Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Shadow Scholars Lurk...Essays Need to Be Written in Class

Ten or so years ago, I was thinking about launching a business to help students with essays. (I actually do quite a bit of this as a tutor.) What stopped me was my inherent morality: I did not want to become an essay ghostwriter or work for a paper writing service.

After I first set up my web site, I realized that term paper writing was the primary service students were seeking. While I wanted to help students develop great and original college application essays--because I am really good at doing that--many students were simply looking for a way not to do their assigned class work. I am not okay with that, for obvious reasons.

Then, I just got too busy with my book-length graduate school thesis, and I put that idea aside. (Financially, also, it wasn't really worth it for the time and effort involved.)

Sure, I could do it. I think I could write a cogent, at least semi-impressive paper on just about any topic. Being a former news reporter and an essayist by trade, as well as an experienced teacher of several subjects, gives me those mad skillz.

I just read yesterday, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a fascinating essay by Ed Dante (pen name) about being one of these hidden essay writing talents. See this link: http://tinyurl.com/2ued783

But I won't start a paper mill service, because I think it's just wrong.

Note: No blame here, Mr. Dante. I can see how and why you got into this business, and I understand you wouldn't be supplying these essays unless there was a demand. That's how capitalism works, after all. No patriotic American could blame you. Rather, teachers must try to anticipate that their students might pay for essays and work to make that impossible, or simply more difficult.

I also understand that some students really need help. I can hardly imagine, for example, how difficult it must be to be an ESL student in grad school, perhaps one on a scholarship that cannot be lost. English is an almost absurdly hard-to-learn language. We have so many idioms and homonyms and homophones...it's frankly a miracle that I can write it as well as I do (and no, I'm not perfect. No one is).

I don't blame students such as those for seeking professional help. How could I blame them?

I do blame the lazy students, though, the ones who have perhaps coasted through years of schooling and are now entrenched in colleges where they never deserved admission in the first place. Because they often also have money to spend, they can buy all their papers (for thousands of dollars) from essay writers. They will never be found out and--shudder the thought--they will also never learn anything.

And then, picture it: 20 years or so later, we'll be stuck, thanks to our fast dying meritocracy and quickly rising plutocracy, with a moron for Prez who just does favors for his rich buddies and starts crazy wars; or, maybe we'll be faced with the truly frightening possibility that a candidate who attended five undergraduate schools before finally receiving a BS (as in bullshit) diploma in a non-academic subject such as sports broadcasting might one day become president; we might see a rich, bored woman who has billions to burn running for governor of a big state as a...hobby (it's not as if she was ever into politics).

Throughout history, there have always been a few lazy students, and we can never entirely cull these types from the pack. They are only natural, after all. Perhaps those students just aren't mature enough for the responsibility that comes with higher education. Years from now, they may be ready...that old saying, "College is wasted on the young," holds much truth.

College is a scene that many students are not well equipped to handle. All that downtime, all those long-term assignments, the lull of all those intriguing parties....I have long believed that students need to understand what college will really be like before they head off to a campus far away from home. 

To do this, I always tried to help my own students learn how to budget their time (I have a personal rule: NO ALL NIGHTERS) by assigning long projects in parts and checking and grading each piece.

Another idea that could help students not fake out their teachers is not assigning long-term projects or essays at all. Now, wait--before anyone gets mad at me for "dumbing down" education, or suggesting it, I am not saying that "no long papers" is the solution. I do think there is value in training students how to research, draft and self-edit a paper of significant depth and length.

Here's the problem, though: Teachers and professors do not, realistically, have the time to read those papers, especially not fifty or a hundred of them. The instructor can only skim...and the grading is rushed, and plagiarism can be missed entirely.

What are the students learning from that? They are learning, in many cases, how to be deceptive, how to beat the system. They are learning, also, not to respect their teachers.

To get around this, I liked to assign most papers in class. This eliminates the plagiarism problem and lets me get acquainted with each student's writing style. It also teaches students how to handle time pressure (although they hate it, and I can understand that, but writing under pressure is another important life skill).

The problems with in-class writings are 1) having to read the terrible handwriting and 2) rough writing. 

Typically, after assigning an in-class essay, I might take note of the subject, style and ideas and then send the students home to revise--and type.

That can work. Of course, it's a lot of grading. The hard work gets dragged out, in a way, for the teacher. 

But is it worth it? I think so, because students seem to actually learn something.

Another solution is for educators to move away from graded assessments to actually speak with students and find out what they want to learn, what they know, what their questions are. This only happens in the Dewey-centered institutions--you know, learning for learning's sake, not for a number.

I am lucky to have experienced this freeing, self-motivating style of education at Sarah Lawrence College which has no grades and subscribes to John Dewey's philosophy. What a better educational system we would have if all schools and colleges were like this...

If only there were enough time to sit down one-on-one with each student (for more than a few minutes) and really help students with their writing. But that's why we have tutors.

Encourage your students to use tutors, not paper mills. And read Dante's fine essay--it should be required reading for all teachers and professors.

Happy essay writing!


  1. Every time I read you, I wish I were young again and could have taken a class from you! I am one of those people who wasted college when I was there and oh how I wish I could go back and do it over.

    A TED talk from you is something I would looove to see. Any video teaching from you. Ever consider it?


    A. Tomanoix

  2. Thanks very much. I love TED talks, but seriously, I am not, as far as I can tell, some big name who could headline a TED talk. What fun, though (and scary). A video lesson is an idea. Maybe someday soon.