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.

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Of Romance, Ferrets and Plagiarism

Apparently the Romance readers and writers blogs were abuzz some time ago with news that one of the hottest writers in their genre had been caught with her pants down (so-to-speak) having stolen word-for-word material from a non-fiction article about ferrets. Ferrets? You may well ask. The author of the ferret article has written most amusingly about the scandal.

What amazes me, reading the passages in which the plagiarism appears, is not only how completely shameless the copying is, but how appallingly clunky and completely unnecessary the dialogue is in the context of the passage. It’s not just “info-dump” of the worst kind, it’s “dude! wtf??” You have your characters enjoying a post-coital cuddle in the teepee, spot a ferret, and feel an irresistable impulse to launch into a lecture more appropriate for the Discovery Channel? And it’s the classic error that often catches students – have a section in your work that is so completely incongruous that someone is bound to wonder if it comes from somewhere else! What was the author thinking? Did she have a word-count to make up, perhaps? And thought – hey, ferrets are sexy little beasts; let’s introduce some nature-study to go with all the heaving bosoms and burning loins.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Plagiarism

Beware of the following:

Lust: your sinful desire for a good grade leads you to the ever-so-tempting paper mills.

Gluttony: overindulgence in the works of others.

Greed: desire for a better grade than you deserve.

Sloth: sheer laziness either in failure to do your own thinking and writing, or thinking that you don’t need to follow instructions or cite according to the required format.

Wrath: inappropriate feeling of hatred, revenge or even denial towards your instructor or the institution for imposing what you feel are unjust rules.

Envy: resentment of others for their hard work and careful attention to detail.

Pride: thinking you are above the law, too clever to get caught, or too “artistic” to need to follow the required format for citation.