“Cheating Goes Global as U.S. Students Outsource College Papers” That’s the headline from a front page story in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s a compelling, disturbing–but
fundamentally flawed incomplete–story of what is called ‘Contract Cheating.’ From it we learn that a lot of American college students today cannot be bothered to do their assigned work; instead, they hire writers to produce their essays and term papers, paying as much as $42 per page.
(NOTE FROM AUTHOR: As Alan Schwarz points out, ‘fundamentally flawed’ is strong language, perhaps too strong for this post. And so I have substituted ”incomplete’ for ‘fundamentally flawed.’ My thinking was that its incomplete nature was important enough to justify ‘fundamentally flawed,’ but I respect Alan’s argument. As noted below, the reporters tell only the ‘supply’ side of the story and neglect the equally important ‘demand’ side. They also say that Australia has solved the problem but provide no supporting details.)
The Times story is built around one Mary Mbugua, a young Kenyan woman who has earned as much as $320 a month writing papers for students, in a country where the per capita income is only $1700. While she is conflicted about the fundamental dishonesty of her work, she needs the money, and so she writes–to order–term papers about everything from euthanasia to whether humans should colonize space.
Ms. Mgubua is presented as a representative of many thousands of educated men and women in Africa, India, the Ukraine, and elsewhere. How many such papers are churned out? The Times reports: “Millions of essays ordered annually in a vast, worldwide industry that provides enough income for writers to make it a full-time job.”
The companies that provide this service are slick. One pitch reads, “No matter what kind of academic paper you need, it is simple and secure to hire an essay writer for a price you can afford. Save more time for yourself.”
I ask you to consider what the company means by “time for yourself.” Beer pong? Road trips? Smoking weed? Ultimate Frisbee? Personal growth? Somehow, I don’t think they mean exploring complex issues or developing one’s mind.
Here’s my problem: The Times tells only the ‘supply‘ side of the story: who is writing these essays and why. The reporters do not dig into the equally important ‘demand‘ aspect: who is buying these essays, and why.
Nor do the reporters address possible solutions, although they report that Australia has (somehow) solved the problem. Because the article devotes space to a software company and its founder, it seems to be implying that solving the problem of widespread plagiarism requires technology. That’s flat out wrong!
From my own experience covering higher education, it’s not difficult to find students who are willing to reveal their secrets. My colleagues and I filmed on four campuses for our 2005 film, ‘Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk,’ and we had quite a few undergraduates volunteer to show us how they were cheating their way through college, and explain why. (Click here to watch the film on YouTube or buy it from PBS.)
It turns out they were cheating or coasting through because their goal was to earn a college degree, not to get a college education. I came away believing that most students didn’t even grasp the notion of ‘a college education,’ largely because they had spent their school years on a treadmill, chasing external rewards like grades.
And we learned that most colleges and universities were more intent on improving their scores in the US News & World Report rankings than on equipping young people to navigate–and improve–a changing world.
Teaching and learning–which we naively thought were the core business of higher education–were for the most part an afterthought.
Because professors needed time to do their (all important) research, many entered into an unspoken agreement with their students: “If you don’t ask too much of me, I will give you a good grade.” (That’s actually on tape, from a tenured professor at the University of Arizona!) They lived by “Publish or Perish,” not “Teach or Take Off.”
If colleges want to end the moral rot of plagiarism, they can accomplish it with one broad stroke. Here’s what needs to be done: Make the development of the idea and the drafting of every major paper as important as the final product.
♥Insist on seeing each paper in all its stages of development
♥”What’s your idea for a paper?”
♥”How will you cover this topic?”
♥”Show me your outline.”
♥”Turn in your first draft for my comments.”
♥”Submit your second draft for comments.”
♥”Meet with me regularly to discuss your progress and obstacles.”
(All of this, along with some in-class writing, should also be standard operating procedure in high schools and middle schools.)
Plagiarism becomes impossible under these conditions, because the professors will know what the students are doing from the git-go. No more papers turned in at the last minute.
However, this approach will force professors of sociology, psychology, and history–heck, professors of every subject that is NOT English–to function as writing instructors, something that many of them will not want to do.
It will require professors to shift focus away from their chosen field and onto their students. What a concept!!
It will force students to choose what issues they want to know more about. They will have to do research and some honest writing and rewriting. They will be accountable for the entire process, not just a few typewritten pages turned in during the semester.
Learning to be accountable for what you do: that’s a pretty important lesson to absorb. Sadly, plagiarists are learning a different lesson: Do whatever you have to do to get by. And they are being abetted by their professors.
This isn’t pie in the sky. I’ve met many professors who follow these rules, and I know there are colleges that subscribe to this ideal.
To conclude, this is simple stuff, but, unfortunately, ‘simple‘ does not mean ‘easy.‘ Doing this on America’s college campuses will require genuinely hard work and a fundamental mind shift. Unless and until higher education’s leaders recommit themselves to the vision that drew most of them into education in the first place, plagiarism will continue to flourish.
(Please post your thoughts at Themerrowreport.com. And thanks)