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SHORT TAKES


November 17, 2010

Seeing Ghosts in Class

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just added a new nail to the coffin of American Academia. Lax admission policies, politically correct texts, underpaid assistants who do the teaching in place of the big name professors busy on their next books, incompetent management, to name just a few liabilities, are wrecking the once-proud reputation of many U.S. colleges and universities.

As if these were not enough, the Chronicle highlights another scandal in Academia. Using the nom de fraud Ed Dante, the author of "The Shadow Scholar" reveals himself as a man who "makes a good living" ghostwriting papers for a "custom essay company." In plain English, this means coming up with papers on a variety of subjects, which are then peddled to lackluster students. Those students then attach their names to the essays, get good grades, and move on jobs in the private or public sectors.

Dante says he has "written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology and Ph.D. in sociology." He has also contributed papers for courses in history, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, maritime security, marketing and ethics (!). In the midst of a deep recession, he burbles, "business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company's staff of roughly 50 people writers is not large enough to satisfy the thousands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own."

Those who require the services of Dante and his cohort can be divided into three demographic groups: "The English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid." "Manifestly, colleges are failing those in the first category. (Those in the second don't belong in college.) In a lot of foreign countries, bad grades lead inevitably to obloquy, unemployment and obscurity. Newly arrived at American campuses, the immigrants are terrified of getting C's and D's. The solution is to pay for their B's and A's, as written by the Ed Dantes of this world, no matter how high the price, because failure is even costlier.

The saddest part of all this is not that Dante produces good work. Even by the standards of a junior college, his papers are shoddy---and he knows it. "I haven't been to a library once since I started doing this job," he confesses. "Amazon is quite generous about free samples, and Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And, of course, there's Wikipedia." Dante provides an all-purpose paragraph that characterizes his style: "A close consideration of the events which occurred in ________ during the _______ demonstrate that ________ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define __________ for decades to come." The student then fills in the blanks using words provided by the professor in the assignment's instruction.

Yet the good grades keep coming. And the sheepskins keep getting awarded, no matter how functionally illiterate the student. One grateful client texted Dante, "thanx so much for uhelp ican going to graduate to now," and he was not the worst of the bunch. Do American professors know what's going on and just keep turning a blind eye to the cheating? Or are they so dense they can't tell a ghostwritten essay when they see it? A little of both, actually. As a visiting prof at three universities, I ran across young men and women who obviously bought their papers. I always knew it because I always had my students write a paper in class, and because I interviewed them before they took the course. The dummies always stood out. After one of them (a lazy rich kid) handed in two straight A papers which he was clearly incapable of writing, I offered him a deal. If he wrote with the most tangled syntax and stated the foggiest notions I would give him a C for candor. Otherwise he was getting an F for Fraud. I suspect there are other professors would benefit from this solution.

But many of them won't even try it. Because the institution for which they work needs money, i.e. students who will come up with the fees for tuition, and who will eventually, after getting the jobs they were after, kick in to the alumni fund. Of course, the rest of us will pay dearly for their shortcomings, as they make their way in life. We will scratch our heads about the poor quality of CPA's, nurses, security people, managers, psychologists etc., and never think to trace it back to the Ed Dantes who helped them get on in Academia, no matter how grievous their incompetence, then and now.

Comments (3)

A.J. Kreider:

While we can all agree that things like ghost-paper submissions are a problem for the academy, Mr. Kanfer's comments on the matter seem very, very silly.

Profs pass known cheaters because their college needs money? Is it the author's claim that department chairs and deans instruct profs to do this? That profs are thinking about alumni contributions when they grade papers? This seems absurd, and has certainly not been my experience.

A much more plausible reason is that giving bad grades to such people will likely involve a lot of effort, and may pose some difficulty for the prof.

I you are going to fail a student for submitting work that is not his, and your reason for doing so is that it's too good - you may well be in for a fight. It's one thing to have a copy of a web-based paper that the person plagiarized from. It's quite another to claim that the person could not have written it.

To get evidence for this, you need to call the student in for a conference. Then, you need to ask the student about the paper. Often, they can't speak competently about what's in it, and then they fold and admit it's not their work.

But, if a student is adamant that it's theirs, and they can talk somewhat compentently about their paper, then we have an issue.

I, for one, am not going to give someone and F, have them kicked out of school, and likely have their academic career and life prospects curtailed, based on my suspicions. And, while the college administrations I've worked with have never failed to back me up, there are indeed legal ramifications for the college and prof in such cases.

If one teaches long enough, one comes across student papers one feels certain are plagiared. And yet, after discussions with the student, you realize that the lightbulb has been turned on, and that your suspicions were incorrect. I prescribe a dose of humility for the author.

Finally, as to the author's methods themselves, any prof that gives a "C" merely for candor as a general policy isn't doing the student, his college, or society any favors.

Sincerely,

A.J. Kreider

Lorraine:

"I always knew it because I always had my students write a paper in class, and because I interviewed them before they took the course. The dummies always stood out."

I'm afraid you didn't always know it. In fact, you've made a classic logical error. You were able to catch *some* cheaters--the most obvious of the bunch--but you've assumed that you caught them *all*. That doesn't follow. Answer me this: Did you catch the mediocre student who purchased and turned in a ghostwritten *mediocre* paper? Did you catch the failing student who bought an excellent paper, then "dumbed it down" or hastily rewrote it so it sounded more authentic? If so, how? If not, how can you claim that you "always knew"?

"But many of them won't even try it. Because the institution for which they work needs money...."

I don't think I've *ever* encountered a professor who thinks this way. Most of us worry a lot about cheating and talk with our colleagues to try to find ways to reduce it.

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