An Education

There are many things that can be said about this incredibly depressing article – written by a guy who makes a living writing papers for college students – from The Chronicle of Higher Education. The first is that life imitates Judd Apatow:

More seriously, if I enrolled in a trade school for auto repair and somehow managed to outsource my assignments to a third party, I might get a nice certificate for my troubles. I could parlay this into a job at an auto repair shop, but the minute I actually had to fix a car, it would become immediately apparent that I had no idea what I was doing and I would be fired.

A liberal arts education is supposed to prepare you for a wide range of ‘aspirational’ careers. The guidance-industrial complex drilled this mantra into our collective consciousness circa junior year of high school. But the ease at which students pass off somebody else’s work as their own gets at something that should scare the living daylights out of college administrators everywhere: namely, the apparent disconnect between the knowledge liberal arts institutions are supposed to impart and the skills required for the careers college graduates want.

It would be unthinkable for someone learning a trade to outsource their assignments during an apprenticeship or a technical course. According to The Chronicle’s anonymous correspondent, however, this is a perfectly viable academic strategy. The liberal arts are supposed to help students develop an analytical framework that can be applied to just about any pursuit. The reality is that buying your paper on Justinian or Madame Bovary has no appreciable impact on your ability to get hired or perform in the workplace – unless, of course, you happen to get caught. Now that we’ve moved beyond crude plagiarism, I doubt this will be a problem for the next generation of undergraduates.

I’m not unsympathetic to the ideals of a liberal arts education and can anticipate at least one defense of these institutions. Acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a worthy goal in of itself, and faking it through four years of coursework leaves these pseudo-graduates intellectually worse off than students who do their own work. Unfortunately, the Chronicle’s anonymous correspondent has something to say about that, too:

It’s not implausible to write a 75-page paper in two days. It’s just miserable. I don’t need much sleep, and when I get cranking, I can churn out four or five pages an hour. First I lay out the sections of an assignment—introduction, problem statement, methodology, literature review, findings, conclusion—whatever the instructions call for. Then I start Googling.

I haven’t been to a library once since I started doing this job. Amazon is quite generous about free samples. If I can find a single page from a particular text, I can cobble that into a report, deducing what I don’t know from customer reviews and publisher blurbs. Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And of course, there’s Wikipedia, which is often my first stop when dealing with unfamiliar subjects. Naturally one must verify such material elsewhere, but I’ve taken hundreds of crash courses this way.

After I’ve gathered my sources, I pull out usable quotes, cite them, and distribute them among the sections of the assignment. Over the years, I’ve refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I’ll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph.

I’ve also got a mental library of stock academic phrases: “A close consideration of the events which occurred in ____ during the ____ demonstrate that ____ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define ____ for decades to come.” Fill in the blanks using words provided by the professor in the assignment’s instructions.

I phoned in more than a few papers in college, and I’m afraid this rings true. The Internet has made it remarkably easy to put together a seemingly-authentic academic paper without actually cracking a book. This is incredibly depressing to write, but the rise of systematized bullshit artistry suggests that even students who put in the time aren’t getting much out of what are supposed to be some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world.

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42 thoughts on “An Education

  1. I am frankly skeptical about the Chronicle article. Anyone who could churn out prose on demand at the rate claimed could make significantly more than $66k a year as a ghost writer / technical writer / etc. In short, either someone is lying or the guy needs an agent.

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      • Sorry to tell you this, Will, but I wrote papers and did computer labs for other people when I lived in student housing.
        It seemed well-accepted at the time.
        It’s a great way to make money without having to actually have a job.
        And besides, they were covering for me for letting my band rehearse in the basement.
        A great way to get chicks to come over to student housing.
        It’s a great deal all the way around.

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    • I’ve seen people do incredibly underpaid work relative to their value because the work is something they invented on their own. He’s also sort of screwed himself in the formal resume department.

      It’s kind of hard to parley, “I wrote other people’s academic papers for the last six years and made 1.5 times the national income average” into a 5/40 job somewhere.

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    • I am currently a technical writer/freelancer, and I never ever want to go back to a 5/40 for lots of different reasons: I like having free time during the day instead of at night so I can spend time with my kids; I have hated every boss I have worked under since I graduated college; I’m prone to compulsive travel and DVD binges; I can work as little or as much as I like and work with anybody I choose; when I do well, I feel good; being a technical writer is like being paid to study; I’m confident that my administrative skills, breadth of knowledge, and speed are far superior to that of most of my peers as a direct result of my experience. I make less money than almost all of my friends, but I have determined that for now, it is worth it.

      Incidentally, Thomas Pynchon was a technical writer and he credits that career choice with providing him with the skills neccesary to produce works to win the affections of even the snootiest of hipsters.

      Most of the work I do now falls within the disciplines of tourism, medicine, and engineering, and I recently translated some JPop song lyrics. I wouldn’t write papers for college students, but if I did, I could probably churn out 1500 to 2000 words an hour at first and, once I got some experience in that department, recycling of material and even marginal improvements in efficiency might come close to doubling my productivity. This would make Oldmate’s claimed rates fairly believable.

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  2. As much as I’m sure students buy bull shit papers for their assignments. Everything the ghost writer describes is pretty well known to anyone who’s become an expert at bullshitting through papers.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if for every 1 person buying the BS, 9 other students just make there own, with profs and TA’s none the wiser, or more often, apathetic and willing to look the otherway.

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  3. buying your paper on Justinian or Madame Bovary has no appreciable impact on your ability to get hired or perform in the workplace – unless, of course, you happen to get caught. Now that we’ve moved beyond crude plagiarism, I doubt this will be a problem for the next generation of undergraduates.

    Perhaps we need a system in which dedicated students spent many hours a day discussing complex, difficult texts face-to-face with their mentors, whenever possible in these texts’ original languages, and for several years on end.

    Then, to cap it all off, the students will be sent to do field work, archival research, or another discipline-appropriate project on site in Greece, Mexico, France, or wherever their interests take them. This field work would involve material that no one else in their discipline had ever examined, and its presentation would be scrutinized by a committee of experts.

    Because the term “school” has been so completely debased, we should call this thing something different. Like graduate school. Seriously — grad school is the refuge for what the humanities were always meant to be.

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    • I suppose the research-intensive aspects of graduate programs can’t be reproduced at the undergraduate level, buy it’s pretty disheartening to learn that college is a mostly-worthless prelude to the real learning of grad school.

      I mean, I was excited about college! I don’t mean to excuse the guy who writes other people’s papers for a living, but I really identified with this passage from the article:

      My distaste for the early hours and regimented nature of high school was tempered by the promise of the educational community ahead, with its free exchange of ideas and access to great minds. How dispiriting to find out that college was just another place where grades were grubbed, competition overshadowed personal growth, and the threat of failure was used to encourage learning.

      All things considered, my undergraduate experience was still pretty satisfying. But precious little of that had to do with the academic environment.

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      • That paragraph you quote didn’t really ring true for me. I felt like I got a lot out of my undergraduate years. But then, I actually did all the reading that was assigned to me, and I would have done it even in a system without grades, as grad school later was.

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      • I can agree with Will in so much as the rest of the students were concerned. Books you read and the topics you discuss will be pretty much the same every where, even the quality of the professors, after a certain level, aren’t all that different.

        What I think does vary very much from school to school is the quality of the students. Not how smart or interesting they are, but how interested in the actual material and willing to really immerse themselves they are.

        I loved my undergraduate experience, but it would have been a million times better if in upper division courses I wasn’t still getting quizzical looks for wanting to discuss the material, do outside readings, utilize secondary sources etc.

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  4. There’s a lot of back-and-forth about the math in the Chronicle comments. Some suggest that the writer could do better, on a per-word rate basis, if they just got a straight job.

    It seems to me, though, that a guaranteed 2.5 cents per word is better than a theoretical higher rate that doesn’t exist. Also, when you’re competing on quality and inventiveness, you need to work a LOT harder; when you’re preying on desperate students nobody much cares.

    Indeed, it says a lot about the worth of an education that a Wikipedia rewrite and some Google-whacking produces work of sufficient quality to get you one.

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  5. I like Jason’s idea. And if I may, I think Will uses the term “liberal arts” a little too broadly. I teach at a small liberal arts college, and while I have absolutely no doubt that a few of these types of papers have been slipped by me (and more have been slipped by some of my less vigilant colleagues), we are in general more likely to catch them than a large non-liberal arts school like a state university. There are two reasons for that: One is a smaller load of papers to read, which makes paying attention easier, and the second is that I read them myself instead of having the luxury of less well read and less experienced grad students read them.

    I’m not knocking the big state schools. There are a lot of things they can do well that we can’t. But that’s one of the things we small schools can do better than they can, along with implementing–to some degree–Jason’s idea for face-to-face discussion of texts at the undergrad level.

    There are multiple mechanisms for checking undergrad papers for plagiarism. One is online programs like turnitin that compare them to other papers already out there. Another is just to latch onto any phrase that sounds a bit suspicious and start googling. Another is to compare the quality of the writing with other writing samples from the student. Most of that isn’t really time-consuming. And while these methods may or may not catch a real ghost writer, comparatively few students will pay for a real ghost-writer instead of simply buying or copying a ready-made paper off the internet. For one thing, it’s cheaper. For another, students who plagiarize generally aren’t smart enough to do it well.

    It’s a persistent problem, but I don’t think a truly large-scale one, at least not at schools like mine. The bigger problem is simply teaching students that failure to cite properly is plagiarism, and that’s a lack of knowledge problem.

    But I fully agree with Will that students who buy or borrow papers are failing to prepare themselves for life after college. I try to teach them that–some get it, some don’t. Interestingly, the one approach that almost all of them seem to comprehend instantly is when I ask them if they actually expect their professors to write them good letters of recommendation.

    All in all, we teachers would love our students to come to us ready-formed as scholars. We really struggle with the reality that most of them don’t, and so a fundamental task of our profession is to help them develop a scholarly outlook. We all bitch about it over lunch and beer, but we probably shouldn’t. It’s rather a noble task. I’ve come to see my job not as teaching people who know how to learn already–which would hardly be challenging–but as teaching people to be interested in spending their whole lifetime continuing to learn. (Which isn’t to claim that I have mastered that task.)

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    • > But I fully agree with Will that students who buy or borrow papers
      > are failing to prepare themselves for life after college.

      I don’t, necessarily. It depends on how you define a fruitful life, I suppose.

      In my experience, roughly a third of the workforce at any given place of employment > 50 people are at best marginally incompetent at the full scope of their duties. About the only place where this resulted in substantial turnover of the bad worker was the slaughterhouse I worked at during college. It’s kind of hard to bullshit your way past “not moving boxes off the line”.

      Any office-based job, though, has so many metrics for performance that bad employees can be sustained at a workplace for a very, very long time. If you’re good at bullshitting and have a winning smile and the natural ability to gravitate towards enabling people with social or structural authority in your organization, you’re likely going to have a long sustained career with an above-average payscale relative to your peers.

      Admittedly, this is probably not what the generic workforce employer is looking for in a new hire, in theory, but they sure do hire them in droves and keep them on the payroll, don’t they?

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      • Pat, perhaps they keep them on the payroll because they don’t expect to get much better by firing them and hiring other. But I think that some people do distinguish themselves from the rest and are the ones who are likely to get promotions or move into superior positions at other firms, rather than be stuck at their entry level position. It’s not so much the opportunity for a job that lazy students are denying themselves, but the opportunity to keep progressing in their career.

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  6. You’re not allowed to hire a high school grad based on giving an IQ test and saying “we can train the smartest ones”.

    You are, however, allowed to hire someone who has demonstrated an ability to navigate bullshit for five or six years.

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      • I have manager friends who say that they’d rather hire a kid who worked at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut as an assistant manager for four years than a kid who spent four years at State U.

        They tell me that they *KNOW* the assistant manager has useful skills.

        They don’t know that the kid who has a degree in two-beers-and-a-funnel has any.

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        • The worst part about a college degree and grade inflation is that on paper, me and the drunk jackass will look very similar. At some point all of this is going to have to catch up with the colleges, who are going to need to do something to stop their product, a college degree, from being diluted by all the knuckleheads it’s handed out to.

          Scarcity is no different in this context. The more college degrees they dish out, the more worthless each one becomes. A BA is trash now. Of course the perverse incentive system of undergraduate, but especially graduate student loans, means that the higher ed institutions will only get rewarded by forcing all the useless grads back to school for a master’s degree. I’m not bitter I swear.

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  7. He claims to have written PhD theses, this is the part I find hardest to believe. Maybe a PhD means something different in the US or I’m biased by hanging around with scientists but I was under the impression it had to involve actual research not just a literature review however well written.

    For an example my brother has a PhD in astrophysics, to get that he had to actually come up with new models of how gamma ray bursts are formed. A thesis however well written and sourced that summarised what was already known simply wouldn’t have done that.

    For that matter my own Masters research on European badgers would have failed misearbly if I hadn’t actually gone out in the rain and done the fieldwork. Because then I would have had no results on which to base the thesis in the first place.

    Granted the writer did specify “As long as it doesn’t require me to do any math” but is not there not some equivalent in the humanitites?

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    • In history, the “math equivalent” is original archival research.

      I spent a damn long time squinting at seventeenth- and eighteenth-century handwriting, much of it nearly illegible, much of it never before published. I translated it — often into rhyming, metered verse — and supplied analysis that situated it within ongoing debates about Enlightenment political culture.

      Still, I think the conversational model is probably the thing that redeems grad school the best. People who want a humanistic education need to discuss with others who already have one.

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    • Badgers? We don’t need no stinking badgers!

      Trivial correction: a master’s degree culminates in a thesis; a doctoral degree culminates in a dissertation.

      Graduate programs outside the sciences do not always require the kind of new, independent research you described, and even some master’s degrees in the sciences are “non-thesis”, meaning that the thesis is more like a long term paper or review paper, not requiring original results and data generated by the student.

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    • Matty,

      It’s not impossible that he has. There are a handful of fields where the standards for dissertations are abysmally low. I have heard of dissertations that were essentially long literature reviews being accepted. The proliferation of a desire to offer/earn a PhD in any conceivable field means that inevitably there is going to be a proliferation of fields with low standards.

      But obviously this guy’s not going to write a Ph.D. dissertation in physics, biology, economics, etc. I’d like to say he couldn’t write one in my field, political science, but all I can really say is that at most Ph.D. granting schools he wouldn’t be able to. I have no doubt he could pass off a fake M.A. in political science at a fairly large number of regional publics that offer the M.A. but not Ph.D. Not all of them by any means, and probably not most, but some.

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  8. No. People at trade school do not farm out their work. Bcause they will need to fix cars. As mentioned.

    But you know who farms out work to actual cs? The guy who owns the mechanic shop. So maybe you go to business school for four years and get good at bullshitting so you can hire people who know how to do something to actuall do those things for people.

    Is the world better off? I wouldn’t automatically say no. Ever get your oil changed at a Jiffy Lube? It’s awesome, especially when you compare it to not-so-long-ago when you had to do it yourself in your driveway, or leave your car at the dealer for three days.

    Does the guy who owns Jiffy Lube or the guy who owns your local franchise actually know how to change oil? I assume not. Rather, what they are really good at is hiring people to work for them, putting ads in the paper and overcoming zoning rules that make it difficult to open auto-repair shops near residential areas. In short, they are good at bullshitting.

    Should it surprise us that the bullshitters have managed to bullshit college professors, too? I hardly think so. Moreover, I do not really see how the presence of the bullshitters in any way hampers the “authentic” inquisitive minds from going about their business.

    Society, in many ways, values bullshit. And that’s not always bad. So now we have institutions set up in such a way as to test for bullshit acuity.

    Seems about right. I mean… if a guy can’t bullshit his way to a B+ average at the State U, I hardly trust him to run my Jiffy Lube. Maybe he can change oil betteer than anyone in history. Who cares? What he needs to be able to do is convince reasonably competent people to work there. He needs to be avble to write policy manuals and convince people to follow them. He needs to be able to negotiate good IT contracts and convince the zoning board to grant hima waiver on parking requirements.

    Go, merchant class!

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  9. Academia is an industry that cranks out a certain product, right? Namely “college-educated” people. The problem comes in or doesn’t depending on how you define your customers- the people who need that product. I encounter a number of CEOs and captains of business through my wife’s family- I consider those of them who are hiring recent grads to be our main customers. They want the product we crank out.

    However, many universities consider the students themselves to be the customers and judge the success or failure of their courses on things like student satisfaction surveys and how many students are passign. So, when you have- as a colleague did last semester- an entire class in which over 2/3rds plagiarized on their final paper, what do you do? She flunked every last one of them, but by the university’s standards, this means her course was a failure- 2/3rds of the customers were given reason to be dissatisfied. If it was me, I likely would have not been called back to offer another course. I’ve had admins threaten as much before.

    But, of course, she has tenure. That’s the point- tenured profs don’t have to inflate the grades and slide the failures through the system- adjuncts and TAs do, if they want their contract to be renewed. When the university says, and nearly all do, that they expect a certain percentage of students in every course to get As or Bs, and a certain level of customer satisfaction in those surveys- or the course will be considered a failure and the instructor let go- it’s pretty clear what they’re driving at. Again, tenured profs can maintain standards in the face of the sort of grade inflation that is endemic at American universities.

    So, the main “benefit” of getting rid of tenure, especially at a lot of the big state universities, has been to quietly institutionalize grade inflation. And, I suspect, that’s the goal. But the student “customers”- those ones paying the high tuition- are happy and the adjuncts who commit academic fraud get to keep paying the rent, and the admins can crow about the high grades of their brilliant students, and the people committing fraud by writing papers for kids can pay their rent, and everyone is happy. Until a company hires a recent grad and has to give them basic training in reading and writing reports because they didn’t learn any of that in university.

    But what are they going to do about it?

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    • One thing employers are doing about it is rating schools by the quality of their graduates – at least, business schools are being rated that way. Another thing that has been done in the past is for colleges to guarantee the quality of their grads, providing free remedial help to any grad who doesn’t measure up. I can only find a high school doing that nowadays, but at one time there were a few colleges doing it in their education programs. Another strategy is to require internships off-campus for every student. My current institution does this.

      I’ve never felt any pressure to pass unqualified students. In the sciences, we are more often viewed as weed-out courses. I can count on support from the nursing department if anybody were ever to complain about my pass rates in biology; they are low, but nobody ever has complained and I have occasionally been thanked by the nursing administration. However, this requires that I talk with the nurses. I think the faculty in writing courses would find equal levels of support from the disciplines they feed into, if they would go and ask. In fact, I was in just such a discussion a few weeks ago, and the writing instructors received an unambiguous message of support from everyone present.

      Pat

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      • Those are good strategies and I hope my irony up there wasn’t taken as genuine resignation. I have a sense that the business community is going to start calling for more accountability from universities in the near future- and in particular I think there will eventually be a call for some sort of exit exam like the SATs to quantify just what it is that university students are learning. There are, of course, serious problems with that sort of standardized test approach; however, I think a lot of the big state universities are setting themselves up for a day of reckoning.

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  10. It’s a tragedy that high school is so jading that people go into college with the same sort of treadmill mentality. I know that I did. I look back at how much more I could have gotten out of college if I’d fully-engaged. But I didn’t, in large part because of my high school experience. High school was a game and a joke. Sadly, I viewed college the same way until it was too late.

    I was a ghostwriter of papers for my girlfriend at the time. We took three classes together and invariably she would fall behind and call me at 1 in the morning the night before a paper was due in tears about how she couldn’t do it (because she hadn’t gone to class, hadn’t read the material, etc) and after writing my paper I would write hers. Half-heartedly. Resentfully.

    Invariably, her papers got better grades than mine did in all three classes. I would get marked off for not addressing a particular point and she wouldn’t. By the end, I thought about just swapping the papers (turning in the second under my name) to see what would happen, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was proud of my papers and didn’t want to put my name on the junk I was turning in under her name. Even then, I guess I had my limits. But the randomness of grade-assignment (or the unimaginativeness in her papers being rewarded) did not do much to make me truly engage with college like I might have done otherwise.

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  11. Lots of good discussion and I have nothing to add. I am currently a Teaching Associate (grad student teaching my own class) and I have a small class. I have yet to have a student turn in a paper that did not jive with their spoken English.

    In history I cannot conceive he could write a dissertation or thesis and the student get away with it. At least at my institution. Each involves multiple milestones, most of them oral, and you must constantly meet with advisers, argue with them, sometimes play them off each other. I just can’t see how you could get to the final stage of writing it without your advisers catching on that you don’t know what you are talking about.

    The more ominous part of this article for me was his admission that he partakes in classes for people in online classes. Getting their passwords, participating in discussion and exchanging email with instructors as if they were the student. With the growth in online learning this is potentially devastating. If you can’t trust the person taking the course is the actual student, how can you affirm they have earned a degree. I’d like to think that colleges have a vested interest in controlling this as too many untrained students with degrees disappoint enough employers their brand will plummet. At least I’d like to think so.

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    • I’d like to think that colleges have a vested interest in controlling this as too many untrained students with degrees disappoint enough employers their brand will plummet. At least I’d like to think so.

      Back when I was a team lead and part of a hiring committee, we hired a grad from the local tech school who was phenomenal. We hired another who was great. We hired a third who we weren’t sure about, gave a chance, and who spent most of his time reading websites on how to cheat on your wife and get away with it. The fourth we interviewed didn’t even make it all the way through the interview process. We stopped hiring from that school. So at least sometimes it does work out that way.

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  12. After reading this article I’m really quite glad an economics education gets bundled with a lot of math. I have skills you can’t bullshit through, and that definitely includes my Master’s dissertation.

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  13. Speaking as an actual college professor, I can say that while there are some students who buy papers, most don’t. Further, it’s also increasingly easy to catch anyone who does buy a paper and to design assignments in such a way as to basically neutralize cheating strategies. (I use turnitin.com and require papers based on deep analysis of a single text, citing evidence from the text and using quotes from it.) Further, I have the experience to recognize padding and I penalize it.

    Another simple method is to require people to turn in their research notes with the paper. This easily shows who source-mined and who didn’t.

    The result is that usually I bust about 3 students a semester for plagiarism, because the rest either know better or can’t figure out how to cheat the system.

    That being said, lots of universities have way too high a student/professor ratio to make it possible for professors to give the kind of attention necessary to stop such things. And Adjuncts are usually teaching a billion classes to get enough money to survive, so they don’t have time either.

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