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Thoughts on the Shadow Scholar

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published this article, written under a pseudonym, by someone who makes a (rather good) living writing papers for students who cheat.

He accuses us (we teachers) of being ignorant of how much of this goes on. In fact, I was perfectly well aware that such services exist; you only have to Google any vaguely academic topic and after Wikipedia usually a high percentage of the top ten entries are links directly to a term-paper factory.

What is more disturbing is the somewhat accusatory tone:

I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created.

This is like the criminal blaming the system, and, as in many criminal cases, there is probably some truth to it. We create pressures and perhaps do not adequately provide means for students to meet and handle those pressures.

I liked the example he gave of the "rich kids," who are learning to do what they will spend their lives doing: pay someone else to provide a service for them.

This comment is perhaps a greater cause for concern:
Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.

Custom papers do not make it impossible to detect cheating: of course we know that the student who can barely string two words together in an email did not write that smooth, coherent, intelligently argued paper. But how to prove it? Sometimes, if confronted, a student will break down and admit it. But often they do not. What are we to do?

Students hate in-class work, but often that is the only way to control whether or not the work is original.

I believe that we need to change our assignments, and to change the way we measure student success, but it feels like an endless problem. And cheating is not limited to colleges and universities: look at the Olympic athletes, already in the top of their field, already performing at a higher level than most mere mortals, who feel that they "have" to take performance-enhancing drugs in order to "compete."

Indeed, I believe it is "competition," and perhaps, at risk of sounding like a rampaging socialist, our market-driven society, that is pushing people to cheat. Colleges and universities are only the places that institutionalize the system. If the academic institutions were once again the places where people came to explore ideas, to learn, to express creativity, instead of credential factories, perhaps there would be fewer students willing to get those credentials by any means necessary.

crossposted at College English


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 15th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
One of the advantages of the examination based system I went through was that it was extremely difficult to cheat.
Nov. 15th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)
True. But it all hinged on teh performance of a few hours. I had nothing that actually counted towards my degree between prelims and finals. Then 27 hours over ten days, and that was that.
Nov. 16th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
I'm not saying an exam based system is ideal. I'm not sure what is.
Nov. 15th, 2010 10:34 pm (UTC)
It's tricky - an all-exam system favours crude memory skills over analysis, so is no improvement.

Probably some sort of requirement to present drafts partway through might help, though even then a student with enough money to throw at it could pay for drafts too. The Internet just makes it too easy to match would-be cheats with people unscrupulous enough to do the work for them for cash.

Thoroughly unpleasant.
Nov. 16th, 2010 12:13 am (UTC)
an all-exam system favours crude memory skills over analysis

That depends on the subject. I defy anyone to get a maths degree based on "crude memory skills".
Nov. 15th, 2010 11:01 pm (UTC)
I teach online now (after many years in the classroom) and I can recognize if a different voice is writing the paper and the discussion posts. And I can find some ways to break most of them (involving asking them to explain certain points) but it does take time.

What I can't possibly do is tell if someone else is doing all the work. I can't make them come to campus with a picture ID and write inclass papers because they don't all live nearby. Seems like an inevitable flaw in the system. But how many teachers check ID in on-ground classes? I never did.
Nov. 16th, 2010 01:22 am (UTC)
I teach some online courses, too, and have the same problems. I have a couple of time-limited essay assignments (with, say, a 24 hour turn-around) that would be difficult to hire someone to do, but still if there's someone else just doing the work that would be impossible to check. I'm always suspicious of ESL students, I'm afraid, and quite a few ESL students take the online courses.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 16th, 2010 01:24 am (UTC)
Yeah, I usually have at least one in-class essay, and an exam that's worth a fair bit. I've started giving less weight to long papers as they are the easiest things to cheat on. I also tell my students that my internet skillz are stellar and that anything they can find I can, and faster :-)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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