Watching academic standards disappear
By Jay Mathews,
A literature professor at a Washington area college wasn’t surprised by my column last week on the terrible quality of college essays purchased on the Internet. She had suffered from the output of the paper mills and told me a story illustrating how bogus work sells even when it is bad.
One of her students wanted to raise his grade with extra-credit work. Because he had not understood a 19th-century novel that was key to her course, she said, she suggested that he “read a particular journal article and write a short summary/review of the author’s analysis.”
She thought this would be a plagiarism-proof assignment. She may have been right about that, but the essay she received had other flaws.
“It was clear to me that the writer of the submitted paper had read no more than two or three pages of the article, and although it was well-written, it did not really answer the assignment,” she said. “I suspected that the paper was custom-ordered and custom-written.”
Plagiarism checks, such as turnitin.com, detected nothing similar. What could she do? I will reveal her solution, and what it led to, in a moment. Many professors and teachers have found the general level of high school and college writing so low that efforts to maintain academic standards sometimes seem foolishly naive.
“It is so bad that I do not assign formal research papers anymore,” said Jonathan Keiler, who teaches Advanced Placement courses in world history and art history at Bowie High School in Prince George’s County.
One problem, Keiler said, was that “some teachers just don’t read student papers. Every year, I have several students who turn in c---, get a poor grade — or even no credit if they clearly cheated — and then are stunned that I actually bothered to read their work.”
One former student said he solved the “problem” of plagiarism detectors by resorting to fiction. “I would make up statistics, facts, polls, essentially anything that would bolster a point I was trying to make,” he said. If he was careful to write on a topic about which the professor was not an expert, he was unlikely to be caught and he could cut the time required to write the paper in half, the student concluded.
“If we can’t find what they wrote on some Web site, we often feel stuck,” said D.R. Ransdell, who teaches composition at the University of Arizona.
He has asked his department to end take-home final exams, which arrive too late to be thoroughly checked, and go back to finals taken in class. He and his colleagues have also experimented with asking students questions about the essays they allegedly wrote to see whether there are suspicious blank spots.
That is what the Washington area professor did with the extra-credit assignment. She noticed that the paper’s author compared a part of the novel being analyzed to an epigraph in a Faulkner novel. The observation was irrelevant to the paper’s argument, but it suggested to her a follow-up question. “When I asked the student to explain the comparison, he could not even identify Faulkner,” the professor said.
It didn’t end there. A professor who charges a student with dishonesty is immediately buried in paperwork, particularly if the student fights back. The student said the professor was discriminating racially and grading arbitrarily. She wondered whether she could make her charges stick, until someone suggested that she look more carefully at the electronic version of the paper. There, she found the damning notation: “3 pages, due Jan. xx, $15.”
Teachers who want to do right wonder whether it is worth the trouble, or resort to overkill. Students with no standards for themselves or their work keep sliding on through. Fake-essay producers stay in business, raising even more barriers to learning.
To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.