Monday, March 23, 2009

"It's not like they're going to learn anything anyway."

Just read this fascinating article about essay mills (thanks to Goodreports for the link).

There was a time I seriously thought about selling old essays. When I floated the idea to a couple of friends, they were aghast. I never did sell any papers, but I still think there's nothing really wrong with it. This relates, in no small way, to the big fuss over the U of Ottawa prof handing out free A's. I think if you got rid of letter grades and emphasised learning over performance, a lot of the demand for these churned out essays would dry up. If the essay mills are flourishing, it's because the universities are sausage mills themselves.

Funnily, one of the people who told me I shouldn't sell my essays later asked me for an old Paradise Lost essay of mine because she needed to write one and was feeling too harried or something. I gave her my essay; she wound up not using it because she disagreed with my thesis. See, she was a smart person who cared about such things. She belonged in a post-secondary English class. So many students enrolled really have no business being there, but being there is good business for the school.

When I was in the Foundation Year Programme at the University of King's College in Halifax, cheating was rampant. Students were divided into different tutorial groups, with different tutors. As long as two students had different tutors and the papers they submitted were sub-A (A- and higher papers had to go to the Director for approval), both students could submit identical papers with very little risk of detection. I don't recall hearing about anyone getting busted in my year.

When I posted my 4th year paper on Wallace Stevens here on CLM, I had the feeling that some particularly lazy--and stupid--cheaters would be using it. Sure enough, a few months ago I got a hit on the blog from an American university server searching for the precise wording of my essay's opening sentence. After that, I put a caveat emptor up before the essay--which is a bigger favour than those idiots who would copy it verbatim deserve.

When Rachel was a TA at Concordia, she had a student who plagiarized her paper from four different online sources. All just a quick Google search away. I think this might be the way to sell papers and still sleep well at night: cache an archive of paper titles and key sentences, so that suspicious profs can track them down. By and large, if profs don't catch cheaters, they're just as dumb and lazy as the cheaters themselves.


Brian Palmu said...

Fascinating. Hear hear.

By far the biggest # of hits for any one post on my blog is that of Faulkner's Light In August. It would be cool to fantasize that they're mostly plumbers and bankers who had purchased -- or were thinking of purchasing -- that novel, but, really, how many are students searching for, as you say, verbatim essays, or at least large chunks of soon-to-be-plagiarized text?

Zachariah Wells said...

Lynda Philippsen writes in with the following from-the-trenches perspective:

"You say: By and large, if profs don't catch cheaters, they're just as dumb and lazy as the cheaters themselves.

Perhaps. But perhaps that's too simplistic. As a high school teacher who has to read too many papers and return them in a reasonable amount of time, it's not always easy to find the source. Sure, the students who target X for Dummies or Coles, Sparks and other notes listed in the first 20 hits make it easy. Institutions that can afford plagiarism search engines can find it more readily than I will. If the paper is not on line, I have little hope of nabbing the culprit except to ask her/him to verbally elaborate on a particular point in their paper that I have found "interesting,"

Fact of the matter is that with 200 students and sometimes as many as 180 papers submitted in a given week, I don't have time to do more than give a quick scan of a few key phrases and give the student the benefit of the doubt in spite of my suspicions.

Having been accused of plagiarism and losing a first class standing when I did not plagiarize, means I feel compelled to find hard copy proof in order to make that accusation, especially if giving a grade of zero without an option to re-write under supervision.

In the mundane art of pursuing the perfectly made sausage, I have often been tempted to put an essay on the overhead and ask students to copy it--since many will anyway. At least, if they copy an A+ essay, they stand to gain more than the might by a quick scroll and click. That should be worth at least a B- for the hand-cramp factor, no?"

Zachariah Wells said...

Indeed, Lynda, I should have said dumb or overworked. Thanks for the perspective.

Megan said...

My brother, the Philosopher King, gets almost all of his visitors from universities. He's convinced that they're mostly students who are trying to avoid doing real research.

Zachariah Wells said...

...or profs in hot pursuit of plagiarists.