What We’re Up Against

On Friday, I posted a story about a recent essay topic on the “Separatists in America”, about the Pilgrims, the Puritans and the other religious separatists who came to America.  It wasn’t a terribly complicated essay topic — basically asking about motives, methods, and experiences of the Separatists.   It shouldn’t be too difficult…

One of the nice things about WordPress is that it tells me when someone links to my blog entry.  So less than 24 hours after I posted my story about this assignment, I was quite pleased to get a message from WordPress telling me that someone had linked to my blog that wasn’t a spam site.

Then I followed the link.

It turns out that it’s a very slick website, offering to write term papers for bachelor, master’s, and PhD level programs.  And for a high-quality rendition of a paper matching the terms of my essay topic, this company wants $26.47.   Now, I assign a lot of these short papers, but rarely a lot more than two a week.  So that amounts to around $53 a year, or slightly less than $2000 to do all the writing for my class for a year.  Which is a lot of money, but it’s not an impossible amount of money, particularly not for a family that’s already shelling out for a private education.  It’s less than what the daughter of a friend of mine has to raise to go on her school’s annual Science Safari, where they get to do field study of animals in the wild for ten days.

Now, leaving aside the ethical issues of whether getting such a paper written for you is ethical (I don’t think it is, but let’s leave aside that question for a moment), think about what this says about the shadow educational system. First, there is an active system in place to find teacher’s essay topics and scoop them up.  Mine is drawn straight from a textbook, so it’s easy to game.  Second, there’s a price point established — the writer is probably getting $5-10 a page, and the writer’s company is getting $5-10, unless it’s all a small crew of writers sharing profits across the board.  Third, seventh grade work is considered fair game by these folks… It’s a simple matter of finding one or two students, and then those students have the potential to be endorsers or even salespeople for the program.  Once the ball gets rolling, it becomes difficult to stop, I suspect.

This is a small school.  I have a chance to read everyone’s paper, and develop a sense of everyone’s existing writing style.  I assign papers in class, too, so I can compare out-of-school style with in-school style.  But a colleague of mine, JF, teaches in a public school setting and sees as many as a hundred+ papers every night.  Not many of them come from families well-off enough to support a $27-an-essay habit, but it really only needs to be the important papers, right? At what point does this program become economically feasible for fully-grown adult writers to prey on kids’ lunch money successfully?



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One comment

  1. You might like to try an alternative approach I’ve used successfully with research projects. Instead of their writing a paper outside of class, I sometimes have the students write a full-period essay in class summarizing, analyzing, and evaluating what they’ve learned in researching their topic. They can organize their paper before they come to class and even write it out in full ahead of time. In class, though, they must write the essay from memory or perhaps from a 20- or 30-item word bank. Putting together the word bank can itself be a valuable exercise in analysis, selection, compression, and organization. I sometimes offer extra credit if they write an A-level essay completely from memory, that is, without using a word bank.

    This approach doesn’t necessarily obviate plagiarism nor outfox the term paper mills, but it does mean that for one hour students will have to write solely what they know of their topic. Many students are amazed at how much they have learned and can write in one hour’s time and find this to be valuable practice for AP and IB essay questions. They feel the power of having a large store of background knowledge on which to draw. And as I mark their essays, I can be reasonably sure I am reading only what they themselves wrote in class on that day.

    You could at some point in the process – perhaps the next day – have students use their research notes to write a certain number of footnotes for key points in the paper. I always have them turn in their research notes along with their essay, thereby allowing me to verify most of the arguments and evidence they have included. I will have been monitoring their notes during the several stages of the research process and will therefore already be familiar with most of the materials they have been using and information they have been gathering.

    Admittedly, the full-period, in-class essay doesn’t solve the challenge of learning to write a full-fledged research paper with footnotes, bibliography, and other scholarly paraphernalia. It has, however, proven to be a useful alternative.

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