Thursday, May 5, 2011

Another of capitalism's many benefits

My sister sent me a hard-copy version of Ed Dante's article about ghost writing for college and university students, "The Shadow Scholar" (Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 12, 2010).

This article points to yet another of capitalism's many benefits: enabling humans to gain financially from cheating while concurrently convincing themselves that they are not complicit in undermining social structures more important than capitalism.

Dante's article reminds me a bit about my two-year stint with a leading career services company, producing resumes, cover letters, biographies, and related materials for international clients. This work was a kind of ghost writing: people came to us, paid their money, and within a few days we delivered their requested materials.

However, there are significant differences between the work that Dante writes about and the work that I did for the career services firm. The most glaring difference is that the work that Dante did helps perpetuate the fiction of student competence, which can then be compounded by student admission to and completion of graduate and doctoral programs. People are able to build a career from a foundation of cheating. Since admission to educational programs is based upon a finite number of annual slots, more deserving students are left out.

In the work I did, the materials were designed to showcase a client's actual background and credentials in a way that increased the likelihood that the client would land an interview. What then happened in the interview was up to the client. If the client provided false information to us, and we used this to craft the resume, then it seems quite likely that these lies would be exposed during the interview, reference checks, etc.

As someone who worked very hard to write an original master's thesis, I find reprehensible the work that Dante has done for his clients. Dante admits that he lives well enough on his ghost writing, the market for which is spurred by "the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created." There's no doubt that a system that in many ways stresses grades above education has pushed students to take desperate measures to achieve the desired grade, rather than struggle with actually trying to learn the material. However, in my view, one is not released from what I consider to be a moral obligation not to pass-off someone else's work for one's own just because the magical invisible hand of our current global capitalist system gilds this kind of fabrication with the shiny veneer of financial reward.

As someone who is currently a university instructor, I'm fairly confident that I haven't seen from my students the kind of plagiarism that Dante describes in his article. My confidence has at least two broad foundations.

The first is in response to Dante's question for those of us who may have had students in our classes for whom academically-articulate English is not a first language: "Do you ever wonder how a student who struggles to formulate complete sentences in conversation manages to produce marginally competent research? How does that student get by you?" My answer is that the written work I receive from my students has not discernibly differed from their verbal contributions in class.

Also supporting my confidence here is that I stress the importance of learning the material through in-class discussion and student-directed research to achieve a plausible answer supported by sources. Even though I am required to give final letter grades, I work with students to achieve their goals, the university's goals, and my course goals concurrently. Substantive student progress toward all three results in higher grades. (As an aside, I do realize that my small class sizes and the structure of the course facilitate this kind of an approach, which is much less likely the approach of someone teaching 200 students in an introductory course.)

In closing, Dante's article is thought-provoking, as is the very long comment thread. He and the commenters raise some important issues about our current system of higher education. I see no easy solution to the system's shortcomings -- in fact, with the teaching-to-the-test focus at the K-12 levels that the No Child Left Behind program fosters, I suspect that things are only going to get worse in higher education, as more students internalize the false impression that grades matter more than knowledge, and that short-term memorization is more important than dynamic, deep understanding.

These dynamics, of course, exist within an economic system that encourages us to reify "the market" and internalize the fiction that this system is the best of all possible worlds.


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