Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"The Shadow Scholar"

In case you missed it, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article written by "Ed Dante" (a psuedonym) about his/her experience writing papers for desperate/lazy college students.  I'd put "The Shadow Scholar" in the "must read" category for all those interested in higher education, and in the "well worth your time" category for everybody else.

The author makes decent money (on pace for 66K this year) writing papers for students and says that a student has never complained about getting caught.  The process and stories are interesting, but the author makes two main points:

1.) A lot of students are absolutely awful at writing and more should be done about this.
2.) A lot of assignments are ridiculous and drive students to look for other solutions (including purchasing papers)

I wholeheartedly agree with the first and half agree with the second.

The comments are almost as interesting as (though more tedious than) the article itself.  Between the author, the commenters, and my own head, there seem to be some competing hypotheses as to why a not insignificant number of students cheat in one way or another, particularly on written assignments.  In no particular order, they are:

1.) Professors assign meaningless/useless/stupid assignments
-large class sizes prevent individualized assignments
-following conventions/norms
-more concerned with research than teaching

2.) Students don't know how to write
-they're non-native speakers
-they didn't learn how to write during K-12 schooling
-their college profs don't take the time to teach them how to write

3.) Students are unethical
-they don't understand what's ethical and what's not
-ethics and morals aren't emphasized enough in school
-a few bad apples make everyone look bad
-lots of pressure to get good grades; little pressure to behave ethically
-they don't value the assignments they're asked to complete or the courses they must take

4.) Unethical people make it easy to cheat
-some people care more about money than ethics
-people think they're doing others a service since they think the assignments are stupid

I don't think any of these fully explain the situation, but I do think they all shed a little bit of light on it.  In short, there are plenty of people and institutions at whom we can point fingers . . . but wouldn't it be more productive if we instead focused on fixing the problem?


Anonymous said...

It is clearly not the responsibility of professors, nor their graduate TA's teaching courses to teach basic written expression to post-secondary students. The problem is clearly in the public schools, which focus on quantitative test scores and pushing through students. In Europe, it is very common and not stigmatized for a low achieving student to repeat a year or two in grade school in order to catch better establish necessary fundamentals. Our institutional structures thinks there will be some deep psychosocial damage produced if a student has to repeat a year, as opposed to pushing weak students high and high where their weakness will only compound.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I find the notion that college instructors should be absolved of all responsibility simply because they shouldn't have to teach writing at that level. If everybody only did what they *should* have to, rather than what actually needs to be done, nothing would ever be accomplished.

And the notion that holding back more kids is going to dramatically increase the writing abilities of college students is absurd. Only about 1/3 of high school grads graduate from a 4-year college, so we're talking about a fairly elite population that would have to start repeating grades.

Right now, somewhere around 5% of students are held back in any given year (which varies widely by grade and locale) and around 20% of students are ever held back. France is among the highest, with 38% of 15 year-olds reporting that they were held back at least once. In order for a significant number of college students to have been held back during their K-12 careers, that number would have to be at least 80% and probably more like 90%.

With few exceptions, the kids on the brink of being held back right now are *not* the ones who are buying term papers in college and grad school.

Michael Dunn said...

Our society pays lip service to the importance of ethics, yet looks the other way and allows the rich and powerful to get away with unethical behavior fairly regularly. We saw it with Wall Street and the housing crisis. We saw it with the 2 Bush elections.

As a high school science teacher, I try very hard to teach my students about academic integrity and ethics. I hold them accountable, too. However, virtually every time I do, parents get upset, complain, insist their children are innocent, and pressure the administration to make me back down. It's time consuming for teachers to catch students cheating and collect sufficient evidence to prove it, and even more time consuming to fight to ensure that there are consequences.

Pat said...

I've seen mostly despair and cynicism as responses to Ed Dante (not referring to this blog of course). I don't think that's the appropriate response. I talked about the essay in the class I'm teaching this semester. I pointed out that Dante is not someone to emulate. I was worked up enough to write this article. http://www.suite101.com/content/the-problem-of-the-shadow-scholar-a311061
I try to help students with their writing as much as possible, but I don't want them to become the next Dante once they learn how!

Roger Sweeny said...

I imagine a world ... where it is illegal to keep statistics on baseball players--aside from whether they show up for work each day.

Instead, in order to play professional baseball, one must go to "baseball school." There one takes courses in human physiology, the professional baseball rule book, theory of hitting, the history of baseball, etc.

Some schools require the aspiring player to play on a team for a period of several months, taking the place of a "master player" for parts of a game and listening to advice from the master player and a sponsor from the baseball school.

After graduation, the aspiring player can play for a real team but the decision on whether to keep the player has to be based on whether the newbie is "good in the clubhouse" and how well he hits at three carefully observed batting practices ("how well" to be determined partly by whether he does what the observer considers to be "best hitting practice").

Meanwhile, some radicals have proposed that records should be kept on what the aspiring player does in real games. At the moment, the major proposal is that "at bats" and "hits" should be combined in a summary statistic called "batting average."

To some people this seems like useful information but the people who work at baseball schools have made many arguments why it is far, far from perfect. Some say it is useless. Some say that allowing it to be calculated will actually make things worse. The statistic will be misinterpreted by decision-makers and players will care more about their individual statistics than about winning games.

A few baseball regulatory commissions are now allowing the use of "batting average" in addition to all the previous requirements.

Roger Sweeny said...

Oops! That was supposed to go on the "Batting Average v. Value Added" post.

Jeff said...

I don''t think there's a one-size fits all reason although all of the factors mentioned (Laziness, unethical students, professors giving busywork and meaningless assignments) does play a role.

The meaningless assignments part I witnessed firsthand during my stint in college. I test right into college level English. For the first English class I take the students must generate a certain number of words as set by the state. This means homework every night. A lot of it is meaningless. But at least the reason for it is stated at the beginning. In addition to much of this busywork, the students are also assigned a term paper. The topic assigned for the paper? Ancient Death Rituals. A topic that would make sense in an anthropology class sure. But an English class?

I've read some of Dante's book The Shadow Scholar (written under his real name of Dave Tolmar). In the book he states that he became disillusioned with education in general early on in adolescence and implies that the disillusionment started when he realized that a lot of it was just rote memorization. In some ways I went through the same thing. In middle school there were many teachers that would give lots of busywork or punishment assignment homework (punishing the whole class when one student goofed up: apparently those teachers had watched Full Metal Jacket a few times too many).

I also encountered a few of those entitled students who expected everything to be handed to them and were shocked that anyone expected them to actually work for anything.

Not sure what the solution is, just rambling here. Good post overall.