Before I begin, I should note that I have never done and am not going to do what I describe here. But maybe you could do it!
The other day I was looking for a coherent plot summary for Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, a work that only takes up a few paragraphs of my dissertation. Rather than rereading the book, I just wanted to make sure I had the chronology, setting, and character names correct so I could focus on one scene (he said, as you notice all the shady justifications for this shortcut). I came to Gradesaver.com, which offered a pretty unexceptional Cliff Notes of the story. While it was helpful for my purposes, I’m flustered to know that it’s an easy out for students who don’t want to grapple with Brown’s profoundly tricky narrative and the gothic surprises that they will encounter. However, what drew my attention was the opportunity for $$$ on the right:
This is classic paper-mill territory. The Daniel Ellsberg of this group is an opportunist named Dave Tomar who wrote about his experiences working for one of these places first under a pseudonym for the Chronicle of Higher Education and more recently in a book I have no intention of reading (here’s a review). There are so many ways of condemning this behavior that it’s boring to go through them, and nothing is going to stop these goon sites from pawning their crappy papers out to college students. I could have said “lazy” college students, but that’s a generalization I don’t want to make.
But here’s the most egregious problem that transcends merely the setting of paper mills and indicts the colleges that so frequently condemn them: Generic Kelly goes to college from her sheltered suburb. On the first day of class, there’s a hip friendly dude wearing a stupid hat and handing out a cool T-shirt. All you have to do is sign up for this credit card, he says, in a manner that makes Generic Kelly think he’s flirting with her. So she does, and when she gets it, it’s free money and all she has to do is make the fifteen dollar minimum payments and she doesn’t have to eat the meal plan at the cafeteria anymore.* She’s able to buy tickets to see Train. She can do a whole lot of online shopping. And since her parents don’t get the bill, they don’t know what’s up. But all this new access to (not)money gets in the way of less significant stuff like class, and after about six weeks, GK has to hand in an five page research paper on Shakespeare’s Measure on Measure [sic] and she hasn’t even read the play. But wait! There’s Gradesaver.com! She gets to do more shopping! In fact, she can just type in “Measure for Measure paper” (after the cover of the book reminds her of the title) and this is her first hit:
Now $19.95 is pretty steep, and since Katie wants/needs to do well on this paper, she figures she may as well buy the $34.95 one – ironically enough on “morality” in Measure for Measure. Now that’s a preposterous price, but wait: Generic Kelly has a credit card . . . you see where this is going. I’m being pretty reductive here, but I’m not making fun of Kelly: I’m describing the behavior I would have engaged in as a college freshman if I had access to these outlets. It could also come from the other side, when a teacher has bullied and belittled a student into this behavior. The whole system is FUBAR, y’all.
Here might be one way to get back of these vipers and drain some of their capital. I have some pretty awful papers that I wrote in high school like this:
It’s dreadful (“An Existentialist’s Hell”: HA!), but maybe I could clean it up a bit so that the ghastly content of the paper is covered up by more polished prose. The argument is non-existent (I think I was making a point about how bad it sucks for Garcin), but the language is pristine, furnished by some critical jargon and words like “foreshadowing” and “mimemis.” Then I grab 25 bucks from the saps at Gradesaver, who sell it to poor Generic Kelly for her Introduction to Drama class (by now she probably has four high interest credit cards, because she’s getting like four applications a week by mail, naturally). However, what I do next is turn the paper in to an as-of-yet non-existent public site. Turnitin.com is an example of sites that offer subscription services, and they’re valuable; but what if it was even easier? What if graduate students, professors, and intelligent people began selling their papers, and then uploading their papers to a site that every teacher could easily access. We bombard these sites with well-written hokum that sounds good if you don’t read the book. Word of mouth would spread, and any time a 200-level teacher got a paper on Leaves of Grass that referenced Deleuze’s rhizome, he or she could just type in a sentence from the site and easily figure out that it was written by an MA student who used the twenty-five bucks to buy her own copy of Anti-Oedipus. Generic Kelly goes to the honor council, and hopefully she learns her lesson. Ideally, that intervention would happen sooner, and of course we should structure our courses so it will. But as “The Shadow Scholar” indicates, the industry is flourishing, and this might be a way to throw a wrench in it.
You might think I’m encouraging plagiarism, but I would argue that I’m discouraging it. I’m depleting the resources of a paper mill that shouldn’t exist and I’m providing a paper that can be easily discovered as counterfeit. Generic Kelly goes through the honor council education program and hopefully they turn her on to someone who talks to her about financial responsibility.
And I’ve made 25 bucks.**
*- Steps are being made to limit predatory practices by lenders (see here) but I still see these folks around Maryland.
** – I realize the fallacy here is that Gradesaver.com will make 35 bucks off Generic Katie. But I guess I’m envisioning an apocalyptic scenario where so many students get caught that they stop using these sites. Highly and unrealistically idealistic, I know.