The History of Dialogue: Other People’s Papers

Image by Louis Camnitzer (via)

This is a dialogue between Teach, an adjunct philosophy instructor at a public university in New York, and Cheat, who has authored over 100 papers for pay.

Teach: In my philosophy class of 36 students I had six instances of plagiarism. I ended up turning them all in to the Committee on Academic Standing.

Cheat: Do you remember how they plagiarized?

T: One is a case of self-plagiarism, in which the third paper was turned in a second time for the fourth paper.

C: In its entirety?

T: In its near entirety. He changed the introduction and the conclusion, but left the body paragraphs the same.

C: So he tricked a search engine, but not a human.

T: In the four other cases, I discovered specific lines that were taken off Internet sites including the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—at the best, Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, and some Cambridge professor’s blog.

C: How did you find that? Through a Google search?

T: Well, first I detect it. There are a number of red flags. One is that the paper refers to texts and issues we don’t discuss in class. So, for example, in a paper on Plato’s Apology, Symposium, and Phaedo, they will refer to the Meno or the Protagoras or any number of dialogues that were not assigned.

C: And it would be unreasonable to imagine that they had read all that in the semester?

T: That strikes me as true. It seems to me that these were not instances of people going above and beyond. And, at any rate, they are forbidden to use outside sources. They’re not research papers, they’re explications.

C: But that’s just the constraints of the assignment, right?

T: Yes, but it is a red flag to me that there is plagiarism elsewhere in the paper. The second one is grammatical. In those cases I was alerted to plagiarism by the sudden appearance, in a paper that is otherwise a morass of grammatical errors, of a series of flawless sentences with complicated structures. The correct use of a semicolon is a big red flag for me. As is the use—and often misuse—of specialized jargon or technical language that I’ve not discussed with them in class. Then I type those sentences into Google, and they all wind up being smoking-gun cases of plagiarism. My favorite case this semester was plagiarism within plagiarism. When I informed this student that I suspected her paper was plagiarized, she said to me, “I got my paper from one of the students who was in your class last semester. How was I to know that she had plagiarized?” Which indicated to me, along with a number of the other email responses I got from students, that many of them don’t even know what plagiarism is.

C: I don’t disagree. But not knowing what plagiarism is isn’t really the problem. It’s unfortunate that right now the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism. And the reason the university is cracking down so hard on plagiarism is because their product is less and less valuable these days. When students plagiarize, there’s an implicit recognition that “I’m just doing this for the grade.” That’s why they do it. And that’s the way that the majority of students look at the university, and have been for some time now. At my college, the frats had rooms full of file cabinets full of plagiarized papers. Plagiarism is old news. It’s really not just that plagiarism is getting easier to do, with the Internet. The problem is now that the grade doesn’t even get you the job.

T: That’s certainly true of my students, of whom I know, that unlike where you went to school, not a single one of them is taking it for anything but a grade. Or maybe one of them per semester does. They are taking this class because they need a series of credits.

C: My point in saying that is not to blame lazy students. I think that the system, grading in general, grading as a gold standard of employability, college as the necessary step between high school and employment, all of these things alone aren’t necessarily wrong. But when you get them all together in this network, and college is going to define your future, the grades will determine where you go, one, for a fifth of you, those of you who are going to grad school or law school or med school. For the rest of you, to get that job, you need that paper that says, “Diploma,” which means you need to pass. That’s all that matters.

T: And that’s especially true of my students. I’ve not yet taught anyone who’s majoring in philosophy. For my students, philosophy is in no way relevant, or at least not obviously relevant, to the practice of whatever profession they came to college to get into in the first place.

C: Now, I’m not saying there’s no virtue in forcing people to take classes in things they aren’t interested in. But plagiarism is going to happen in a society in which you are told, “This is something you need to do in order to have the life you want, and in order to have the life you want there are things you must do that you don’t want to do, and may even be incapable of doing. Now, we don’t really care where you went to high school, and we can’t speak to the quality of your English professors. So, here, write a paper about philosophy. And if you cheat, we will fucking expel you.” But if you don’t cheat, you’ll get a D, which is as good as being expelled. And that’s a rock and a hard place.

T: I was discussing this very issue with a representative of my department, and that is indeed the case. In a rational choice model, it’s actually, in certain cases, if you get at all behind with your work—all of them have jobs, many of them have children, some of them are not native English speakers, so they’re already at a disadvantage relative to the course that’s being taught to them—and the course that’s being taught to them can’t be “dumbed down to their level” because then the degree becomes meaningless anyway… The rational choice model encourages cheating.

C: And more than six kids probably cheated in your class. Those kids just did it better. Which is actually what the university rewards. When I was in college, I didn’t plagiarize per se, but I certainly learned to cut corners rather than directly achieve. I don’t know about your school, but where I went, the people who were good at cutting corners end up on Wall Street. This is what we’re encouraging.

T: But the thing is, if the academy were not there it would matter. People are going to go to Wall Street to rapaciously plunder regardless.

C: But financial markets do require universities…

Cheat: So you don’t accuse anyone unless you have hard evidence?

Teach: With the exception of one case, which is the last case.

C: Tell me how you caught that one.

T: Her paper quality was relatively consistent throughout the semester, so looking back it seems possible that I didn’t catch earlier cases. I was suspicious, but I don’t punish cases where my rationale for suspecting plagiarism is only, “They could not have written that.” If my only suspicion is that it is of such a high quality that it is beyond the intellectual level of the student, I don’t bust them. Now a number of my colleagues, especially ones who have been teaching longer than I have, do bust students on these grounds, and they’re usually right. But I think that this is a result of a sort of a) experience in the profession, and b) the development of cynicism with regards to their students.

C: Yeah, certainly. It’s bad for the teachers too. It’s bad for teachers to have to bureaucratically monitor their students for cheating. Teachers are becoming more and more like cops. There are more administrators than there are true teachers.

T: Definitely. And frankly a lot of that burden should be shouldered by the actual administrators. I suppose I should say here that I’m an adjunct lecturer, which means…

C: That you’re the bottom of the totem pole.

T: Not only am I on the bottom of the totem pole, but I’m a symptom of corner-cutting at the system level.

C: You’re there so they don’t have to pay someone with tenure. Two of you is one tenured professor.

T: At least. But to get back to the student, the paper was A-worthy. It was a final paper. The final paper is intended to help the student prepare for the final. They turn it in on the day of the final, and it covers all the issues and thinkers we’ve discussed throughout the semester. The point of it is that if you write the final paper, you should not have to study for the final exam. The student would have gotten an A on her final paper. She got a 35 on her final exam, which is a bad fail, which means to me that this person cannot have internalized what she wrote on her paper. And I am of the opinion that not only had she written that paper she would have gotten an A on the exam, but had she even read the paper and used it as a study guide she would have done very well—certainly at least passing—on the final exam.

C: So we’ve got a case of the buying of the paper. That’s where I come in.

Teach: So I’m interested in knowing how much you charge for a paper.

Cheat: I charge between $25 and $35 a page, more if there’s research required. And those are New York City prices, the market is saturated here. I cut deals with repeat customers. I guarantee a B+ on any subject. I get my clients from Craigslist, so I’m a little more expensive than the paper mills, the services…

T: Which are less expensive and easier to detect. With the new software, you can scan in whole papers.

C: Yeah, they have a very distinct style, whereas I give that personal Ivy League touch. I think I’ve written probably over 100 papers.

T: What do you learn about your clients?

C: As much as they want to tell me. I don’t really meet them, so I don’t know them very well. I’ve written papers for Cornell and Columbia students. There are a couple of CUNYs, some NYU, less NYU. One semester I did a guy’s entire course load for a semester. I was paid $1000 a month. So I know a lot about anthropology now. A couple of classes were even interesting. These students are all over the map. At my prices they tend to be a little wealthier. But there are also kids with student loans who just don’t feel like doing it. At the brand-name schools, I get the sense that they tend to be mostly jocks and frat boys. At the public schools, they tend to just be fairly normal, practical people with cash on hand.

T: At a certain point, it’s worth the investment.

C: Precisely. It’s worth your money to get your time back. While I was taking that guy’s classes, he spent the semester driving around the country, spending at least two nights in all 48 continental states. That’s a much better use of your time than four anthro classes. And I was happy to help him do it. Most the paper assignments I get are: read these articles, regurgitate them, quote them, tell me what it’s all about. If you’re not interested in those articles, what are you going to learn from doing that? Nothing! I almost never get an assignment where I think, “Oh, interesting paper topic.” Never happens, with few exceptions. The only times it happens are when the client is buying all of his semester’s papers from me. Most of the papers are dumb papers for introductory classes that the student is clearly just doing for credits. I get serious papers too, graduate papers, but it tends to be people who are not in college to be learning this content.

T: I just want to ask about logistics. At what point do you get paid?

C: After I send the paper to the student. It’s a gray economy. If I’m working with a student I don’t know, I’ll usually ask them for a little money upfront. And if they get less than a B+, I refund them the money. In the total number of papers I’ve written, only one student got less than that, she got a B-, but I’d done satisfactory work for her before, so she didn’t complain.

Teach: A lot of times I’m sure people slip plagiarism by me. And a lot of it I turn a blind eye to. The only time I bust a student is when I just can’t turn a blind eye.

Cheat: Which was six this semester?

T: Well, the problem was that there was one I couldn’t turn a blind eye to, so I had to bust everybody, because then it would have been a case of arbitrariness. I could have probably let the person who bought the paper go, but that was a fit of pique.

C: And you were pissed.

T: That’s right. I was feeling like a vengeful and jealous adjunct. In some respects I feel bad about it now.

C: What does your school do to someone who gets caught for plagiarism?

T: The rulebook states that a student who is caught plagiarizing fails the class, and it is noted. A person who is caught plagiarizing twice is expelled. Now I went and I discussed the matter with the departmental representative who liaises with the Committee on Academic Standing, and he told me that I could recommend a punishment. And the punishment that I’ve decided to recommend is simply that they fail the paper, they get a zero on the paper. In all cases, though, that has the effect of having them fail the class, because the paper is worth 20 percent of their grade, and none of them do well on their other work, to bring their grade up to a 60 percent. It’s a de facto F in the class.

C: I can’t help but think it’s a situation where nobody gets what they want. You don’t want to be punishing these people for doing this, and they don’t want to be cheating in the first place. It doesn’t seem to work for anyone involved. Except for me of course.