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Chasing Shadows: Let’s Put Predatory Professional Essay Writers Out of Work

An article entitled “The Shadow Scholar” from The Chronicle of Higher Education is making email rounds this week. It’s turned up in my in-box three times now, recommended by two colleagues and, interestingly enough, by my twenty-six-year-old son.  The article is written by “Ed Dante,” a pseudonym for “a writer who lives on the East Coast. … and makes a living writing papers for a custom-essay company.” But “custom essays” does not begin to express  the extent of Dante’s work.  “On any day of the academic year,” he writes, “I am working on upward of 20 assignments.”  He also claims to have “completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.”

The issues raised by this column are legion, as the 280 comments (as of 3:25 on Tuesday, November 16) attest. Dante, of course, is eager to lay the blame for his questionable career path right where he thinks it belongs: at the feet of others.  From the folks in the English Dept. at his own undergraduate institution, who denied his request for an independent study devoted to editing and publishing a novel he had written, to the “students … who come from everywhere to find me,” to the professors from almost every discipline who assign and evaluate the papers Dante writes and “are aware that cheating occurs. … But … have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it,” seemingly everyone is at fault … except, of course, Dante.

As a career-long teacher of writing and the teaching of writing, I was, as you can imagine, both enthralled and appalled by this piece. The vivid picture Dante paints of his work as a prolific writer was as compelling as the moral wasteland of his character was repulsive.  His facile and wide-reaching condemnation of academics, a group of people I know to be largely honorable, intelligent, caring, and well intentioned (even selfless), was infuriating.  His easy acceptance of—even pride in—the fact that his income this year will surpass that of many of the faculty members he condemns was dismaying and disturbing.  This man (or woman), if we could find him (or her), deserves to be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

Or maybe s/he and others like her (or him) just deserve to be put out of business.  I can hear you now: “There goes Claire, wearing those rose-colored glasses again!”  And yes, I can be naïve and idealistic and unrealistic and all those other things that I’m actually way too old to be.  And no, I don’t honestly think that we’re going to be able to rid our society and our world of cheaters like Dante.  But I do think we can keep our students from falling in to the clutches of those who would prey on them in this way, making them victims of their own desperation and ensuring that they will never be the well educated citizens our world so desperately needs.

How?  Well, we can begin by educating ourselves.  The Council of Writing Program Administrators published, in January, 2003, an incredibly useful document called “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices.” In this position statement, the Council carefully examines and addresses the issue of plagiarism “in four ways: by defining plagiarism; by suggesting some of the causes of plagiarism; by proposing a set of responsibilities (for students, teachers, and administrators) to address the problem of plagiarism; and by recommending a set of practices for teaching and learning that can significantly reduce the likelihood of plagiarism.” If each of us were to read and take to heart (and put into practice) the findings and recommendations outlined in this document, we could go a long way toward ensuring that, even if Dante and his ilk are not put out of business, they are no longer supported financially by the students in our classes.

Teaching isn’t easy. Teaching writing is incredibly difficult. And teaching writing well is too great a responsibility to be relegated to “someone else.”  It “takes a village” to create a competent writer: it takes time; it takes hard work; and it takes vigilance.  But in spite of what some folks would have you believe, I’ve never met anyone who became a teacher because s/he thought it would be an easy way to make a living.  Most of the people I talk to admit (often blushingly), that they became teachers because they thought they could change the world, one student at a time.  Here’s our chance.  Let’s seize the day.  As we wind up this semester and start designing our courses and assignments for Spring 2011, let’s make a pact to design writing assignments that help put Dante and his colleagues out on the street, pounding the pavement and looking for work.  And in the process, let’s give our students the support they need to become careful, competent writers and clear, critical thinkers.  It’s our best chance at revenge.

Comments

At the risk of starting an internet flame war with my own mother, I feel like we should set up a cage match between you and "Dante."

You and Dante seem to represent two polar opposite positions on the subject of academic dishonesty while simultaneously being in complete agreement. You both agree that buying papers is wrong. In fact, Dante shows his (I'm going to declare him/her male to save typing) distaste through ridiculing his clients and the professors that don't catch them. You show your distaste by ridiculing Dante and other enablers (pushers?).

The situation is surprisingly consistant with views on other "vices" (e.g. drugs and prostitution). Some people blame the dealers and pimps while others blame the users and johns. In fact, if you asked a prostitute or drug dealer what they think of the trade, they will more likely than not say, "I'm not a fan, but as long as people keep buying, I'll keep selling" (a sentiment that is consistant with Dante's views).

Steven D. Levitt (the University of Chicago economist) hits on the subject of prostitution in Super Freakonomics. He puts the blame squarely on the johns; explaining that economics dictates that wherever there is a demand, a supply will invariably pop up (regardless of the legal or moral status of the demand).

You and Dante do seem to be in agreement on this point, too. You both agree that the world would be a better place if people didn't need Dante's services. But that doesn't mean that Dante "preys" on the people who come to him. Some come out of desperation, others come because they don't think the rules apply to them. In the end, they're all coming to him. He's not going out to them. I've seen advertisements on the internet for services from folks like Dante. But I've never been tempted to buy anything. I think if they were as predatory as you make them out to be, then their advertisements would be more enticing to people like me who have little actual need of their services (think: Apple products).

For what it's worth, I do think Dante is laying it on a bit thick when he explains how he was "forced" into his current position by corrupt the academic establishment. But I think you'd be hard pressed to find a drug dealer who won't claim to have been forced into their line of work by circumstance. It's the kind of justification you expect to find in someone who dislikes what they do (heck, I even see it in Corporate America --- "I wanted to be a teacher, but....").

When it comes down to it, I think you and Dante also agree on the solution: Educate the educators on plagiarism. Provide students with the tools they need to succeed. Punish students that refuse to follow the rules. Once you eliminate the demand, there will be no one out there looking to supply. Maybe things aren't as bad as Dante makes them out to be, but his mere existence shows that there is significant room for improvement.