Earlier this month, an email circulated regarding someone posting flyers in the writing department offering “writing services” for hire.
The most conspicuous feature on the flyer is the giant “A+” that takes up the bottom third of the page, demonstrating audience awareness: it’s a bottom-line world and for students the bottom line is grades. The next biggest font is the phone number listed. A number without a name attached to it these days isn’t your mother’s number-without-a-name-attached-to-it. It’s how business – public, private, illicit – gets done.
What caught my eye and ire, though, were the multiple, unabashed solicitations for paper-writing customers. “We also offer paper writing services!” the page shrieks a third of the way down. “Paper Writing – All Subjects,” coos the right mid-page. The last line’s oxymoronic “Call for tutoring or to have your paper written for you today!” manages to insult both for its doublethink and for such indoctrination being self-imposed. Tutoring is teaching someone hungry how to fish. Writing their paper for them is giving them counterfeit bills to buy a single, stale, fast-food fish filet.
Someone from the college called the number listed. The person who answered said all she does it tutor and edit, not write papers. She said she understood the concern the ads caused and would remove all the flyers as well as the “ghost writing” ad from her service’s Facebook page (later I discovered the Facebook page is still up, and there’s a Twitter page and various advertisements online, too).
I teach at a second college. When I left the campus Monday, I noticed the same flyers from Stony Brook were on the bulletin boards at this college, as well. Monday I’d stayed after class for nearly an hour with three students struggling to understand what I’m asking for from them in their rhetorical analysis essays. One of the students has already met with me off-campus for extra help. She emails frequently, probably more than all the other students combined. She’s an adult learner. Three kids of her own. A husband. A job. Looking to get into nursing. The writing class isn’t something she chose; it’s required. Still. She puts in the work, and she puts in some more.
When I saw the flyers, she came to mind. So did my non-native English-speaking students who meet with me ten or twelve times a semester; the excited exhausted 3:00 a.m. emails from students who’ve just had a brainstorming breakthrough; the students who don’t say more than a handful of words for months until slyly admitting one day they actually loved writing before drifting away from it, and now they’re finding that heat rekindled; the refugee camps of students prostrate in hallways and offices semester-round looking for help came to mind; the professors who endure the endless tide; the headaches and sleep deprivation that linger the last month of a semester.
I called the number on the ad. A woman answered. I asked if she could write me a rhetorical analysis for $85. She said no problem. We agreed to meet two days later. I wanted to hear what a plagiarist has to say when there’s no one around to steal words from.
I was somewhat surprised when she actually sat across from me at a table outside the college library. I was wearing a suit and my beard has run amok for weeks, as it does the final frenetic weeks of each semester; I did not look like a student. But she sat and asked if I wanted to talk about my paper. I told her I didn’t, that I was a professor and wanted to interview her for a blog piece. I told her I wouldn’t reveal her name or any identifying information, and that I had a tape recorder but would only use it with her consent. She refused the recording but did talk to me for about 15 minutes.
At first she refused to acknowledge writing papers for students, insisting all she did was “tutor” and “edit” for people who need help. She emphasized the international students she “helps.” I removed one of her flyers from my briefcase and began reading her own words:
“Ghost Writing: for those who are unable, because of time or any other reason, to complete their coursework. I am currently attending college for my Master’s degree in English, and I know how to write a clear, concise, and professional paper or essay that your professor will be looking for. This is completely confidential and secure. I ask that you provide me with a copy of your syllabus for–”
She ripped the flyer from my hands, gathered her belongings, and headed for the parking lot. I’d wanted an honest conversation with a plagiarist. I bluffed.
“I know your name,” I called after her.
She turned. “You think that matters?”
I thought of the giant phone number on the ad and wondered if it did. “You wanna find out?”
She walked back to the table, sat, and began profusely apologizing to me, promising to take the flyers down, promising to stick solely to the editing and tutoring. I told her I didn’t want her apology. I told her about my student with three kids meeting me and crying and working herself to her limits trying to make sense of rhetorical analysis.
“If she were here, right now,” I asked, “what would you say to her?”
She shook her head for a while. Then, finally, some truths.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” she says. She sees nothing unethical about what she’s doing.
“There’s no relationship between the creator of a text and the text itself,” she says. Once she’s written a paper for someone and the money changes hands, whatever that person does with the work “is up to them”; she has “nothing to do with it.” Far and away, the bulk of her “tutoring” revenue comes from writing papers.
Her ultimate ambition is to become a professor. She loves rhetoric, she says. She’s wanted to work with writing since she was a child. I asked what she’d think if she applied for a teaching position and lost the job to someone she later found out plagiarized their dissertation. She said she wouldn’t care. What would she think if she became a professor and was working with a student she knew plagiarized? She said she wouldn’t care. What if her favorite author turned out to be a fraud? She wouldn’t care.
She sees herself as someone who “helps writers.” In her view, if a math student is taking a writing class they don’t care about, or they’re only there because they have to be, or it’s difficult and demanding time they’d rather devote to their major courses, “Why should they bother being there?” It’s the best of both worlds: she makes money and gets to write; the student gets that A+ and saves time, too. Bottom line: win-win.
She said she could “understand” why I was “frustrated.”
One of the most common writing mistakes my students make is not saying exactly what they mean. It may result from confused diction or syntax errors, but students are often surprised by how often they write something that isn’t at all what they meant to say. All writing is the search for that unity; plagiarism retards the growth of that hard-to-build muscle. I didn’t think “understand” or “frustrated” were what the plagiarist really meant, nor what I really felt.
“You’re not going to report me, are you?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” She tilted her head, confused. “You say there’s nothing unethical about what you’re doing. So what could I report? You say there’s no connection between author and text, that the former has no ownership over the latter. So if I tell someone, once the words are out of my mouth, I have nothing to do with what anyone does with them.”
That was that. She wished me luck, then left.
After reading dozens of emails from enraged professors and my conversation with the solicitor, I wondered what the population we were all talking about thought.
I open most classes with a free write. Today I asked my 102 students how they’d feel if one of their essays was plagiarized by someone in their peer group and submitted for portfolio. I was curious what they thought about ownership and significance when it comes to their own writing.
Many students wrote their reaction would be contingent on whether or not they themselves passed or failed the portfolio. If they passed, their feelings ranged mostly between mild annoyance and complete ambivalence. It was by no means a landslide, but it was a majority. Some saw the cynicism of the plagiarist as something they themselves could exploit. Some considered it flat-out wrong. Others come from educational cultures that view plagiarism very differently than ours does. Many claimed it wasn’t worth getting worked up over, regardless of whether they considered it right or wrong. A sampling of student feedback:
“If someone plagiarized my essay for their portfolio and passed, I’d be furious if I didn’t pass…the only way I’d be okay is if we both passed. Although they are taking credit for my work, I’m only concerned about my own work and my final grade. If they were able to sneak it past, then I applaud them.”
“I would extort the [plagiarist] for money. If he or she chose not to be compliant, I would hand them in. Of course, this is assuming that my grade is still fairly decent.”
“…I would have a problem with it…When I write an essay I put a lot of work into it, such as finding the sources or reading the paper over and over to find mistakes. If they just copied my paper they did not care about the class enough and put in very little work…taking someone else’s work is dishonest, unfair, and rude to the person they took it from.”
“If I passed, I wouldn’t really care. People cheat all the time in this world.”
“I don’t understand why someone would go down to that level to pass a class and hurt another person.”
“If a person steal my essay and end up getting a pass on his/her portfolio, I will be glad! In a country where I grow up papers, ideas and musical product get stole, is not considered a big deal as same as stealing money. If someone made his/her success based on my idea, even if I don’t get any credit, I feel happy for him/her.”
“…that’d be messed up. MESSED UP…No circumstance would keep me from turning them in (mostly because I made it very clear I’d be available if they needed help AND gave them sources AND grammar checked their first drafts of the first essay).”
“I would be extremely mad if someone plagiarized my essay. Firstly, I took the time and effort, taking hours to write, edit, and revise it, so someone simply stealing my work is wrong…If they word for word stole my paper I would hope that they would be expelled and get in serious trouble. If they only stole bits and pieces I would want them to at least fail the class…”
“Steadfast and unwithered I’d be, considering that it is not I whose creativity has been limited, but theirs. Ensnared by guilt or not, this person simply did what they needed to progress. Is it only this deceiver who commits this? Surely not.”
“I think that is going to bother me a lot…This matters to me a lot because I always put a huge amount of time and effort on my final paper…Think about it like this, you work really hard for something and someone just steal all of that from you.”
“I despise school and all the minute, arbitrary hoops we are continually forced to leap through…anytime I or a fellow laborer can exploit a loophole to circumvent the obstacle, I applaud them.”
“If someone in my group plagiarized my essay to pass the portfolio and I passed as well, I would not really care because it will be summer in about a month from now so I will not be worried about school anymore until the fall.”
“If we both passed I don’t really think I would care that much…I probably wouldn’t let him live it down and would make him do things for me. Especially since I already took this class [last] semester. I definitely wouldn’t want someone to ruin that for me and make me take it for the third time. That would probably be the worst thing ever.”
What do you think of the plagiarist’s logic? The students’? Are the ethics of production and ownership evolving? Is plagiarism academia’s original sin? How do you raise awareness and discussion with your classes about these issues?