ago. I could tell they were working together on the homework, and that was fine, but I wanted to make sure they were writing up their own solutions. You know, I wanted them to hopefully learn something from a graduate level cryptography course.

One assignment called for them to actually implement some algorithm. The first step of this algorithm was to pick a random 13 digit number. All 4 of them chose the same number. I emailed them to remind them that they must turn in their own work, and that while they can work on the exercises together, the solutions they turn in must be their own.

Instead of getting an apologetic reply, I got an indignant one. How dare I accuse them of cheating!? They had spent years teaching in nearby high schools, they know that cheating is wrong! They didn't work on these things together at all!

When I showed them what the probability was that they had all chosen the same 13-digit number, they changed their tune. They ensured me they would work alone from there on out.

They didn't. They passed anyway.
posted by King Bee at 6:43 PM on November 14, 2010 [20 favorites]



I don't know if it has been touched on yet. But writing is extremely difficult for students still struggling with reading comprehension.
Really.
posted by notreally at 6:44 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sure, he's taking the moral high road--hooray for integrity!--but for his sake I hope "Mr. Dante" has another job lined up. They're not too thick on the ground these days.
posted by scratch at 6:45 PM on November 14, 2010


Of course, if your humanities class is graded on a curve, that's a separate question, but that's an awful idea anyway.

No, it's inextricably linked with this specific question. Courses are graded on curves- that fact will not simply go away because you'd rather it not be the case- and paid work unfairly penalizes those that don't use it. Care to address the point and not dodge it?

This right here is the crux of it. The kind of bullshit "ideas" undergrads write papers on are totally irrelevant to keeping records or coordinating medical treatment.

A quick reminder from the article:

I've written case-management plans, reports on nursing ethics, and essays on why nurse practitioners are lighting the way to the future of medicine. I've even written pharmaceutical-treatment courses, for patients who I hope were hypothetical.
posted by Jpfed at 6:46 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


So, what do I do?

I don't want my students to cheat. I want them to actually learn. I want them to come to me, if they need help figuring out how to write. I want to actually give them skills worth learning. And my ability to do that is completely destroyed, if they just get someone else to do it for them, instead of seeking out the help they need.

What do I do, to diminish this sort of behavior in my classes, while working within the confines of the university system (regardless its merit, it's what I have to work with)?
posted by meese at 6:46 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am on pace for my best year yet. I will make roughly $66,000 this year.

Let's be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical.

You don't say.
posted by applemeat at 6:46 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


pla, I hire people and I would care about academic dishonesty if I knew about it. If you claim someone else's work as your own, on my watch and payroll, damn straight I care. It's not "academic" in the sense of being purely semantic, it's academic as in it happened at school.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:47 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


This guys's no prince, but (a) a blue-book midterm four weeks into the semester will provide a baseline to suss out a lot of this kind of cheating and (b) any employer who hires someone on the strength of a fraudulently-earned degree, and doesn't discover an immediate need to fire them, had no reason to demand that degree in the first place. Bullshit credentialism should be its own punishment.
posted by MattD at 6:47 PM on November 14, 2010 [23 favorites]


Am I the only one who has considered how laughably easy this would be to prevent at the graduate level?

I can see why people get away with this stuff in undergrad, TAs or professors really don't have the time to conduct extensive interviews with each student about their papers. But a thesis? A *dissertation*? 15 minutes of direct conversation about the paper's topic should be more than enough to catch cheaters of this nature.
posted by zug at 6:47 PM on November 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


I don't think we can even solidly call this "plagiarism"

If passing someone else's work off as your own and profiting from it isn't plagiarism, then I don't know what the word means. But maybe you have a more "nuanced" understanding of the term.

I don't think the fact that a lie is involved necessarily affects the morality of something. I lie to people every day when I tell them I'm "great" instead of "annoyed and embittered." If I don't see a victim, there are no moral issues involved, period.

It's remarkable to me that you find exchanging banalities with people irksome while taking pride in your ability to co-perpetrate a fraud.

I don't necessarily believe anything that the anonymous author, an admitted liar, writes.

This occurred to me too.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:47 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


People are by and large there to get a degree, without which is it increasingly difficult to feed your family. [...] They're just arbitrary hoops we've set up to keep too many people from getting middle-class jobs

What kind of ludicrous theory of the social function of higher education is this that you're proposing? Are you seriously suggesting that most students are unable to distinguish between a real college education and a piece of paper from a diploma mill, and would take the latter over the former if they could be guaranteed the choice had no repercussions for their future careers? Or even that most employers are? Or that vocational training has anything to do with what higher education is actually for?

This is nonsense; but even if it were so, there's no reason why institutions should respond by assuming the bad faith of students rather than continuing to assume, even sometimes wrongly, that students are there to learn. It's okay that a few cheaters skate through — as you say, the harm cheaters do to their institutions and the other students isn't typically unbearably great — since they bear the brunt of the harm themselves, by cheapening or destroying their own potential intellectual lives.
posted by RogerB at 6:48 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


What do I do, to diminish this sort of behavior in my classes, while working within the confines of the university system (regardless its merit, it's what I have to work with)?

Think up a way to engage people in your classes without assigning them papers, or keep assigning papers while knowing you are targeting an increasingly smaller subset of the class.


Seriously, I'll be teaching next year and I'm sensitive to the fact that this kind of thing makes teaching very problematic for people who are actually invested in it. I don't think there's a moral issue involved, and continuing to see a moral issue here actually makes the problem worse by encouraging us to point fingers instead of reexamining how we interact in an educational environment.
posted by nasreddin at 6:51 PM on November 14, 2010


No, I wouldn't. I required that students complete in-class writing assignments, written in their own hands. And I tutored students in a writing center on drafts. And I grade GRE essays for a living now. I'm well aware that many, many students are unable to string together a simple sentence.

I hated it when professors did this.

Despite the best efforts of a number of Catholic schoolteachers and an occupational therapist, I have horrible handwriting, and likely always will. Fortunately, this hasn't hampered my success in the professional world, as my supervisors and coworkers have never had to look at anything more than a few lines of my handwriting (it's passably neat if I write very slowly). We live in a world where computers and spell-checkers are ubiquitous. As long as students understand the vocabulary, and can identify errors that the spell-checker doesn't catch, I really don't see a huge problem -- we can dedicate our brain cells to something more useful than handwriting or the minutiae of the English language's myriad of spelling quirks.

Nobody is ever going to have to hand-write a one-page essay about a randomly-selected topic with a strict time limit, and no access to online research sources. Although I suppose it's a foolproof way of rooting out cheating, I'll argue that it unfairly penalizes students for factors that are largely irrelevant in today's society.

Every time I get a one-line, or poorly-constructed email from one of my coworkers or supervisors, a little part of me dies inside. Maybe we need to begin teaching students to write cogent and pertinent email messages. I'd like to think that the secret to my career success partly lies in the fact that I take the time to write thorough e-mails, and also proofread them, and (if applicable) only selectively quote earlier emails from the conversation that are relevent to what I am discussing. It's not rocket science; I'm not a great writer. It's pathetic that people don't try harder.

Also, can we hire Edward Tufte to go door-to-door slapping the authors of deliberately vague and confusing research journal articles? Scientists need to know how to communicate just as well as the rest of us do, but are rarely (if ever) educated on the subject, or judged by the clarity of their papers. Use of the word trivial in any context should be immediate grounds for the Academic Death Penalty (whatever that is).

posted by schmod at 6:52 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't want my students to cheat. I want them to actually learn. I want them to come to me, if they need help figuring out how to write. I want to actually give them skills worth learning. And my ability to do that is completely destroyed, if they just get someone else to do it for them, instead of seeking out the help they need.

What do I do, to diminish this sort of behavior in my classes, while working within the confines of the university system (regardless its merit, it's what I have to work with)?


Works better for small class sizes, but: Have them compose drafts in-class and collect them immediately. Read them and comment on them and require that students include these drafts with every subsequent revision. Essays should reflect that they used the draft and your comments as a starting point. Meet with each student at least once during the semester to talk about their papers. Make at least one office-hour visit required.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:53 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


If passing someone else's work off as your own and profiting from it isn't plagiarism, then I don't know what the word means. But maybe you have a more "nuanced" understanding of the term.

The student is the one plagiarizing. The person writing and profiting is just writing.
posted by smackfu at 6:55 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Despite the best efforts of a number of Catholic schoolteachers and an occupational therapist, I have horrible handwriting, and likely always will.

I have horrible handwriting, too. I never graded drafts, only commented on them, and not on handwriting or spelling or grammatical errors but on the quality of thought, expecting that, as I always put it to my students, "drafty drafts are drafty."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:55 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


What kind of ludicrous theory of the social function of higher education is this that you're proposing? Are you seriously suggesting that most students are unable to distinguish between a real college education and a piece of paper from a diploma mill, and would take the latter over the former if they could be guaranteed the choice had no repercussions for their future careers? Or even that most employers are? Or that vocational training has anything to do with what higher education is actually for?

I'm not sure what this huffing and puffing has to do with what I actually said.

It's okay that a few cheaters skate through — as you say, the harm cheaters do to their institutions and the other students isn't typically unbearably great — since they bear the brunt of the harm themselves, by cheapening or destroying their own potential intellectual lives.

61% is evidence of a systemic problem, not a few bad apples.

It's remarkable to me that you find exchanging banalities with people irksome while taking pride in your ability to co-perpetrate a fraud.

I don't find exchanging banalities with people irksome, being annoyed is just my default state.
posted by nasreddin at 6:55 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


So, what do I do?

I had a professor a couple years ago who taught 1st year graduate quantum mechanics. Like most physics courses, it was assignment based -- 6-7 assignments, a midterm and a final make up your mark.

Now, when you're working on this kind of assignment, it's pretty impossible to detect plagiarism. If I found the solution online, as long as a copied it out in my own hand and used the notation the prof used, it would be exactly the same as if I'd figured it out myself.

What this prof did, though, was that for the mark on your assignment to count, you had to come and pick it up from him in person. Before he would give it back to you, he would flip through it and check what you did right and what you did wrong. Then he'd ask you questions: "How come you did it this way?", or "you skipped over this step, work through it for me on the board". Then you'd spend 30-40 minutes at the blackboard in his office defending how you did This was a terrifying experience (largely because of his impressive intellect and intimidating Ukrainian accent), but goddam, it made us learn the material. You know how sometimes you submit a half-assed assignment when you're really busy and say to yourself "Fuck it, I'll take the C-, and do better next time"? You never did that with this prof, and I thank him for it.

I don't know if he taught this was to prevent plagiarism or to force us to think through the the work we were doing, but it worked on both counts. It's a shame it was only possible to do in a 5 student graduate course. Higher education would be a lot better off if all courses could be taught like that.
posted by auto-correct at 6:57 PM on November 14, 2010 [49 favorites]


Nobody is ever going to have to hand-write a one-page essay about a randomly-selected topic with a strict time limit, and no access to online research sources.

Being able to think on one's feet and write/orally speak well thought out arguments is an awesome quality for a person to have. These kind of assignments seem to test if that quality is present.
posted by King Bee at 6:57 PM on November 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


61% is evidence of a systemic problem, not a few bad apples.

61% is also not very descriptive. It combines exams and assignments for one thing. So 61% of the people could've copied a couple math problems for an assignment they didn't quite manage to get through. That's a far cry from a majority of students plagiarizing essays.

That statistic is so broad as to be mostly meaningless. There very well may be a systemic problem, but you need better information to make any sort of useful conclusion.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:58 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


The student is the one plagiarizing. The person writing and profiting is just writing.

You're saying that the student isn't profiting from this arrangement, also? I don't think that's the case at all.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:59 PM on November 14, 2010


ilike dis articole viry imformotive.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 7:00 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


No, it's inextricably linked with this specific question. Courses are graded on curves- that fact will not simply go away because you'd rather it not be the case- and paid work unfairly penalizes those that don't use it. Care to address the point and not dodge it?

Again, if your paper-writing skills are such that you can't compete with someone who is deliberately bullshitting, you have other problems. If the bad grades were undeserved the cheaters would get pushed to the bottom of the curve, and then all the honest people would end up winning out!

I've written case-management plans, reports on nursing ethics, and essays on why nurse practitioners are lighting the way to the future of medicine. I've even written pharmaceutical-treatment courses, for patients who I hope were hypothetical.

Yes, that does scare me. If someone gets hurt as a result of you using a paper service to write your pharmaceutical-treatment course, you are in the wrong. Happy?
posted by nasreddin at 7:02 PM on November 14, 2010


Nobody is ever going to have to hand-write a one-page essay about a randomly-selected topic with a strict time limit, and no access to online research sources.

Apart from having to write it by hand, actual competence in your subject is characterized by being able to do precisely this. It'd be nice if the penmanship-challenged could use a keyboard for this, but other than that it's an entirely fair and appropriate way to determine whether you've learned the material.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:03 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Honestly, I'd like to see a coherent case made for why this is morally wrong.

I think instances where the student is at the institution due to an academic scholarship, by turning in work that is not their own the student is breaking their end of the contract. That is a rather specific case, I realize, but as someone who did indeed get a free ride to college due to an academic scholarship and was required to maintain a specific GPA throughout, I was thoroughly annoyed by the fellow students in my program that would pay others to do work for them.
posted by piratebowling at 7:05 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, that was a sad fucking story.
posted by nzero at 7:06 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I once helped a friend of mine with his MBA project. I opened up my company so he could study us and develop a case study.

The people in his group were mind-blowingly stupid. The final report was amazingly shitty, full of tortured English. Just really poor writing.

"How did these people get into grad school?" I asked my friend.

"No fucking clue," he said.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:06 PM on November 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Again, if your paper-writing skills are such that you can't compete with someone who is deliberately bullshitting, you have other problems. If the bad grades were undeserved the cheaters would get pushed to the bottom of the curve, and then all the honest people would end up winning out!

I don't want to keep arguing with you here but this just makes no logical sense to me. The kids who should by rights be at the bottoms of the curve, or really not in the class at all, who can't even write a text properly, are hiring guys who professionally write term papers. Now we can discuss the validity of graded papers to actual expertise in a subject - and I think we'd be pretty close to agreement there - but after years and years of doing nothing but writing term papers day-in-day-out, Mr. Dante is bound to be pretty damn good at it. Just by practice if nothing else. I really can't see how "fuck 'em if they can't beat the professional" is a valid position here.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:11 PM on November 14, 2010 [13 favorites]


What do I do, to diminish this sort of behavior in my classes, while working within the confines of the university system (regardless its merit, it's what I have to work with)?

I love the idea other commenters have mentioned, of being able to spot these cheaters with a 15-minute conversation. Because not only does such a conversation give you the ability to tell who doesn't know the material even though their papers are mysteriously well-researched, it helps the students who are nervous about their work to gain confidence, and the ones who like your class to push a little harder to impress you by what they can learn. So you'd want to keep assigning papers (part of me even says assign huge numbers of them, to make it prohibitively expensive to buy outside help), but make the grade contingent on the conversation, an oral exam. Regular ones, preferably.
posted by mittens at 7:13 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


for his sake I hope "Mr. Dante" has another job lined up.

maybe he'll be a consultant
posted by pyramid termite at 7:15 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


There is some unclear place where traditional academics colluded with corporate HR and the university became a conduit to a white-collar job, instead of a place to learn.

The notion of taking four or even two years to -gasp- just learn stuff is pretty decadent, when you *should* be taking on a mortgage and creating the next generation of employees.

We're making progress on taking this option away by requiring mortgage 2.0 to pull it off and infesting the field with drones who are happy to party & cheat their way through the downtime and show up for their privileged yet entry-level assignment when it's over.
posted by Bokononist at 7:17 PM on November 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


Seriously, I'll be teaching next year

Good god.

*Sobs*
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 7:18 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't want to keep arguing with you here but this just makes no logical sense to me. The kids who should by rights be at the bottoms of the curve, or really not in the class at all, who can't even write a text properly, are hiring guys who professionally write term papers. Now we can discuss the validity of graded papers to actual expertise in a subject - and I think we'd be pretty close to agreement there - but after years and years of doing nothing but writing term papers day-in-day-out, Mr. Dante is bound to be pretty damn good at it. Just by practice if nothing else. I really can't see how "fuck 'em if they can't beat the professional" is a valid position here.

Maybe you're right. I take it as a given that a guy who takes pride in stretching one paragraph into 10 pages can't be writing papers that are actually good. I'd be willing to concede that if you are in a curve-graded class, there may be a moral problem with essay-buying (as there is in the scholarship situation). Either way, I don't think the person working at the essay company is morally culpable in such a situation, any more than gun manufacturers are culpable for people getting shot.
posted by nasreddin at 7:18 PM on November 14, 2010


If I don't see a victim, there are no moral issues involved, period.

Fascinating take on what constitutes morality, I'll give you that.
posted by blucevalo at 7:19 PM on November 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


What I'd like to know is if the educational system's failure to teach students how to write is so broad and systemic, how do hired-gun paper-writers acquire those skills?

Sadly, I think the people writing for these companies are those poor schmucks who actually paid attention in class and learned how to write. They're the ones with the skills in demand, but the people getting the jobs with the higher paying salaries/prestige/no need for secrecy and shame are the ones who don't have these skills. Must be aggravating as all hell.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:19 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


To the people complaining about the necessity of a degree just to make a living now - it isn't because the employers are just arbitrarily deciding you should have a degree, it's because you need one for competitive reasons. If you are competing for a job and another candidate has all of your qualifications plus a degree, and they aren't asking for more money, why wouldn't they take them? The degree can't possibly be a bad thing, and if it isn't fraudulently obtained it does suggest that the owner has better literacy, math skills, scientific ability, etc. than someone who doesn't have one. You'd be stupid not to take the candidate with the degree over the other. The degree requirement for many of the jobs you are referring to is often de facto, and when it is a formal requirement the saturation of degrees is what allows the employer to get away with it.

On the other hand, you can't really blame the schools either. All they're doing is educating anyone who wants it, can handle it, and can pay for it. Making degrees easier to get or making them cheaper is no solution, either; if they're easier to get, the line will simply move to a more difficult degree (as it is currently being pushed back to Master's degrees.) If they're cheaper, more people will have them, and the line gets pushed back to more difficult degrees or more exclusive (and expensive) schools. I'm not really sure what the solution is, but it isn't necessarily a simple issue, and simply blaming the system isn't going to help.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


...and I was just looking for a way to make a little cash on the side during the school year!

But yeah, I have no problem with what this guy does. However, that students who use his services might go on to use their ill-gotten degrees in positions that involve the lives of others does concern me a trifle.
posted by jellywerker at 7:22 PM on November 14, 2010


For the last, colleges are a perfect launching ground—they are built to reward the rich and to forgive them their laziness. Let's be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money and no shortage of instructions on how they would like to see their work executed. While the deficient student will generally not know how to ask for what he wants until he doesn't get it, the lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.

This paragraph sums up twenty-first century America in a way I can't.
posted by Sphinx at 7:24 PM on November 14, 2010 [30 favorites]


What I wonder, given that the anonymous essay writer said s/he is quitting, is what exactly you put on your résumé after making this your full-time job for a decade. And who do you cite as references? Do you lie further to concoct a paper trail for yourself? Or does the company s/he works for in some way take care of that sort of thing for its writers, providing them with a "front" for their work? Or has s/he been doing other, more "legitimate" freelance work in between that would suffice to mention for those dates on the résumé? It seems like this would be a hard gig to "go straight" from.
posted by limeonaire at 7:24 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Either way, I don't think the person working at the essay company is morally culpable in such a situation, any more than gun manufacturers are culpable for people getting shot.

If the gun manufacturer gets a call from someone saying, "Hey, I need to kill Steve Thompson. Can you make me a gun that'll kill Steve Thompson?" and the gun manufacturer sends that guy the .38 SteveThompsonKiller, then the gun manufacturer is culpable for Steve Thompson's death.
posted by Etrigan at 7:25 PM on November 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


The student who cheats but is spending time (and usually someone's money) on an education.
And they're getting a degree from it! Where's the harm? Mommy and daddy will never know, and how's it hurting them, anyway?

Note that I didn't specify whose money. Sometimes, it's taxpayer money (won as scholarships, because why would anyone stop at cheating on papers?). Sometimes, it's loan money from banks, guaranteed by the taxpayer. I don't want to pay for people to pay other people so the first people can pretend to be learning things.

I can see why people get away with this stuff in undergrad, TAs or professors really don't have the time to conduct extensive interviews with each student about their papers. But a thesis? A *dissertation*? 15 minutes of direct conversation about the paper's topic should be more than enough to catch cheaters of this nature.

Often teachers do know and can do nothing about it because there's no departmental or institutional will to deal with it.

The teacher is paid equally whether the students are cheating or not, and suffers no actual harm either way.
Many teachers are paid by stipend, not by the hour with overtime. I'm paid for a maximum number of hours teaching a week. But leaving aside the issue of paid time, why should I spend my energy commenting on work that isn't the student's, when I could spend it on my research, on other students' real work, or on MTV's Real Life: I'm an Internet Has-Been?
posted by gingerest at 7:27 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Being able to think on one's feet and write/orally speak well thought out arguments is an awesome quality for a person to have. These kind of assignments seem to test if that quality is present.

Just FYI, there are certain situations in which this is very hard to do: when I pull an all-nighter working on an essay for another class and then you want me to write about Derrida, who I did read and may have understood in the hours it took me to parse the language but has become much more difficult to lay out in ten to fifteen minutes when the only things holding together my capacity for critical thinking are some grapes and half a cup of coffee.

Did I have to pull an all nighter? No. But I and so, so many students like me do. If anything, college has taught me that having a consistent sleeping schedule, while great, isn't necessary. Also, there have been times when I didn't do the work for the class and still passed a writing prompt by being vague in the explication and then focusing on a very specifically hip example (alternative hip hop! social media! Chilean miners! You professors eat this stuff up).

So while the purposes behind these kinds of exercises are really noble and ideal and all kinds of good stuff, I don't think it rubs with reality in anything but the most inappropriately sensual way.
posted by dubusadus at 7:28 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Er, I didn't mean write about my teaching in the present tense. I am not, in fact, currently being paid for a maximum number of hours teaching a week.
posted by gingerest at 7:28 PM on November 14, 2010


On the other hand, you can't really blame the schools either. All they're doing is educating anyone who wants it, can handle it, and can pay for it. Making degrees easier to get or making them cheaper is no solution, either; if they're easier to get, the line will simply move to a more difficult degree (as it is currently being pushed back to Master's degrees.) If they're cheaper, more people will have them, and the line gets pushed back to more difficult degrees or more exclusive (and expensive) schools. I'm not really sure what the solution is, but it isn't necessarily a simple issue, and simply blaming the system isn't going to help.

Yes, fair enough--just as much as simply blaming the cheaters isn't going to help. I think a successful solution to this problem will require the development of some kind of selection criterion that isn't easily bought and, more importantly, that is immediately related to the actual requirements for a given position. This would probably mean disentangling it from "getting a liberal education," which is a worthy idea that has been rendered totally corrupt by the need to coexist with vocational training, or whatever you call this.
posted by nasreddin at 7:31 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nobody is ever going to have to hand-write a one-page essay about a randomly-selected topic with a strict time limit, and no access to online research sources. Although I suppose it's a foolproof way of rooting out cheating, I'll argue that it unfairly penalizes students for factors that are largely irrelevant in today's society.

And not testing it unfairly penalizes students who did the work they were asked to. The self-serving comments from the teachers here disgust me. It is your job to maintain high standards of academic integrity. Every time you pass students without going to the effort of filtering via in-class tests or other methods, you are taking a shit on people who bought their work instead of doing it, and you are profiting just as much from their cheating as they are.

I want to write more - much more - but I'm so offended that it would get deleted anyway.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:33 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


nasreddin: You're confusing x being a "moral issue" with x "causing concrete harm to someone who did not consent to x." That's a contentious claim. It might be correct, but it isn't obviously true. Certainly not all views of morality endorse it.

If you want to argue for it, go ahead, but you can't just assert it as if everyone agrees. (I don't, for the record, agree.)
posted by Marty Marx at 7:34 PM on November 14, 2010


If the gun manufacturer gets a call from someone saying, "Hey, I need to kill Steve Thompson. Can you make me a gun that'll kill Steve Thompson?" and the gun manufacturer sends that guy the .38 SteveThompsonKiller, then the gun manufacturer is culpable for Steve Thompson's death.

What? No. Even if it were, how is that relevant? There's no need for an essay writer ever to know about the grading policies of his client's instructor.
posted by nasreddin at 7:34 PM on November 14, 2010


Admissions criteria are effectively arbitrary at this point.

Admissions criteria are not at all arbitrary. They're carefully designed to game the college and university ranking system; a process which no doubt does it's own little bit to make students feel that cheating isn't such a horrible thing.
posted by steambadger at 7:35 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


The author is a rather nasty piece of work, isn't he? I do hope he shows up to sock puppet this thread since he's doing such a marvelous job over in the Chronicle's comments. He may not feel the need with nasreddin's apologetic stance on the ethics of cheating.

nasreddin, you've been making a valiant effort to convince us that this kind of cheating has no negative effects on anyone else, but the more you justify it, the more I'm beginning to think you have little to no idea just how difficult it is for students (and potential students) who come from less privileged backgrounds have to work just to be able to get into a college in the first place. Admissions essays do carry weight, contrary to what your argument states, especially in edge cases. So here, at the very beginning of their foray into obtaining a degree, they may be passed over for a spot in favor of someone else who has both the financial means and the lack of integrity that allows them to submit an essay that is not their own.

You also argue that there's no moral problem (as there's no victim) with students cheating by handing in papers that are not their own. You are quite wrong- let's consider our honest student coming in to school with a less than stellar high school education. Even if a professor does not formally grade on a curve ( and grading on a curve is extremely common in most schools) you can bet that as he or she is working their way through a stack of papers, each student's paper is going to be at least subconsciously compared to the others in the stack. It's very possible that the honest student's grade will be negatively affected if there are comparatively stronger plagiarized papers in that stack.

The moral issue is this, and it's a moral issue that is currently being played out in the world at large: the idea that the ends justify the means- that if you are successful, it doesn't matter how you got there.

The moral problem is that most of us (maybe you are an exception nasreddin, I'm not sure) believe that ethical work should be rewarded, that hard work should pay off. We don't believe that spending money in order to excuse oneself from having to play by the rules (and lying about it to boot) should be rewarded.
posted by stagewhisper at 7:35 PM on November 14, 2010 [23 favorites]


What strikes me about the essay is how bitter the author is. If his / her professors had been supportive about the novel, do you think s/he'd be in a different line of work? Or do you think the bitterness runs deeper than that?
posted by slidell at 7:37 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whoa, am I glad I chose a subject that only required one term paper in the whole four year honours course. The balance of the marks came from closed-book examinations. Yet there were always stories of the hapless exchange student from $FARAWAY who asked the lecturer how much the course would cost to pass ...
posted by scruss at 7:38 PM on November 14, 2010


Dying Inside is a science fiction novel by Robert Silverberg.
posted by ovvl at 7:39 PM on November 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Jesus God, are that actually people arguing in this thread that this isn't a moral issue? That if you have enough money you can fraudulently buy a degree which misrepresents your level of expertise in a particular subject -- a standard which people make hiring and firing decisions on, for jobs in which your level of competence may have direct impacts on the performance of companies, social services, and so on?

It's the fucking definition of corruption. If you can't see that, words fail me.
posted by unSane at 7:42 PM on November 14, 2010 [28 favorites]


Judging by the comments/favourites ratio, I think I should fire my comment writer.
posted by vidur at 7:42 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


People can't write because people don't read. People don't read because it is a devalued skill. We live in an anti-intellectual culture. By the same token, higher education is seen as a means to an end--the end being the degree that gets you the job. It is getting awfully crowded in this handbasket.
posted by scratch at 7:42 PM on November 14, 2010 [9 favorites]


nasreddin: You're confusing x being a "moral issue" with x "causing concrete harm to someone who did not consent to x." That's a contentious claim. It might be correct, but it isn't obviously true. Certainly not all views of morality endorse it.

If you want to argue for it, go ahead, but you can't just assert it as if everyone agrees. (I don't, for the record, agree.)


Okay, but it's what seemed reasonable to me at the time. So far, the responses I've gotten fall into three categories: "There is concrete harm in this particular edge case" (which I've generally conceded), "This is wrong because...it's just wrong! You're a troll!" (which is false), and "There are people with some kind of emotional investment in the legitimacy of the process that are hurt by you undermining it" (which is fuzzy, and could reasonably be seen in both a moral and a non-moral light). I'm not sure these leave much room for all-encompassing declarations of either moral wrongness or moral innocence. In this case, I think the benefit of seeing it as a morally problematic issue is less than the benefit of seeing it as a neutral question of incentives and interests, because the latter would be more helpful in restructuring the system of incentives to work better.
posted by nasreddin at 7:44 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


nasreddin is going to feel like a victim once the guy I just hired to write a wicked repartee emails it to me and I post it (I told him to make it really snarky).
posted by 445supermag at 7:45 PM on November 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


nasreddin: Yes, fair enough--just as much as simply blaming the cheaters isn't going to help. I think a successful solution to this problem will require the development of some kind of selection criterion that isn't easily bought and, more importantly, that is immediately related to the actual requirements for a given position. This would probably mean disentangling it from "getting a liberal education," which is a worthy idea that has been rendered totally corrupt by the need to coexist with vocational training, or whatever you call this.

Well, it's hard to develop a selection criterion for a job that can't be easily be faked, isn't prohibitively expensive for either the candidate or the employer, and is totally relevant to the position being applied for. That's actually really, really difficult. Standardized testing might be an option, but each job will need a different test and the relevance is questionable.

Honestly, I think college does a pretty good job. While a few people cheat some of the the time, I don't think it's easy to cheat your way wholesale through the entire four years. You only have to get caught once to be totally ruined - even if they don't kick you out, they'll be watching you like a hawk after that. After having cheated your way to that point, could you really succeed on your own merits? You won't know anything.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:46 PM on November 14, 2010


Spoiler: The author of the article is actually James Frey.
posted by schmod at 7:48 PM on November 14, 2010 [14 favorites]


That if you have enough money you can fraudulently buy a degree...definition of corruption.

Every transaction has two sides. Those getting paid to hand out degrees with no attempt at quality control are no better than those paying for someone else to do the work on their behalf.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:49 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


You also argue that there's no moral problem (as there's no victim) with students cheating by handing in papers that are not their own. You are quite wrong- let's consider our honest student coming in to school with a less than stellar high school education. Even if a professor does not formally grade on a curve ( and grading on a curve is extremely common in most schools) you can bet that as he or she is working their way through a stack of papers, each student's paper is going to be at least subconsciously compared to the others in the stack. It's very possible that the honest student's grade will be negatively affected if there are comparatively stronger plagiarized papers in that stack.

I can't account for what other people are subconsciously doing, and using that in any other kind of moral argument would be instantly recognizable as ridiculous. ("Wearing green is morally wrong because someone may subconsciously associate you with the mysterious man in green that killed their father, and thus experience psychological trauma.")

Admissions essays do carry weight, contrary to what your argument states, especially in edge cases. So here, at the very beginning of their foray into obtaining a degree, they may be passed over for a spot in favor of someone else who has both the financial means and the lack of integrity that allows them to submit an essay that is not their own.


Admissions essays are shaped by material factors even if they're not purchased outright. There's such an enormous ecosystem of editing-advising-rewriting-counseling services available to people with enough money that the difference between using them and buying the essay may not be all that great (especially if you're supplying personal details yourself). I don't think anyone here has argued that using these services is morally wrong, even if their existence is troubling.
posted by nasreddin at 7:52 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


If I don't see a victim, there are no moral issues involved, period.

Looks like you should have paid closer attention in those bullshit humanities classes.
posted by joe lisboa at 7:53 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


What I wonder, given that the anonymous essay writer said s/he is quitting, is what exactly you put on your résumé after making this your full-time job for a decade . . .

If the guy has played his cards right, this won't be a problem at all. Today's lazy rich kids are tomorrow's CEOs and politicians (and, apparently, megachurch pastors). He's spun a lot of strings he can pull with them, especially the ones whose public images are paramount. All he has to do is remind them that they might be the next Laura K. Pahl. (In fact, the suspicious death of a seemingly insignificant hack who lived a life like this would be a good place to start a mystery plot, if I needed one of those.)
posted by Countess Elena at 7:54 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


What kind of ludicrous theory of the social function of higher education is this that you're proposing? Are you seriously suggesting that most students are unable to distinguish between a real college education and a piece of paper from a diploma mill, and would take the latter over the former if they could be guaranteed the choice had no repercussions for their future careers?

Have you talked to many students? There are the serious types of course, but spend time at any large university and you'll meet plenty of those who are there not because they wish to pursue an in-depth study of the American workplace, but because a business degree makes them acceptable to employers.

I think most of those kids could have gone (and in former generations would have gone) straight into your average job from high school and done fine. Or taken maybe a semester's worth of courses (some basic accounting and business writing, perhaps) and done fine.
posted by emjaybee at 7:54 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't the current situation in Higher Ed just another manifestation of the credit bubble? People take on debt in the belief that doing so will produce great returns in terms of their lifelong income. Like the housing bubble, it works until it doesn't. If you drive down the currency of American education, you reap the consequences.
posted by unSane at 7:56 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


anigbrowl: Every transaction has two sides. Those getting paid to hand out degrees with no attempt at quality control are no better than those paying for someone else to do the work on their behalf.

Sure they are. Failing at something because you lack the resources or the skill necessary to do it isn't the same as outright dishonesty. I have no doubt that if you gave professors the time necessary to ferret this stuff out and made it one of their primary objectives, they could do it. They don't have sufficient time to do it right now, and it usually isn't treated as that important by the university administration.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:58 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Looks like you should have paid closer attention in those bullshit humanities classes.

Yeah, then maybe I wouldn't have ended up doing a PhD in intellectual history, and gone with something useful like business. Alas, it's too late now.
posted by nasreddin at 7:58 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


When lazy universities pump out unlearned graduates that fail their employers, said universities will loss all credibility in their brand name.

Savvy universities that intend to stay the long course would do well by capitalizing on this. Over the long term they will become an established trust-worthy brand name. That's gonna be good money.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:59 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


One can not fault professors for not wanting to deal with student papers, if the papers are poorly written.

The failure in that lies with the pre-secondary school system.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:02 PM on November 14, 2010


I was in a secondhand bookstore once when a guy came up to me and started talking about his work for a company like this. He swung back and forth between "easy money from suckers and chumps" bragging and "destroying the whole educational system" self-loathing. I honestly couldn't tell if he was trying to recruit me or confess his sins. But he was just kind of off overall and had an unwiped runny nose so I made my excuses and beat a hasty retreat to the poetry corner, which only one person could fit into at a time.

Anyway, ever since then, whenever I read an essay like this I hear it in that guy's voice, mucus snorts and all.
posted by No-sword at 8:03 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Every transaction has two sides. Those getting paid to hand out degrees with no attempt at quality control are no better than those paying for someone else to do the work on their behalf."

Trying to parse this and failing. First, this scenario, which recently took place at The Strawman College for the Arts and Sciences, consists of two different transactions. One transaction takes place between the essay mill and the cheating student. The second takes place between the cheating student and ....? I guess you mean the University.

The fact that Professors and the University system are unable to catch the bulk of the cheaters using custom written papers (since student papers are only submitted to databanks to be checked against existing papers, this common step in rooting out plagiarism fails) means they are therefore ethically no better than the cheaters? This is a fascinating theory and I'd be interested in how you apply it to other facets of life.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:03 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


PhD in intellectual history

AH ha ha ha ha.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:05 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yeah, then maybe I wouldn't have ended up doing a PhD in intellectual history, and gone with something useful like business. Alas, it's too late now.

So who(m) did you pay to write your essays in ethics, then? Keep digging.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:06 PM on November 14, 2010


Seriously, PareidoliaticBoy, would you cut it out? Not a single one of your comments has contributed anything to this thread.
posted by nasreddin at 8:07 PM on November 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Seriously, PareidoliaticBoy, would you cut it out? Not a single one of your comments has contributed anything to this thread.

But there are no victims here, so whatever, right?
posted by joe lisboa at 8:07 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not a single one of your comments has contributed anything to this thread.

You're not the best judge of that, Nasreddin.
posted by unSane at 8:08 PM on November 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


So who(m) did you pay to write your essays in ethics, then? Keep digging.

This is interesting. So, as a philosopher, when you have a moral argument, do you automatically assume the other person is defending their own actions? Like, do you hector utilitarians by yelling "HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE YOU SLAUGHTERED FOR THEIR ORGANS TODAY, ASSHOLE?"? I can't imagine your tenure file is very pretty.
posted by nasreddin at 8:09 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


Okay, but it's what seemed reasonable to me at the time. . . . In this case, I think the benefit of seeing it as a morally problematic issue is less than the benefit of seeing it as a neutral question of incentives and interests, because the latter would be more helpful in restructuring the system of incentives to work better.

Ah! Try this then:
It's one thing to come up with an argument that selling papers is immoral. It's another thing entirely to come up with a method to stop people from selling papers. Whenever the topic of selling papers comes up, more ink is spilled on condemning people for buying and selling papers than figuring out ways to stop it. In this particular case, the declarations of immorality are counterproductive to stopping the sale of papers because of the way the condemnations of paper sellers encourage the unfeasible solution of them just stopping selling papers. (See also: drugs, prostitution, tax cheats, fare jumpers, speeders, etc.) We'd be better off talking about how to stop people from selling papers than wringing our hands about how wrong it is.
You can buy into that whole blockquote (and I think you do) whether or not you think the people who are selling papers are doing something immoral. What I think is going on is that (1) you want to focus on "How do we stop people from selling papers," (2) believe that moral condemnations are not helpful, and may be harmful, and so to accomplish (2) assert there is no moral issue at all. But you don't need that assertion--it doesn't do any work in what I think your core argument is. I buy (1) and (2), but I don't buy the claim that selling papers isn't immoral.

For the interested, I think it is immoral because (a) Someone can consent to x but not consent to being harmed by x; I think the student buying the paper is in this situation; (b) x may be morally permissible only if justified, and we might think that the justifications are poor -- I think the seller and the purchaser are in this situation with respect to lying; (c) we may simply dispute that consent is adequate to render knowingly assisting x morally neutral at least in cases where the person who does x is acting immorally -- I think the seller is in this situation with respect to the student's lie; (d) we may dispute that this is a case where only those who consent to x are harmed -- I think the other students who honestly write comparable papers are in this situation with respect to competing for scarce resources with equivalent formal credentials.
posted by Marty Marx at 8:09 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Honestly all of this education seems like the last vestige of a lost age where university students graduated and took up their place in the house of lords or as the vicar in some shire.back when a gentleman needed to know the works of John Donne In order to make suitable dinner conversation and make an acceptable match.

Rich people get all kinds of benefits we don't get, professionally written papers are the least of it. I'm just glad they aren't hunting me for sport in some sort of private game reserve located on a private island off the coast of Malta.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:10 PM on November 14, 2010 [9 favorites]


I can't imagine your tenure file is very pretty.

Okay, walking away now. You dug your own grave in this thread, now you have to lie in it. Pun fully intended. Good luck with mastering intellectual history with an ethical blindspot the size of Texas. And thanks for giving us all concrete reasons to discredit and dismiss any future contributions here. Pathetic.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:11 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd find it a lot easier to get worked up about this if coming up with a half-assed means of meeting short sighted goal with unrealistic deadlines wasn't the stock in trade of the modern workplace. As it is, it's almost like these kids are learning the right lesson.

Now I'm going to go cry. Or vomit. Or cry vomit.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:11 PM on November 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


I can't imagine your tenure file is very pretty.

Academic bitching. Lovely.
posted by unSane at 8:12 PM on November 14, 2010 [10 favorites]


Since I argued against nasreddin before, now I'll experiment with taking his side of things.

Lazy rich kid uses paper mills to skate through college with C's, without expending any effort. Graduates: if he goes to law school, it's an unselective one, if he goes to med school, it's in the Caribbean. But probably nobody ever looks at his GPA again: he gets a job in management with room for promotion, a job he didn't need his education to do, but a job he needed his degree to get. Lazy rich kid's sticker-price tuition funds financial aid for a working-class kid whose parents didn't go to college.

Who would have benefited if lazy rich kid had been thrown out of school for plagiarism in his first semester?

Don't get me wrong -- I think my original position on this point is correct. But it's good to think about the complicated cases.
posted by escabeche at 8:14 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


You can buy into that whole blockquote (and I think you do) whether or not you think the people who are selling papers are doing something immoral. What I think is going on is that (1) you want to focus on "How do we stop people from selling papers," (2) believe that moral condemnations are not helpful, and may be harmful, and so to accomplish (2) assert there is no moral issue at all. But you don't need that assertion--it doesn't do any work in what I think your core argument is. I buy (1) and (2), but I don't buy the claim that selling papers isn't immoral.

Fair enough, and you're right that I do buy (1) and (2). I also, personally, buy (3), but I agree that that is neither here nor there--my declaration of (3) in this thread was a bit impulsive. I don't think people's opinions on the morality of cheating, my own included, should even be a substantial aspect of finding a pragmatic solution to the problem.
posted by nasreddin at 8:14 PM on November 14, 2010


King Bee: They ensured me they would work alone from there on out. They didn't.

Perhaps the problem is they ensured you instead of assuring you. I apologize for being snarky, but you lost all credibility when you ensured [sic] us that

in my subject, I can tell when you're cheating

You claim to reliably detect an act by its nature should go undetected? Pardon me if I say [citation needed].
posted by Tehhund at 8:17 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


If cheating is as widespread as this thread and the linked article seem to suggest-- and I'm prepared to concede that it could be, anyway-- then abruptly catching all the cheaters and meting out the statutory punishments would promptly cause a near-collapse in the educational system at the college level because the tuition and fees of those expelled students would no longer flow to the schools, nor would the subsidies from state legislators and wealthy alumni (whose sons and daughters might be somewhat overrepresented among the expelled, after all).

And the cost to society as a whole from the ruined careers of the caught cheaters would be immense.

I'd like to think that doesn't make those of us who think cheating is wrong into hypocrites, but since most of us would not be willing to stop the cheating in the face of such consequences, I can't quite see how to legitimately draw that conclusion.
posted by jamjam at 8:18 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


escabeche, why not simply resort to nepotism?


"[With cheating] they've all got these A's you see, but the posh kids are expected to go to college [and get a good job]. So, we thought the kindest thing would be to let them."

Paraphrased from Mitchell and Webb.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 8:18 PM on November 14, 2010


If your daily life is a continual battle against incompetent people in jobs they seem ill-equipped to perform, now at least you know why.
posted by unSane at 8:19 PM on November 14, 2010 [25 favorites]


My dad was a sportswriter at his college paper in the lat 1940s. He spent a lot of time with athletes, and he knew that many of them cheated to maintain their grades so they could keep playing. This often involved having other people write their papers for them.

He tells the story of a teacher who decided to tackle this cheating by periodically asking her students to write out a paper in class, on a subject of their choice. One particular football player figured he could beat that; he'd have someone write a short essay for him in advance and carry it around. When the teacher asked for something to be written in class he'd look busy for forty minutes and then hand it in.

It would have worked out great if he hadn't had the essay typed up.
posted by alms at 8:19 PM on November 14, 2010 [34 favorites]


I don't think people's opinions on the morality of cheating, my own included, should even be a substantial aspect of finding a pragmatic solution to the problem.

I posted my solution above (the conversation-based grade). Universities won't let me do this, because they want all their low-level classes "standardized". (Essentially, this just means they're all dysfunctional, but in roughly the same manner.)
posted by King Bee at 8:19 PM on November 14, 2010


I can't account for what other people are subconsciously doing, and using that in any other kind of moral argument would be instantly recognizable as ridiculous. ("Wearing green is morally wrong because someone may subconsciously associate you with the mysterious man in green that killed their father, and thus experience psychological trauma.")

Only if it's a purposefully ridiculous argument, like the one you've constructed to counter mine. You can argue about whether or not teachers should consciously or subconsciously judge a student's work against that of their fellow classmates when determining grades if the teacher hasn't specifically stated in their syllabus that they grade on a curve, but the reality is that doing so is common and difficult to avoid.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:19 PM on November 14, 2010


Okay, walking away now. You dug your own grave in this thread, now you have to lie in it. Pun fully intended. Good luck with mastering intellectual history with an ethical blindspot the size of Texas. And thanks for giving us all concrete reasons to discredit and dismiss any future contributions here. Pathetic.

I've been posting on this site for four years now, and I expect that anyone who doesn't like my style of reasoning has learned to ignore me a long time ago. C'est la vie. I think your dramatic slides into personal abuse and shit-slinging are a great source of entertainment, so I encourage you to stick around. (I would find them ironic, given your profession, except I know too many philosophers. You people make historians look bad, and that's saying something.)
posted by nasreddin at 8:20 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


One can not fault professors for not wanting to deal with student papers, if the papers are poorly written.

One can, actually, and does.
posted by steambadger at 8:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


escabeche, it would be the future patients of such a doctor, or the clients of such a lawyer, who benefited by not unknowingly going to see a lazy entitled idiot with their problems. If the rich kid in the hypothetical was kicked out, either he would shape up, or his parents would get him into some line of work through connections, or else he would find his level on his own (even if that level was "prostitute and drug addict").
posted by Countess Elena at 8:22 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lazy rich kid uses paper mills to skate through college with C's, without expending any effort. Graduates: if he goes to law school, it's an unselective one, if he goes to med school, it's in the Caribbean. But probably nobody ever looks at his GPA again..

POTUS?
posted by ovvl at 8:23 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I expect that anyone who doesn't like my style of reasoning has learned to ignore me a long time ago.

No, I've never noticed you until now, but I will certainly ignore you from now on, so thanks.
posted by unSane at 8:24 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Stagewhisper, I guess you'll just need to think harder about it until you understand it. Or not.
posted by anigbrowl at 8:25 PM on November 14, 2010


Tehhund: Sorry about that. I guess my excuse is that it's Sunday, and I had been drinking for a solid 4 hours before passing out about 5 hours ago and then waking up to post in this thread.

My story should suffice as some (anecdotal) evidence that I can tell when students are cheating. When the probability that you all have the same solution is so small as to be effectively zero, I know there was collusion.

When students cheat on my in-class tests (and they do), I notice it because they 1) are seated next to each other and 2) have the same ridiculous errors written in exactly the same spot on the page as their neighbor. I'm sure that there is someone who gets away with it occasionally, but since I require explanations of mathematical ideas from students who have a hard time describing their favorite TV show, it's easy to tell when a student has written an explanation that comes straight from the textbook.
posted by King Bee at 8:26 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


King Bee: How will you account for unintended bias in the conversation-based grade? My understanding is that unconscious gender bias has a large factor in instrumentalist auditions, which prompted people auditioning behind screens. I'd be happier with conversation-based-cheating-detection, where the conversation only determines whether or not the person cheated, but that has the same problems. No method is perfect, of course, but written exams or papers stripped of identifying information does a better job, and I'd rather avoid bias than catch the subset of cheaters who use custom-paper-mills.

I'd be interested to hear from MeFi professors about departmental support for catching cheaters. If you turned someone in for cheating, would you get support from your department? From the administration? Is the standard incontrovertible evidence or is a professional judgment based on a post-paper interview (like a student's inability to explain basic aspects of the paper or assignment) sufficient? I'll bet money the responses lean toward not being supported, but that's just a hunch.
posted by Marty Marx at 8:28 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


I posted my solution above (the conversation-based grade). Universities won't let me do this, because they want all their low-level classes "standardized". (Essentially, this just means they're all dysfunctional, but in roughly the same manner.)

I agree completely. I honestly wish it worked that way. Unfortunately, the piece-of-paper-cum-vocational-training-cum-liberal-education Frankenstein ensures that it never will.
posted by nasreddin at 8:29 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


jamjam: If cheating is as widespread as this thread and the linked article seem to suggest-- and I'm prepared to concede that it could be, anyway-- then abruptly catching all the cheaters and meting out the statutory punishments would promptly cause a near-collapse in the educational system at the college level because the tuition and fees of those expelled students would no longer flow to the schools, nor would the subsidies from state legislators and wealthy alumni (whose sons and daughters might be somewhat overrepresented among the expelled, after all).

And the cost to society as a whole from the ruined careers of the caught cheaters would be immense.


I disagree. You'd throw out a good proportion of several years of students, but they've already paid for this semester and they won't be getting that back. Next semester, you can just admit that many more extra students (drop your standards if necessary) and get back up to numbers pretty fast. You'd lose some subsidies, but a lot of the alumni and legislators don't have kids in your school right now and won't be affected, and some of them will blame their kid, not the school. Plus, if everyone does it at the same time, no individual school or administrator gets blamed.

The ruined careers won't matter much. We have a glut of workers and a deficit of jobs. They'll just be filled in by people who started earlier and weren't in the schools during the great purge, or who started later and had the wit not to cheat.

Not to mention that not every school expels on the first offense, and getting kicked out once won't necessarily void all of your credits or prevent readmission later.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:30 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Marty Marx - I don't account for unintended bias. There's the same bias when grading written work though, isn't there? I suppose I can go to great pains to anonymize the quizzes before I grade them, but after a while I start to recognize the handwriting of a lot of my students. I don't know what to do.

There is very little departmental support for disciplining cheaters. Basically, I fill out a form, tell the student I'm accusing him of cheating, then tell him what I think the punishment should be. If the student agrees to the punishment, then the matter is essentially settled, with the exception of there being a sort of formal "ceremony" (for lack of a better word) where the student admits to having cheated. The student is rarely disciplined beyond this.

I can suggest that the student be expelled for his cheating, but that would not be considered an "appropriate" punishment (especially for a first-time offender). The council that oversees that ceremony I mentioned above would probably knock the punishment down to an F in the course.

After that, the matter is settled, and I rarely see the student again.

That's the way it's done here. I imagine it's different at different places, but not by much. This is roughly the same as it went when I was a graduate student at a different university as well.
posted by King Bee at 8:35 PM on November 14, 2010


Settle down, folk.

There is a large part of our society (and maybe human nature) that is all about the self-entitlement. We still over-produce CO2 by mechanism of own lifestyles, each and every one of us reading this.

The essay cheaters are given entitlement to what they feel they paid for: a degree. If anything, it's surprising they're not pissed off that they had to pay extra.

The post-secondary institutions have apparently agree with them, by knowingly not making a great effort to deny essay-purchasers their degrees.

Surely other testing mechanisms must be producing counter-evidence of competent knowledge and application of knowledge. Maybe essays only count for 20% of the grade.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:35 PM on November 14, 2010


Okay, I concede: you chose to die on the argumentative hill of defending a plagiarist-for-hire. Good luck with that and best of luck with your future studies and/or profession. May you get the students you deserve.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:35 PM on November 14, 2010


Okay, I concede: you chose to die on the argumentative hill of defending a plagiarist-for-hire. Good luck with that and best of luck with your future studies and/or profession. May you get the students you deserve.

Thanks!
posted by nasreddin at 8:40 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's no need for an essay writer ever to know about the grading policies of his client's instructor.

Please, tell me how many colleges are out there that don't have policies that state, at their base, "Work must be done by the person who is handing it in." I have a feeling that it's pretty close to zero.
posted by Etrigan at 8:41 PM on November 14, 2010


It seems like another one of these essays emerges every year around the end of term, like some new seasonal ritual: oh, look, the leaves are off the trees and it's time for the Revelation of the Slimeball again!

I am so very tired of these simultaneously guilt-ridden, self-congratulatory, and exculpatory pleas


Totally unrelated
posted by thesmophoron at 8:42 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Again, this is why I want to go back to my dream way of grading. No tests, no homework, no quizzes. You have a 30 minute conversation with me at the end of the semester. If you know your shit, you get a good grade. If you don't, you don't.

No asshole who works for one of these paper mills can help you in these conversations, and finally, the students who work hard will be rewarded. Cheating is basically eradicated.

Of course, I'm "weird" and what I propose is "impossible". I have to offer quizzes and partial credit for students who can't be arsed to write a sentence. Alas.


Through my undergraduate studies, one thing I heard a lot was that papers had to defend against counterarguments. Which I agree with. A strong-seeming thesis that falls apart if criticized is a weak thesis. But I was always told that I had to predict and preemptively dismantle those counterarguments in the paper, which always seemed a bit whiffy. I always thought, "I'm reasonably good at improvisation and know my material inside and out, if you ask me a question and give me five minutes, I'm confident I can answer it, even if I hadn't anticipated the question or even the possibility of the question in the first place." I felt like every paper assignment should instead be a paper and a 15 minute defense - practice that would probably have been invaluable if I'd gone in a graduate direction where I'd have to defend a thesis.

At higher levels, at least, this sort of setup might well be possible, once you're tenured and entrenched enough to be able to experiment. My mom's been a university professor for a long time, and she's got a lot of freedom as far as grading systems go. A lot of her more esoteric topics are graded on participation and projects, rather than simple writing assignments, which can also help to weed those sorts of things out.
posted by kafziel at 8:48 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Essay writers are how privileged cheaters avoid completely failing a course. If they pass, it will be by the skin of their teeth. The essay is only 20%.

Grade points matter. And Honors even more. Those that get great grades both know their shit and know how to write about it. They're the ones at least 20%+ ahead of everyone.

This is much ado about nothing. Do essays measure something important any more? Is there a better way of measuring it?

How about a live interview? What if instead of spending their lives reading damned essays and marking tests, professors and their TAs spent an hour a week (and the TAs another hour or two) preparing students for The Interview. Where you're interactively interrogated and made to show your knowledge and application of that knowledge.

And then you pass or fail. Your work in the bit leading up to it counts toward a grade, too. But you have to be passed in a direct one-hour live interview with the Professor. Sure, you can have monitored internet access. Let there be witnesses, too; the TAs and the department head.

Passing then means something, the Professors do less work or mentor more people, and supplementary work lets the exceptionally bright really stand out. Win-win all around.

Except the cheaters, who apparently form the backbone of the educational system. That sure explains a lot…
posted by five fresh fish at 8:56 PM on November 14, 2010


nasreddin: my declaration of (3) in this thread was a bit impulsive

But not a declaration you're actually willing to back down from?

I don't think people's opinions on the morality of cheating, my own included, should even be a substantial aspect of finding a pragmatic solution to the problem.

I wager that no one here disagrees with you on that. But, this was your first comment:

Yeah, this is awesome. I'm strongly considering going to work for one of these places after I fail to get a tenure-track job.

And if you do end up working for one of the those places, will your employment be a substantial aspect of your interest in finding a pragmatic solution to the problem?
posted by ericost at 8:58 PM on November 14, 2010


For what it's worth, in many graduate programs, including my own, oral exams are the main method for evaluating whether you can advance to the dissertation-writing stage of your PhD. You write papers in seminars, but these are rarely read carefully (as far as I can tell) and are regarded mostly as an opportunity to do individual research. So at least grad schools agree with you.
posted by nasreddin at 8:59 PM on November 14, 2010


I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created ... The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical ... I do not mean to be insensitive, but I can't tell you how many times I've been paid to write about somebody helping a loved one battle cancer. I've written essays that could be adapted into Meryl Streep movies ...

...So educators and admissions committees should be extra suspicious of essays that read like they were written by some villain in his evil lair, twirling his moustache and occasionally pausing to shout mwa ha ha! at no one in particular? Got it.
posted by Drop Daedalus at 8:59 PM on November 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


But not a declaration you're actually willing to back down from?

As I've said, I think many of the edge-cases really are problematic, but as a whole I remain unconvinced that cheating is a moral issue.

And if you do end up working for one of the those places, will your employment be a substantial aspect of your interest in finding a pragmatic solution to the problem?

Well, let's just say that it would probably be worse if I got a tenure-track job, since the job of untenured professors is to do whatever you're told and shut up. In this case, this would mean actively propping up the system. It's like becoming a casual pot dealer versus going to work for the DEA.
posted by nasreddin at 9:03 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think the fact that a lie is involved necessarily affects the morality of something. I lie to people every day when I tell them I'm "great" instead of "annoyed and embittered." If I don't see a victim, there are no moral issues involved, period.
posted by nasreddin


Basic etiquette is one thing. Being false means they are misinformed, basing their communication with you on an untruth. So you respond to their misinformation, adding to the layers of disconnection. Ultimately you feel alienated. It's a lose lose situation.
posted by nickyskye at 9:08 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was hurt when three students in the section I was teaching cheated by giving in plagerised - perhaps even bought - essays.

They hurt me all semester, because they did not do the readings, were deadweight in the discussion section, and made my job (stimulating intelligent discussion of the material) more difficult. And they betrayed a trust I had in them.
posted by jb at 9:14 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Essay writers are how privileged cheaters avoid completely failing a course. If they pass, it will be by the skin of their teeth. The essay is only 20%.

That's fine for classes where the written portion is only 20% of the grade. That is not all classes. That is not even the majority of classes. I've had a ton of classes where the entire grade was split among various essays - and more than a few where the only source of grade was the take-home final.
posted by kafziel at 9:23 PM on November 14, 2010


Oh, and fascinating article. Thanks for the post kipmanley.
posted by nickyskye at 9:23 PM on November 14, 2010


Nasreddin, would you think that this guy would be committing wrongs if he wrote papers for high school students or middle school students? I can't tell whether your arguments depend crucially on your perceived failure of the main functions of higher academia. You suggest this from time to time, but some of your arguments (about victimless crimes, for example) suggest that you'd be fine with high school students cheating too.
posted by painquale at 9:25 PM on November 14, 2010


I think the most damning fact in all this is that there are university courses where it is possible for a faker to get up to speed to the level where they can write a pass-grade graduate thesis with just a few days of Googling. Even ignoring the ethics of paying for essays, that wouldn't be possible unless the standard required is pretty low. Why bother going to university then? Just Google stuff when you need to know something.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 9:31 PM on November 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


If I knew it was that easy, I guess I would have received (bought) a degree. Alas, I was poor. Silly me, I thought I had to do it all by myself. Is it any wonder the world is so messed up? And we are surprised that the people running for office are ignorant? Not to mention those that get elected. It all makes sense to me now.
posted by wv kay in ga at 9:39 PM on November 14, 2010


Nasreddin, would you think that this guy would be committing wrongs if he wrote papers for high school students or middle school students? I can't tell whether your arguments depend crucially on your perceived failure of the main functions of higher academia. You suggest this from time to time, but some of your arguments (about victimless crimes, for example) suggest that you'd be fine with high school students cheating too.

If it wasn't for the fact that presumably being caught cheating would have legal repercussions for their parents, I'd be more supportive of high school and middle school students cheating than college students. While universities are at least nominally about learning something as an independent human being in a freely-chosen environment, high schools are more or less explicitly designed to keep students in line and out of trouble independently of what they themselves would rather be doing. Learning is even more incidental to the k-12 setting than the college setting.
posted by nasreddin at 9:41 PM on November 14, 2010


Many teachers are paid by stipend, not by the hour with overtime.

Clearly this guy knows about being paid by the word, each paragraph is rephrased and repeated. Why use one word when you can use ten to say the same thing?
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:44 PM on November 14, 2010


Who would have benefited if lazy rich kid had been thrown out of school for plagiarism in his first semester?

Throwing out this one kid wouldn't make much difference; consistently throwing out the lazy kids who don't do their own work would result in a higher quality student body, which benefits the other students because it means better class discussions, fewer stupid questions, less need for instructors to dumb things down for the less competent students who don't give a shit about learning the material anyway, etc. It also makes the degree less meaningless as a gauge of intellectual ability and mastery of the subject (you can argue that degrees are pretty worthless for this anyway, but letting cheaters get by isn't helping that). If enrollment is limited and competitive, the lazy student is also taking up space that would otherwise have been occupied by a student who didn't do quite as well on the admissions essay or whatever, but might have used their time at college to develop intellectually; at a minimum, they would have had the opportunity to get the piece of paper that gets them a job afterwards (even if their work isn't as good as the paper mill writer's, it's hard to see how this student is less entitled to the piece of paper than the student who got it by cheating). It's also possible that by being kicked out, the lazy rich kid would have been exposed to consequences for the first time in his life and become a better person as a result.

nasreddin, paying someone else to write a paper is wrong because it is dishonest, and because the plagiarizer is profiting from their dishonesty. There are pretty obvious reasons why most moral systems discourage dishonesty and encourage honesty. Society as a whole simply functions better if people are honest in the general case, and permitting people to profit from dishonesty undermines that. The student who learns to profit from dishonesty through plagiarism is presumably more likely to be dishonest in other areas of life as well, thus making things worse for the rest of us. (White lies, like saying you're in a good mood when you're not, don't count in this calculus because they make life easier for everyone, in a way that by definition outweighs any harm done by the lie.) Hell, if nothing else, plagiarism violates the most elementary notion of fairness, which is pretty universally accepted as a basic moral principle. So even if we set aside the question of whether plagiarism causes harm, there are other moral values that would lead us to conclude that it is wrong.

Pragmatically speaking, the moral case against plagiarism bolsters practical attempts to eliminate plagiarism insofar as most people agree that dishonesty is wrong and fairness is good. You can sway people by appealing to those basic values. Since people are generally strongly invested in their moral systems, there is a practical benefit to presenting plagiarism as a moral issue (assuming you want to eliminate it). Even if you don't see it as a moral issue, you benefit from the force of the moral outrage of your allies.

As for the moral culpability of the guy writing the plagiarizer's paper, well, he is knowingly abetting wrong behavior. For most people, myself included, that's all that's needed to conclude that his actions are wrong. You seem to disagree with this, but if you've made a case for that position, I missed it.
posted by twirlip at 10:04 PM on November 14, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm going into the business. I'll be starting off helping kindergarten children hand in good finger-paintings.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:04 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


It is 11PM Rocky Mountain Time, just finished grading papers, and I am going to spend twelve minutes in bed reading some of what now occupies the post-Lapham slot in Harper's before passing out and getting in enough hours of sleep to be able to cajole students - whom I truly love - into thinking, talking and writing about really important literary and life questions at 7:35 Monday morning.

I could only skim the preceding MeFi debate after reading some of the Chronicle's debate and can only wonder what exactly are we "debating" about here.

Cheating "now" is different than it was "then." Although cheating is not listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it could stem from any of them. Sloth and greed and the root of them all, pride, would be the obvious culprits, although the others could come into play.

Not being religious, along with most of you, I would not cast the debate in these terms. In fact, there is no debate. This is not new, and it is plainly and egregiously fucking wrong. Parsing where to cast the blame is a fool's game. Grow up.
posted by kozad at 10:14 PM on November 14, 2010 [11 favorites]


nasreddin, you say lying doesn't necessarily make something wrong, because of little white lies you tell socially. But in those cases, everybody involved implicitly acknowledges the social necessity (desirability!) of the lie, right? You are going along with a social norm, not transgressing one, by lying in that case. Not analogous to the cheating case, where the cheater and the hired writer both know their particular type of lie violates social norms and the university's explicit policy.

I don't have time to write the long response this deserves and frankly the whole subject makes me sad, so I won't.

But take a look at act vs rule consequentialism, and think about the general kind of social norm you think we're best off adopting here. I imagine after reflection you'll want to end up a rule consequentialist rather than an act consequentialist (even though what you say here is more act consequentialist). If that's so, think about what global norms around schoolwork we should have. It seems to me that a global norm against cheating, and global norms like "do your own work in school", "take pride in your own intellectual development" etc, are probably likely to produce better consequences than norms like "as early as possible in your education, skip all intellectual work you want to skip." Not that education is a panacea, but a lot of kids and teenagers and college students (and so on) will benefit from intellectual exercise they might want to skip if left to their own devices.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:56 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school.

They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school.

They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school.

and I am a jack of all trades actuated by a feeling of hopelessness.
posted by clavdivs at 11:03 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I dropped out before it was relevant and I'm heading to bed, so I haven't exhausted this thread, but my brother is current at the London School of Economics, taking an insanely difficult year of finance education.

My understanding is that a full two-thirds of his grade comes down to a single essay he must author IN CLASS, long form, over a three hour period, wherein he has to analyze a systemic problem, form a hypothesis, present a solution, and discuss, in depth, the ramifications of the solution. The prompt is not explained until the day of class and you have to rely on your entire year of reading and studying and soaking in material to be able to produce anything remotely relevant, accurate, engaging, and intelligent.

I know that a thesis or dissertation is an involved journey that requires a great deal of time, and so an arrangement like this wouldn't be possible for preventing this sort of cheating in those cases, but wouldn't a test like this provide a baseline? Wouldn't you expect any serious graduate, and any very serious under-grad program to push students through a "write-the-essay-in-long-form, in class, do it, do it now, here's your prompt" rigamarole at some point that would prove, at least as much as possible, that the student can write with some authority on what they've purported to have studied?

He's terrified about the essay. He knows it's insanely difficult. "People have cried," he's told me. But I feel comforted knowing that no one will be able to cheat in this way on something in that format, in any meaningful way.
posted by disillusioned at 11:40 PM on November 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


It seems to me like nasreddin is arguing that Higher Education is a sham because of the lack of real learning that goes on; and that because Higher Education is a sham, it is ok to coast through without doing any real learning.

I'm starting to think that the future ph.D. is doing a good job of proving his own point.
posted by auto-correct at 12:25 AM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


I would respect him more if he had narced out all of his previous clients to their schools before writing this article. It's a field for bastards, he entered it like a bastard, and it's cowardly and hypocritical to not leave it like a bastard, too.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 12:32 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


nasreddin: I'm strongly considering going to work for one of these places after I fail to get a tenure-track job.

Exactly. I can only assume many a humanities grad student falls into this kind of work.


Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, cheat.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:53 AM on November 15, 2010


Writing well is difficult. Teaching people how to write well is excruciating.

I had the luxury of going to a private high school with a maximum class size of 15. And man, did we write. I wrote more in high school than I did in college until my senior year when I did an honors these.

And later on I taught high school English. And let me tell you, it sucks. Driving home on a Friday with a stack of papers about 150-300 pages long? That's a whole new frontier of depressing shit. And you do it for the students who are actually making an effort to become better writers, but you grind your teeth over the ones who will turn to the last page, check their grade, and never look at any of the suggestions or corrections you made.

So yeah, being a conversational ESL teacher is a much saner and healthier career for me. And I've done work in editing, and at least that pays a reasonable amount. Grading a stack of high school or college essays and knowing that at least half of the students just don't give a fuck? Never again.

And as mentioned a few times, one of the biggest reasons Johnny can't write is because Johnny doesn't read. You could be the most gifted English or history teacher in the world but if a kid isn't motivating herself to improve her vocabulary, grammar, and ability to process through reading, she's never going to be a very strong writer.
posted by bardic at 1:14 AM on November 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


disillusioned: Most grad programs do have a battery of exams, although none are that hellish all or nothing sort that the UK specializes in.

U of T had us write two sets of comprehensive exams -- three hours on English lit from the beginning up to 1700, and three hours on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries -- and then a set of specific exams on the specific area we would be studying, called special fields -- one three hour written exam followed by an oral defense.

They were, well, different. We were allowed to retake each one once, should we blow it, which saved my arse when I sat down to my first sitting of Comp II, turned the paper over and saw the first question: "Defend obscurity; or, ideas matter".

It was pretty much downhill from there.

The author of the original article is revolting; there's a bitterness and smugness that these essays always emit, like skunk stink. Slidell is right: he's wasted the last six years getting back at academia for Failing to Recognize His Brilliance, endlessly writing slick shallow bullshit on subjects he knows nothing about rather than, you know, his own stuff.
posted by jrochest at 1:22 AM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]



If it wasn't for the fact that presumably being caught cheating would have legal repercussions for their parents, I'd be more supportive of high school and middle school students cheating than college students. While universities are at least nominally about learning something as an independent human being in a freely-chosen environment, high schools are more or less explicitly designed to keep students in line and out of trouble independently of what they themselves would rather be doing. Learning is even more incidental to the k-12 setting than the college setting.


I don't get this point of view. It may well be the case (about the designed intent and current state of k-12 schooling, although I'd argue that this probably varies a lot depending on the particular school), and certainly, it would take a lot to fundamentally change that, but it doesn't have to be that way.

If, moral considerations aside, you buy into Marty Max's (1), wouldn't it make sense to take a stance that supports kids in k-12 actually learning how to write a "convincing grocery list" before they show up at college? It's seems reasonable to me that if more students are capable of writing their own papers, fewer of them will be buying them. I don't mean that you should consider cheating in k-12 any more or less morally wrong, but just wrong (not deserving of your support) in the sense that it is detrimental to objective (1).
posted by juv3nal at 1:46 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Disillusioned, that is exactly how to handle this problem. The bar exam serves a similar purpose, at least in California (where it has a reputation for being particularly difficult). Why these long exams are considered so hellish is beyond me. The arguments above that teachers don't have the time or expertise to root out teachers are laughable, as is the moral outrage at this essay writer.

It's the students who submit the essays and the faculties and administrators who fail to evaluate the students' actual capabilities (or lack thereof) that are devaluing the qualifications and pushing up the prices and barriers to entry for everyone else. This essay writer is profiting off that, but to my mind s/he bears no more guilt than do contributors to Wikipedia on whose work her or the students rely for a quick introduction to a subject.

I would respect him more if he had narced out all of his previous clients...

Yes, but probably not to the point of helping to pay his rent. I'm afraid I don't find him (or her) revolting at all, and think it's no worse of a way to make a living as a writer for a few years than most other jobs - the only thing the writer is missing out on is the byline. I've never done this sort of work, but it's fundamentally no different from writing up a presentation for which your semi-literate boss will claim credit.

"Defend obscurity; or, ideas matter". It was pretty much downhill from there.

Why? Something like that practically writes itself.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:53 AM on November 15, 2010


Yeah, that would be pretty much my dream question.
posted by unSane at 4:59 AM on November 15, 2010


I've never done this sort of work, but it's fundamentally no different from writing up a presentation for which your semi-literate boss will claim credit.

It is fundamentally different. For one, everyone knows that supervisors have work done for them -- it's often why they have people. For another, your semi-literate boss isn't saying (or signing a statement to the effect of) "This presentation is mine and only mine." For another another, your boss is probably not being judged in the context of his job solely on that and other such presentations.
posted by Etrigan at 5:25 AM on November 15, 2010


I know that a thesis or dissertation is an involved journey that requires a great deal of time, and so an arrangement like this wouldn't be possible for preventing this sort of cheating in those cases, but wouldn't a test like this provide a baseline? Wouldn't you expect any serious graduate, and any very serious under-grad program to push students through a "write-the-essay-in-long-form, in class, do it, do it now, here's your prompt" rigamarole at some point that would prove, at least as much as possible, that the student can write with some authority on what they've purported to have studied?

Any reputable PhD program does have "checks" like this in place. You'll usually have to pass some sort of written qualifying exam(s) which are lot like you described. (I had to pass two for my mathematics PhD, they were 3-hour long tests in which the questions were not known ahead of time, but we were expected to be able to write coherent proofs for propositions based solely on how we had prepared knowing "sort of" what the syllabus would be.)

There's also an oral exam too. This is done before any real work is done on the actual thesis (although some research may/should have been done by this time).

I imagine that the people for whom this guy was writing theses and dissertations for went to school where there was a "less than reputable" program. There's no way you could get through an entire 6 or 7 year program by having someone else do the work for you.
posted by King Bee at 5:34 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, let's just say that it would probably be worse if I got a tenure-track job, since the job of untenured professors is to do whatever you're told and shut up. In this case, this would mean actively propping up the system. It's like becoming a casual pot dealer versus going to work for the DEA.

Get out of what you're doing and do something else, perhaps, since you're clearly unhappy about the whole affair.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:35 AM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hmmm... I've never really thought about it before, but I could probably make a lot of money in my spare time doing this for Computer Science students.
posted by keratacon at 6:17 AM on November 15, 2010


If you can't see that, words fail me

It's ok, just hire somebody!
posted by sunshinesky at 6:27 AM on November 15, 2010


As you may have realized from my username, I'm in the sciences. I was raised in the US, but did a semester abroad in college. I have turned in written assignments in French in science courses and so I feel that I can say something about writing in a second language: I didn't cheat.

I attended class, took notes, did the readings, did the homework and the lab reports.I wrote the assignments and asked for help from my classmates to make sure that my grammar was vaguely correct. I have sympathy for those students who are dealing with the double challenge of course work and a second or third language.

Also in the past few years I did some grading of essays for an upper level science class at a public university. The first time I did this grading the essay in question was an extra credit assignment. Students had done a class presentation on a subject and could earn extra credit by handing in an essay on the same topic. 65% of these essays were plagiarized. My bottom line was three or more sentences copied. I'll reiterate: this was an extra credit assignment. The students did not have to write the essay. More than half still cheated. The following semester, the assignment was not optional and I asked the person teaching the class to stand up in front of class and explain plagiarism and that the person grading would be looking for it. The percentage was less than half but it was still quite high. The next semester, I stood up in front of the class myself and told the students that I would be looking for plagiarism, that they shouldn't copy from Wikipedia or journal articles or text books. They still cheated. I think I remember that around 1/3 of the students copied their essays from somewhere. Levels of plagiarism ranged from copying a book chapter or journal article to the Wikipedia pastiche, to the guy who cleverly used google translate on an article in another language (he forgot to translate one phrase and it was nicely google-able; he then tried to claim that he'd written the paper in his home language and used google translate to get it into English - he didn't mention that he hadn't written the original paper himself. Bummer, dude.)

These college students can't write. The emails from this article are not unusual. I don't know if they can read reasonably either. I find it somewhat terrifying. I don't care if you think that a college degree is a damn rubber stamp to let you get a job, if you can't read and write, you're going to have trouble doing most jobs. I can make an educated guess that these students can't do basic math either.

I keep coming back to this article in the New York Times that talks about a high school that took a novel approach: they made the kids write everything.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:00 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Almost all cases of corruption can be described as victimless crimes, if the description is kept short enough. Someone gets the extra money, someone gets the extra service they want. Nothing wrong there, a win-win-situation.

Somehow places with high levels of such nice service culture end up being associated with more obviously moral problems.

I'd go as far as saying that corruption itself is immoral, even as I cannot always describe the logical necessity of how the corrupt act will lead to personal suffering. I can only say that it probably will lead to either such direct suffering or supports a system that will cause such suffering.
posted by Free word order! at 7:05 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


King Bee: When I showed them what the probability was that they had all chosen the same 13-digit number, they changed their tune. They ensured me they would work alone from there on out.

Like you, I teach math. I don't think I've seen this before, but I have seen cases where students all happen to make the same idiosyncratic notational choices and think I won't notice.

Incidentally, I find it a lot easier to detect cheating when the students are forced to write up their answers well. I'm more likely to notice that two people have written the same awkward sentence than that they've made the same mistake in computation.

In my more bitter moments I think that the only reason we ask students to show their work is plagiarism-detection, and everything we say about how we want to "see how they think" is just grafted on so we don't have to tell the students we don't trust them.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:06 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


King Bee again: I have to offer quizzes and partial credit for students who can't be arsed to write a sentence.

I think that students have been conditioned to think that every course will be run in the "standard" way. And let's face it, it's easier and less time-consuming to do things that way, which gives us all more time to work on our research (aka "real work").

I also remember finding that students are capable of writing sentences, in the one semester where the professor I was TAing for (in second-semester caluclus) insisted that students do so and told me to pay attention to that in grading. I was actually surprised how little instruction I needed to give them - they knew what to do. But I don't dare do it now, because I'm not doing my own grading and I don't trust my grader to know good writing. (Also, your mileage may vary.)
posted by madcaptenor at 7:13 AM on November 15, 2010


I'm just plain disgusted by this. I'm the first person in my family to graduate from college. I worked summers and evenings and managed to get by, but never in my imagination did I think it was an option to buy my degree like the author of the Chronicle article describes.

The whole thing just makes me feel like a naive blue collar kid who didn't know other people played by a different set of rules. The upshot is that I can read, write and reason about things fairly well and I suspect the cheaters are still beholden to others to feign competence.

I hope it costs them dearly each and every time.
posted by dgran at 8:09 AM on November 15, 2010 [21 favorites]


I've read enough academic material to know that I'm not the only bullshit artist out there. I think about how Dickens got paid per word and how, as a result, Bleak House is ... well, let's be diplomatic and say exhaustive. Dickens is a role model for me.

Amazing he included this bit of myth. Dickens was contracted in advance for a certain number of installments for each of his books, many of which were published in magazines he himself owned. Calling him a "bullshit artist" while completely mischaracterizing how he operated is beyond crass.
posted by mediareport at 9:19 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


dgran, I think this is a really important point. If a student turns in a paper they didn't write, they're committing fraud, they're lying to me, and they may be gaining an unfair advantage over a student like you. It's that third category that upsets me. Students probably lie to me all the time and I've decided that constant suspicion is not the life I want. And I'm not going to defend my university system as the best way to educate! But I work with students all the time who struggle to do the work, and come back at it again and again, and never think to cheat; I guess the most I can hope for is to engage them fairly one-to-one.

I try to design plagiarism-resistant topics that require original work, but this can't protect against work-for-hire writers like this one. I do have to add, though, that I think for most of us who do a lot of in-process work with students as they write, the primary goal isn't to catch plagiarists but to, you know, talk with students as they do their work...
posted by Mngo at 9:47 AM on November 15, 2010


It is fundamentally different. For one, everyone knows that supervisors have work done for them...

Sorry Etrigan, I was talking about the actual experience of doing the work, not trying to equate the two ethical situations.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:03 AM on November 15, 2010


I don't fault the particular writer of this article, I just think it's an indication of how fucked the academic system is. If it wasn't this guy then it would be someone else. My friends knew that I could write well all through high school and college, and frequently offered me money to write their papers for them (I didn't, but I'm sure that someone did).

Ours is an academic system from kindergarden to senior year of college that doesn't value the humanities, and by extension, one's ability to put thoughts into words. It's also a social system that derides people for having an interest in the written word, instead saying that the only valuable areas of study are in computers, math, and engineering.

It's an academic system where learning is totally divorced from the activity of attending class to get a piece of paper.

It's an economic system with too many white collar workers, too little work for them to do, and none of it being very valuable to society as a whole.

From stem to stern things are pretty much backwards and awful. The writer is just a single gear in a terrible machine (even if he's not telling the truth, nothing he says seems unbelievable), and if he slides out of service then there's another one equally willing to take his place.
posted by codacorolla at 10:25 AM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


There's something in this essay I don't know how to feel about:

I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): "You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?"

I find his client's use of English vital, original, and quite appealing.

If a dialect were to develop among users like her, one which managed to preserve or intensify what I see in her writing as a kind of effervescent and recursive density and economy of expression, I would think a very good thing had come into the world (maybe it already has, in fact).

And if that dialect were to have an influence on mainstream English, I would confidently expect that influence to be revitalizing rather than degrading.

I was just reading an essay on cookbooks which claimed that we have so few written examples of Vulgar Latin that a single short pamphlet of recipes and techniques written by a slave (Apicus) counts as one of our major sources, and yet it's Vulgar Latin that developed into Italian, Spanish, and French, not the high Latin of Caesar, Cicero and Vergil.

I don't know, maybe all the agonies we feel at the decline of the ability to write formal English among our college students are merely the birth pangs of a more vigorous New English.

Perhaps we should be saying to ourselves "No, no, don't cross your legs like that. Push."
posted by jamjam at 10:42 AM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't fault the particular writer of this article, I just think it's an indication of how fucked the academic system is.

Exactly. What I was trying to get at in this thread is that cheating is a side-effect of a much larger problem that people (especially academics with a vested interest in the system) are reluctant to admit, much less to confront directly. In an ideal learning environment where everyone agrees on the ends and means of the educational process, cheating would certainly be a betrayal--perhaps not morally wrong per se, but certainly bad in a profound sense. In the contemporary university it's simply a logical reaction. Let's not forget that universities themselves routinely lie to students and applicants for marketing purposes. Usually, this takes the form of simple bullshit like you find in corporate mission statements, but occasionally, as we saw with the student loan scandals a few years back, there's outright deception involved. An "honor code" makes sense only in the framework of a system of shared values and equal opportunities for participation; otherwise, like so much else in contemporary academia, it's just a hollow sham.
posted by nasreddin at 10:45 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some years back, I visited Moscow with my family. We had a tour guide and translator with us, a fellow who grew up in Wales, but had family in Russia and had lived around Moscow for a few years. He'd give us candid insight into some of the unusual workings of Russia, such as the university degrees advertised in the subway stations. He said you could literally buy a degree, complete with grades in courses at that university, not just a forged piece of paper. He laughed a bit, and said he knew someone who got a job with an oil field locating and drilling company because of a purchased degree, and we talked about what that meant for the country at large.

Back then, I knew people could buy essays for college courses, but work "toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy"? Perhaps this is marking the masked author as a first-class bullshitter, someone who is very efficient at studying a topic and regurgitating a coherent report, an inherent vagueness in those programs, or all of the above. But it results in paying for your degree. The Russians have just made that system more efficient, cutting out the need to grade papers.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:56 AM on November 15, 2010


Calling [Dickens] a "bullshit artist" while completely mischaracterizing how he operated is beyond crass.

Or just stupid. He probably outsourced his English class. More to the point, he seems to be suggesting that playing by Grub Street rules at their worst are a path to fortune. Ain't a lot of writers ever got rich that way. And I doubt this guy is either, really. He's a self-confessed liar and bullshit artist with a vibe that swings between megalomania and nihilism like no-sword's mucus guy, so I should believe what he says about getting rich?
posted by octobersurprise at 11:01 AM on November 15, 2010


Some years back, I visited Moscow with my family. We had a tour guide and translator with us, a fellow who grew up in Wales, but had family in Russia and had lived around Moscow for a few years. He'd give us candid insight into some of the unusual workings of Russia, such as the university degrees advertised in the subway stations. He said you could literally buy a degree, complete with grades in courses at that university, not just a forged piece of paper. He laughed a bit, and said he knew someone who got a job with an oil field locating and drilling company because of a purchased degree, and we talked about what that meant for the country at large.

Yeah, it's very common, especially for highly-placed bureaucrats, to buy dissertations or plagiarize them, since the point is the prestige-value of the degree. Putin's dissertation was clearly purchased, for instance.
posted by nasreddin at 11:01 AM on November 15, 2010


The people who are negatively impacted by this have been outlined by others, but also include the whole programs from which they graduate, and the people who graduate alongside the frauds. It'd be interesting to know more of the role these bought papers played in students scholastic careers - were most of those GE classes, intended to provide students a "better rounded" college experience, or were they major-specific courses, work which should serve as foundations for other classes? Did these students buy their way through a series of classes? And could they hack it in exams, assuming there were some in-class written finals or the like? There was the one student who he helped to graduate, but was that a one-off, or just one of many? And what of that poor person's first actual job, where she had to write in her own words? Or what is the distribution of people who pay for papers by major?

The piece is inflammatory without context, without a scale to measure the real impacts. But a piece about trends in the money made by these businesses, or about the rates of post-college failure tied to purchased papers, lacking the flair of a personal memoir of illicit activities would likely be a dull read.

nasreddin: Yeah, it's very common, especially for highly-placed bureaucrats, to buy dissertations or plagiarize them, since the point is the prestige-value of the degree. Putin's dissertation was clearly purchased, for instance.

Prestige-degrees are one thing, flaunting knowledge as a badge, rather than applying it. But our translator and tour guide said something to the effect that you could buy an entire college history, grades in classes you never attended. Corruption of a system, instead of inability for the system to verify personal work.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:11 AM on November 15, 2010


cheating would certainly be a betrayal--perhaps not morally wrong per se, but certainly bad in a profound sense.

"Profoundly bad, but not morally wrong, per se ..."

Well, if you aren't cut out for academia, you certainly have a bright future in Public Relations.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:12 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, if you aren't cut out for academia, you certainly have a bright future in Public Relations.

That's interesting. You don't make that distinction? If you're a patriot, for instance, I'd assume that you would think taking your country's flag and shitting on it would be a bad act, but not a morally wrong one. There are plenty of examples of actions that violate some kind of non-moral norm, and conflating them all with moral wrongs seems dangerous.
posted by nasreddin at 11:19 AM on November 15, 2010


But leaving aside the issue of paid time, why should I spend my energy commenting on work that isn't the student's, when I could spend it on my research, on other students' real work, or on MTV's Real Life: I'm an Internet Has-Been?

But if you don't know that you're spending energy commenting on work that isn't the student's work, then what difference does it make to you? You have no way of knowing whether or not the work is truly that of said student so it's all the same to you. Just grade the paper like you normally would and let the student get on with his or her life and other classes.

Sometimes students work hard and put in long hours but still need help in the other classes they are 'forced' to take. Just because a student decides to use this service doesn't make them morally wrong, in my opinion. I cheated in college but I also worked hard and put in the time and effort into the classes that were important to me. My (and most) universities forced me to take this chemistry class or that physics class while I was genuinely trying my best to learn in my math/psych/soc/history/whatever else classes. I'll be damned if I'm going to let one or two classes derail my G.P.A. and/or cause me to fail and spend more money to get my degree.

What about scheduling issues? I can't remember how many times I had back to back finals, or papers on top of papers that were almost impossible to complete or do well in, just because of timing. If I busted my ass off and earned the grade in 3 of my 4 classes and cheated on the 4th, what difference does it make to you, my teacher, my current employer or anyone else on the planet? Answer - None.
posted by GrooveJedi at 11:21 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


GrooveJedi: If I busted my ass off and earned the grade in 3 of my 4 classes and cheated on the 4th, what difference does it make to you, my teacher, my current employer or anyone else on the planet? Answer - None.

Sure it does. You compete for jobs and for grades. By cheating, you compete better than the non-cheaters, and in a way, make cheating necessary for others. It's an ugly, self-reproducing system of corruption.

Even if you don't believe this is bad, you can surely understand why - in a strictly utilitarian sense - the system and the non-cheaters want to get rid of you. You make the system less valuable by stripping meaning from the degrees and certifications, and you compete with the non-cheaters. It is to the benefit of both to discover and eliminate cheaters.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:40 AM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


Ah, to be a freshman in ENG 161 at UIC.

God bless that TA that ran through everyone's first paper, a basic 3 page essay on any subject to get a baseline of the students abilities, through a plagiarism detector. 1/4 of the class failed right then and there and almost got expelled from the University.



As to the ethics of cheating? I would venture that 9/10 times it's a black and white situation of wrong/right, however the 1/10 times it's a gray area that slides to #666666 shade of gray.
posted by wcfields at 11:44 AM on November 15, 2010


I never cheated in school, but given the comments on this thread, I think my college and job-seeking experiences were completely different than most other people's.

I can't say that I didn't benefit at ALL from college, but the fact that I had to work in a grocery store for years until I had a piece of paper that allowed me to get a job fixing computers (despite my having fixed computers in my spare time since I was 14) makes me understand the demand for people such as the guy in the article.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:49 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


...But then there's the money, the sense that I must capitalize on opportunity, and even a bit of a thrill in seeing whether I can do it.

I can't help thinking this guy is now in an ideal position to blackmail a few of his former customers.
posted by Lanark at 12:30 PM on November 15, 2010


Sure it does. You compete for jobs and for grades. By cheating, you compete better than the non-cheaters, and in a way, make cheating necessary for others. It's an ugly, self-reproducing system of corruption.

This also explains why so many athletes are substanced up these days. If you're the only one not doing it, you can't compete as effectively.

In other words, "this is why we can't have nice things."
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:01 PM on November 15, 2010


"I'll be damned if I'm going to let one or two classes derail my G.P.A. and/or cause me to fail and spend more money to get my degree. "

This statement encapsulates the warped sense of entitlement someone has to have in order to believe that they've got the right to lay claim to the same laurels that more honest people have had to put actual work in to earn.
posted by stagewhisper at 1:30 PM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I am certain that my company has fired a number of recent grads who passed in just this manner. Pro Tip: If you hire someone to write your essays and then you get hired by using one of them as an example of your work, don't be surprised when your tenure at the job is rather short.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:26 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


GrooveJedi -- most of us had back to back finals, papers due within a few days of each other, and all of the other crap that you're dealing with. And yet we survived, and most of our students survive now, without hiring someone else to write a slickly superficial piece of crap that will just sneak you a pass. Do your own bloody work, or take fewer courses per term, or do whatever you need to do. Life is not a freaking race.
But if you don't know that you're spending energy commenting on work that isn't the student's work, then what difference does it make to you? You have no way of knowing whether or not the work is truly that of said student so it's all the same to you. Just grade the paper like you normally would and let the student get on with his or her life and other classes.
Yes, but 1) papers demonstrate a student's knowledge of the subject, and their ability to apply that knowledge to a problem they've developed themselves. And 2) the point of commenting, revising and reworking a student's work is to get them to learn how to write (or get the math, or learn the basic biochem). You are assessing the student by assessing the work. If the work has no connection to the student, there's nothing to assess.
posted by jrochest at 3:00 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


The whole competition over grades that I saw in high school (including, yes, people cheating or trying to cheat - which is why most of our written exams for English and History and such were written in class rather than being hand-in assignments) drove me into the loving arms of crazy hippie college with no grades. (That and I am kind of a crazy hippie, sort of.)

Without grades, there really isn't the same impetus to cheat. We had narrative evaluations that could be better (if the professor liked you/your work) or worse (I've had some professors that just flat out eviscerated me and really, a few evaluations that cross the line from "harsh criticism" to "ok, that was just NASTY.") than grades, depending. I imagine that this was a zillion times more work for the professors than simply grading papers, but the upshot was that there wasn't any kind of market for cheating. I've never heard of anyone buying a term paper or anything like that - it was a small enough school that I think if something like that were happening on the fringes in any kind of "black market" capacity, I would have heard about it. (F'rinstance - I've never done drugs, but man, I could have told you where to get cocaine on a Friday night - no problem. Small. School.) Class sizes were small as well, so the professors got to know you as a student marginally well enough to have some concept of whether or not the work you turned in was your own. Office hours were mandatory (usually 2 per semester per class was how it went - and there were days blocked off specifically for this purpose on the calendar where no one held class, you just went to meetings. Lots and lots of meetings.).

So, anyhow, one of the benefits of this system is that people couldn't really cheat. It would be nigh on impossible to do so without getting caught on anything more crucial than a homework assignment. I know that removing grades isn't a solution for all schools and a narrative eval is a lot of work for the professor - but a system where the letter grade is not the sole end result of the class really makes you more accountable for your work than coasting through a semester just for some points on a transcript.
posted by sonika at 3:12 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


He's a self-confessed liar and bullshit artist [..] so I should believe what he says about getting rich?

As pointed out elsewhere, the FPP article is quite overwritten since he's used to adding filler, but I think his use of the word 'rich' was rather tongue-in-cheek. In the body of the text is a reference to making about $65,000 last year which is a decent but hardly exceptional income.

That he allegedly made this income by facilitating the deception of others certainly affects his credibility, but this veers dangerously close to an ad hominem argument: dangerous in that the moral outrage on display from many posters here is only justified to the extent that his bragging is credible, so dismissing the more awkward corollaries of his argument by impugning their credibility sounds like an attempt to both have one's cake and eat it. Put another way, if cheating is bad, then facilitating cheating is also bad; to facilitate cheating and be as skillful and effective as claimed here is considered to be very bad indeed, since those with $$$ to spare can buy their way to academic integrity instead of working at it. Fair enough - but if that is bad, then so is the institutional failure to detect cheating and filter out the unfit, and so are the economic incentives that perpetuate such poor quality control (academic funding models, for example). If you want to dismiss those observations as lacking credibility, how does that square with the intense and vindictive criticism of the ghost writer?

I think the reason this FPP arouses such passion is because it is all too credible: most of us have encountered people who got through college and/or into a cushy job despite serious intellectual shortcomings, and the idea that they might have bought their position by corrupt methods is very plausible. If this is as widespread as the author of the article claims, then it significantly devalues educational awards and the work and intellectual ability they are meant to signify. But attacking the writer as an enabler of such behavior is like blaming drug dealers for the failure of drug policy, while turning a blind eye to people's taste for consuming illegal drugs and the addiction of law enforcement agencies to property seizures as a funding source. In this case, the uncomfortable truths are that access to education does not confer the ability to benefit from it, but educational institutions have become dependent on a steady flow of student subsidies. We can point the finger at this ghost writer, because he admits to his part in the deception, and gives specifics about the financial benefits he has reaped from the practice.

We may suspect that our boss, colleague or competitor has been a buyer of such services, but can't think of an easy way to point the finger at him or her and say 'your seemingly well-documented MBA or similar degree is a worthless figleaf covering your ugly intellectual junk,' because that requires us to indict the educational institutions which issue such qualifications, and to question whether the best way to improve education is to just increase funding for it - an awkward position for those concerned with social justice, to say the least.

This aversion to quality control overlaps with some of the objections to standardized testing and the accountability movement, as observed in this recent MeFi comment. The objection that faculty lack the resources or skill for this don't make sense to me either - given that tuition is continually getting more expensive, and that professors who teach a subject are by definition expert in it, it seems to me that they have a vested interest in making sure that only the competent get credit rather than allowing the wholesale debasement of the credential-granting service they sell for a living. College ought to be about the love of learning for its own sake, but the only way we're going to get back to that is by filtering out the intellectually incurious. For the present, the brutal fact is that getting a degree has become a purely economic problem for most people, a means to the necessary end of finding a well-paying job.

Now, I agree with the argument that approaching academic requirements like an achievement barrier in a videogame exhibits a 'warped sense of entitlement.' But I think the same is true of charging high tuition rates for weakly-verified academic credit, of grading on a curve to create or exaggerate marginal differences in objective performance, or relying heavily on the products of the testing industry, despite the widespread availability of services that provide an understanding testing methods as opposed to improving knowledge of the subjects being tested.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:22 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Anigbrowl & Unsane:

I'm a Medieval/Early Modern specialist, so the 20th century is a spiky and alien land. And the rubric of the exam involved writing three essays demonstrating broad, complex understanding of three centuries, in three genres; if you know the stuff cold and can happily discuss Pound, Eliot, Heidegger and Cormac McCarthy in a big happy ball, I'm sure it would be golden. I swear the 20th century people who needed to swat up paper one had fewer problems: the canon is helpful. But trying to cram a basic knowledge of 20th century fiction, theory, and poetry into my brain in 6 months was *interesting* to say the least.

I'm sure the question did its job, which was to reveal weakness; it certainly did in me.
posted by jrochest at 3:27 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sonika: as you know, I teach college. Seeing my students freak out about grades makes me want to teach at a crazy hippie school.
posted by madcaptenor at 3:51 PM on November 15, 2010


jrochest, Metafilter is probably not the ideal forum for comparing individual approaches to those kinds of question. The reason I blithely said 'it writes itself' was not thanks to any training or expertise in 20th century literature, but because a topic like that is an open-ended invitation to explain what the point of getting an education in some non-utilitarian subject in the first place.

In your shoes, I'd have contrasted the literary populism of late Victorian writers like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Mary Shelley and worked backwards towards Samuel Johnson or Pepys, emphasizing the benefit of broad audience appeal for both contemporary success less predictably, for literary longevity. Then I'd have dug into authors I like whose work was limited by its niche appeal from the outset and examine how decades or centuries might pass before its insight or significance could be appreciated, and argue that our inability to value the present in terms of the future is what justifies our study of the obscure - limiting our studies to the history of success constrains our subsequent intellectual growth.

Now, I'm drawing a lot of inferences here from the way you described the coursework and examination - I appreciate that this may be very different from your experience of what professors were actually looking for. Also, I wasn't quite clear on whether this represented the entirety of one 3-hour exam, or just a portion thereof. But I did get the strong impression that the task being set was to take on a point of view and develop an argument for it which you could defend against oral challenge within the limited time available, as opposed to meeting a set target of citations or sources.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:45 PM on November 15, 2010


... You don't make that distinction? ... There are plenty of examples of actions that violate some kind of non-moral norm, and conflating them all with moral wrongs seems dangerous

I do make distinctions between behavior which is morally wrong, legally prohibited, and merely socially inept. What struck me is the notion that some kind of behavior could be both "bad in a profound sense" but still not morally wrong. Many kinds of behavior violate rules of etiquette ("non-moral norms") without being morally wrong. But I can't think of any I'd describe as "profoundly bad" at the same time. Maybe this is what distinguishes your position from mine. You appear to regard cheating in an academic environment to be merely a violation of etiquette, like farting in class.
posted by octobersurprise at 4:46 PM on November 15, 2010


The practice is grossly dishonest and unethical. The writer seems amoral. The failings of the university system don't make it any less fraudulent to pass someone else's work off as your won.
posted by cogneuro at 5:16 PM on November 15, 2010


The practice is grossly dishonest and unethical. The writer seems amoral. The failings of the university system don't make it any less fraudulent to pass someone else's work off as your won.

Miss Me Yet?
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:30 PM on November 15, 2010


Not analogous to the cheating case, where the cheater and the hired writer both know their particular type of lie violates social norms

I would wager that the business student in the article, apparently along with several commenters on this thread, don't find anything socially abnormal about paying someone else to write their essays.
posted by robertc at 5:53 PM on November 15, 2010


By the way, here's an insightful and informative, albeit equally depressing, discussion of this same article on Hacker News which I missed over the weekend.
posted by anigbrowl at 6:14 PM on November 15, 2010


"An 'honor code' makes sense only in the framework of a system of shared values"

True story: I got my MA at the University of Virginia which has an ostensibly strong honor code. In almost every classroom it's up on the wall (drafted by Thomas Jefferson himself if I'm not mistaken). Any time your write a paper or take a test you have to write out the honor code word-for-word and then put down your signature. Everywhere you go admins and profs will talk up the honor code -- "We self-police, we self-regulate, we trust you, the student, to make moral/academical/ethical decisions. If there's a problem you will go before a jury of your peers, no academic deans necessary."

And guess what? It was total bullshit for multiple reasons. As a TA or graduate instructor, if I caught a student (not suspect, but actually caught) a student plagiarising or cheating I had only one recourse -- Honor Council. If it was a situation where the student accidentally plagiarised (not at all uncommon while teaching freshman comp classses) I was unable to pull the student aside, give them an "F" for the paper, and then explain what they did wrong. Nope, it was full-barrel work to have them expelled or keep your mouth shut.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, you had more than one occassion where students who plagiarised would simply lawyer up if there was any possibility of an Honor Council inquiry. And guess what? The UVA administrators argued that it would sully the honorable legacy of Mr. Jefferson to actually pay for lawyers for the professor or graduate instructor, even when the perp had already done so with vague but real threats of a libel lawsuit.

Hell, Fred Smith's kid knocked the teeth out of another undergraduate but nobody, including the victim, wanted to risk a lawsuit. (Smith would probably have lost anyway, but he'd be happy to bankrupt you and/or your parents.)

So I'm not agreeing with Nasreddin. I think plagiarising is cheating and cheating is morally wrong. But I'm also not seeing how defending the status quo of university ethics gets us veyr far either. To this day UVA's honor code gets held up as a shining example of academic ethics in action. In reality, it's a fucking disaster and a shameful fraud perpetrated on academics (tenured or otherwise) who do actually give two shits about university ethics.
posted by bardic at 7:31 PM on November 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Angibowl -

I offered the specific example because disillusioned had asked why PhD programs weren't using exams as a way to weed out those who buy a dissertation. I explained that Toronto's English department used to, and described them: 6 hours of written comps covering all of English lit from Anglo-Saxon to the present, marked by a set committee of grad faculty; one three hour written special fields exam on the dissertation area, followed by a two to three hour oral exam, marked and administered by the members of the student's thesis committee. All had to be passed before you could begin work on the thesis.

Sorry to mention the specific question, but it's stuck in my head ever since that morning, and in the heads of a few others, I suspect. From those who wrote on it successfully, I know that the question was intended to allow the candidate to discuss rhetoric or prosody rather than reception theory; I like your answer, but the committee probably wouldn't have.
posted by jrochest at 7:39 PM on November 15, 2010


That doesn't surprise me too much - it was pretty much a guess based on your brief description of the course. As I had the impression you were actually studying hard, I figured there must be some good reason you found the topic imposing - I just couldn't make it out from your original description.

Bardic's message just above pretty much sums up my position on the subject at hand.
posted by anigbrowl at 8:02 PM on November 15, 2010


I wonder how pervasive cheating is, and how it varies across cultures. Do Canuck U students cheat as much as others?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:53 PM on November 15, 2010


Probably not, because they don't have to.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:06 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. That's a scary little essay. The US spends much more on education than other countries and gets much worse results—echoes of healthcare.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:10 PM on November 16, 2010


It's a little alarming to consider what happens to the USA as it fails to produce citizens with a leading education.

While the US was a great leader in science and technology, within a generation or two it's citizens are going to be well-suited only for menial work. When only 6% of students are functioning at an advanced level, you just know shit's gonna hit the fan.

One should probably start boning up on Mandarin.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:14 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bruce Schneier (is any long discussion about almost anything under the sun really complete these days without a link to him?) says nothing that isn't said above, but gives us all a neat and concise kernel to take away: "As long as the academic credential is worth more to a student than the knowledge gained in getting that credential, there will be an incentive to cheat."
posted by kipmanley at 4:47 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not a single one of your comments has contributed anything to this thread.
posted by nasreddin


Those actually weren't my comments. I was far too busy to read the actual post and following discussion. I had someone else read the thread for me and they then wrote those comments. I submitted them to manufacture the illusion of engagement and comprehension in order to fool you. In point of fact, I haven't even the remotest grasp of their content or meaning. Further, I am much too busy to waste my time reading them, as the marks I've received are acceptable. Your assessment is moot, as the evaluation process has been based on false premises.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:50 PM on November 16, 2010 [5 favorites]


Law school (the one I went to anyway) had pretty rigorous safeguards against cheating. The vast majority of the subjects were tested via in-class written exams, one midterm and one final. In our upper years, we often got only one in-class written final, worth 100% of our grade. A lot of these exams were either fully open book, or we were allowed to bring in "cheat sheets," which eliminated whatever advantage there was to be gained by smuggling in materials. For the few paper classes, we had to present our topics orally as well.

I never saw these as tactics against cheating until I read this article. I honestly believed they were just trying to kill us.
posted by keep it under cover at 7:06 PM on November 16, 2010


I wish I'd asked this earlier, but if anyone is still reading, I've been thinking about how this job is probably certainly immoral in some ways, but that it also gets analyzed through a moral lens more intensely than many other jobs because of the obvious connection it has to cheating--an obviously norm-breaking even if not always immoral act. We just don't tend to evaluate other jobs through a moral lens very often, with the exception of the obviously altruistic and the obviously pernicious. I'm thinking: how would working for an essay mill compare, morally, to working at McDonald's? To working at The Gap? Walmart? Or any other problematic or semi-problematic corporation or industry? Any thoughts?
posted by skwt at 11:48 PM on November 17, 2010


Like working as a drilling safety engineer for BP?
posted by robertc at 3:58 PM on November 18, 2010


The explicit purpose of his service is fraud. The customer, the middleman, and the writer all know that this is the sole purpose, the raison d'etre of the whole deal.

How is that in any way like working at McDonalds, where the business provides food to people who have every right to buy food? (Their food is bad, the company has bad policies? Maybe so but the business is not explicitly selling people tools for fraud. It's not the same thing.)

Maybe a better analogy would be someone who sells fake IDs? In which case, it still seems natural to say that what the person is doing is unethical.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:29 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


And, not to start a fight, but "probably certainly immoral"? What this guy does is immoral, period. No amount of bullshit cynical heavy sighing can made it anything but immoral. It is wrong to cheat, it's wrong to help someone cheat, it's wrong to make your living helping other people cheat.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:33 PM on November 18, 2010


Sure, I agree it's wrong. But here's what I'm thinking. I'm thinking that because the job involves “cheating,” it makes the morality of it seem more black-and-white. And I think it is black-and-white, but the measure of how bad something is is not the same as how black-and-white it is. You see what I'm saying? By a simple deontological (rule-following) ethics, it's way more obvious that someone who writes essays for cheaters is doing wrong than it is someone who works at McDonald's is doing wrong. The essay writer is breaking the common-sense rule “don't cheat,” whereas the McDonald's employee is breaking no such common-sense rule. But by a consequentialist (results-measuring) ethics, it's not so simple. Yes, the essay mill industry results in negative consequences, as has been shown convincingly in this thread. But corporations like McDonald's have extremely negative consequences on the world. Most people know this: here is a very modest list of their issues. And yet we don't often consider the morality of working for this company. Why not? I think because the essay writer knows he's contributing to a transaction that has negative consequences whereas it might not be so obvious to the McDonald's employee. But if you think the consequences of an action are at least as important as whether or not a rule has been broken, the McDonald's employee's ignorance of their contribution to an industry whose effect on the world I can't imagine is a net positive can only take him or her so far. Which industry is worse? Hard to say, but presumably they're at least comparable. Which job, essay writer or McDonald's cashier/fry-cook, has the greater negative effect on the world?

My instinct is that the essay writer has the greater negative effect, but it's not easy for me to figure out why, and I half-suspect my instinct is falling back on the easier-to-measure “a rule has been broken” logic than the harder-to-measure “what are the effects in the actual world?” yardstick.

But in any case, I think my point stands that this job catches more flak than other jobs because of its flagrant and obvious rule-breaking, which violates something primal in us, whereas the morality of its consequences may not be worse than many other jobs that retain a veneer of respectability because our moral instincts haven't caught up with the complicated way the world works now.
posted by skwt at 9:40 AM on November 19, 2010


I see, that makes more sense.
I suspect that I at least operate basically on a virtue ethics basis in most of my judgments of individuals, which to me involves taking some account of whether the person reasonably knows that what they're doing is wrong (or whether it would take a higher level of moral insight than most people have to know what they're doing is wrong). And it's obvious to me that this guy should know what he's doing is wrong, whereas it's not obvious that low level employees of megacorps, whose daily jobs involve no particular acts of wrongdoing, should know that what they're doing is wrong (if it is).
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:07 AM on November 19, 2010


The Blackwaterization of writing instruction.
posted by mecran01 at 1:42 PM on November 20, 2010


LobsterMitten :It is wrong to cheat, it's wrong to help someone cheat, it's wrong to make your living helping other people cheat.

When my boss asks me to research topic-X and give him a brief report on it, he doesn't particularly care whether or not I pull exactly the summary he wants off the web, pre-written and ready to go for a five minute powerpoint presentation. He just wants the information.

When an aging Babe Ruth's doctor recommended dessicated bull testes to perk up his game, that gave him an edge that we would today consider cheating. Did his doctor do something "wrong" by giving him an extra five years on the field?

Yeah, obviously a college freshman hiring someone to write their comp101 final for them differs somewhat, in that the expectation exists that they will do it themselves. But I would argue that that situation counts as the aberration from the norm, not the standard. The rest of life only cares about results.


/ I would point out that I did all my own coursework, because I went to college for an education, not for a diploma. But if someone else makes it only paying someone to do their assignments, then hey, I look that much better when we eventually get down to "real" work rather than "busy" work.
posted by pla at 5:13 PM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Comparing this guy to a McDonalds employee in terms of immorality it absolutely ridiculous

Do you honestly think that anyone really wants to work for McDonalds? Assuming we're talking about the front line worker, I can almost guarantee that's not the case. They're there out of necessity. They need to pay the bills or gain work experience. Morally speaking, I would never want to work at McDonalds, but I have applied there out of desperation in the past. Would it make me a cheat and a scumbag if I'd taken a job there which I needed, in spite of my awareness? No.

I would be more sympathetic to your point if you were talking about the leaders of the company, but you clearly specified the people working the cash/fryer. You were also talking about people who might well be blissfully unaware of their "negative effect on the world" by virtue of their place of employment. How backwards is that?

The way I see it, a guy who's smart enough to write students' university essays for $65000 a year is very likely to have a lot more choices in how he is employed than someone who ends up working at Mcdonalds or whatever other comparable evil-corporation-flavour-of-the-week that you can think of.

Did I completely miss what you were trying to say, or was it really that unbelievable?
posted by sunshinesky at 6:25 PM on November 21, 2010


sunshinesky : Did I completely miss what you were trying to say, or was it really that unbelievable?

Yup. Do you measure ethics solely by the decision, or by its effects?

If the former, we may as well do away with the entire concept of "ethical" behavior, because it amounts to just one more useless social convention that distracts us from choosing an optimal course of action.
If the latter, then the guy serving 1200 calorie bags-o-saturated-fats arguably causes more harm to the world than the guy writing essays for people with more money than brains.

As for having no choice - At the bottom of the job barrel, you have a lot of equally meaningless - though not equally deleterious - jobs to choose from. Choosing to work at Walmart rather than Mom 'n Pop Co, for example, casts a vote for megacorp hegemony, whether you view it as "just a job" or not.
posted by pla at 4:11 AM on November 22, 2010


As for having no choice - At the bottom of the job barrel, you have a lot of equally meaningless - though not equally deleterious - jobs to choose from. Choosing to work at Walmart rather than Mom 'n Pop Co, for example, casts a vote for megacorp hegemony, whether you view it as "just a job" or not.

It also casts a vote for no benefits instead of low benefits, and raises purely on the whim of your employer rather than as part of regularly scheduled reviews, and no OSHA oversight at all. Especially at the low end of the wage pool, working for small employers can really suck ass. Working at Walmart also kind of sucks ass, but in a different way, and with a lot of good parts, too.

Seriously, this phenomenon of comparatively well-off people telling poor people why they are bad and stupid for shopping at (and now, working at) Walmart is beyond asinine. Poor people (and plenty of non-poor people) shop there because the prices are low, the selection is decent, and the quality is pretty good for the price. People work there because although the pay is low and the benefits are crappy, the paychecks don't bounce and it beats most of the alternatives.
posted by Forktine at 6:24 AM on November 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Forktine: regarding poor people shopping at wal-mart, previously.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:54 AM on November 22, 2010


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