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Of Academic Fraud and the Education Crisis - Confessions and Revelations From an Ivy League Whore.

Montreal-born Iain Steinberg now resides in California where he is working on his memoirs and pursuing his dream of scriptwriting. He is now officially out of the student-for-hire business.

There are no chartreuse silk suits hanging in my closet, just a few pairs of jeans, some shirts, some books, and the odd skeleton. My past is my prison. My present, a holding cell. As for my future, there are those like Texas Republican state Sen. Teel Bivins of Armadillo, who would prefer that this expose confession be written from behind bars. Still others hail my experiences as the finest expressions of academic entrepreneurship of the twentieth century. You decide.

The path to higher learning can be approached from many directions as long as a pupil's emotional and psychological state of readiness is regularly accounted for. To Jean- Jacques Rousseau, considered the grandfather of modern-day educational theory, schooling had to be customized this way lest it lose sight of the individual student.

Rousseau's prizewinning discourse The Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1755) expounded on his belief that science, art, and the social institutions of the eighteenth century were corrupting humanity. This colossal truth is profoundly more realized in the jungles of postmodernity, however, as technology, like a parasitic infestation, forges itself deeper into the soil of human experience, invariably imposing mutations at the root level.

At the forefront of this now constantly mutating New World script, students, our youth, meander through postsecondary studies semiconscious; the have-nots, like disoriented lab rats in a maze, the more affluent, like tycoons buying their academic workloads the way most of us purchase lunch. On this most alarming allegation, I can offer firsthand testimonial evidence, but first some necessary background.

Nine years ago, disillusioned by the substandard offerings of universities, I took my formal leave, with the compunction to never give up on learning, just institutions. I had attended a private high school where academic demands were stringent and the academic environment, competitive. With thirteen courses and an average of eleven exams per semester, four of which were languages, I had become accustomed to the pressures of the academic trek. For me, university was a demotion, snapping me back from high school graduate to grade nine so fast I got cerebral whiplash.

FREELANCE WRITING BUSINESS

So I left. Marooned out in the real world, unable to find paid work, I eventually took it upon myself to create a home-based freelance writing business. One newspaper ad later, I unwittingly stumbled upon a niche industry that seemed intent on crowning me its whore.

Although university students were not the targets of my generic twenty- five-dollar newspaper ad, I fielded dozens of phone calls from characters desperate enough to promise me a variety of human organs in exchange for taking over their academic workloads. Cash-strapped and physically healthy, I opted for the money instead. And so it all began.

Caught off guard by the storm of student assignments flooding in, suddenly inundated in a sea of cerebral candy and dollar signs, I was too overwhelmed to be overwhelmed with the implications of what I was doing. In my first "semester" as an academic whore, I worked for thirty-three undergraduate students, producing over sixty-five unique, custom-tailored papers in over fifteen disciplines. Every day brought with it yet another deadline and more money! And this was just the beginning.

Without realizing it, I was fast becoming the smartest kid on the block, fanatically learning across the disciplines in a way that would not have been afforded me as a student with a single or even double major. Plowing forward in this dubious career, I remained naively oblivious to the sociopathic stigma that would follow me for years to come.

As someone who was getting paid to read, write, and learn, I considered myself extremely privileged. Next to my contemporaries, many of whom were drowning in a sea of academic debt, I was a hero of sorts, though I sought no adulation. I knew my unconventional learning path was not for everyone and so never advocated or promoted it as a viable university alternative. In fact, I routinely found myself counseling the disenfranchised segment of my student clientele, always emphasizing the need for them to stay in school.

Word of mouth ensured that local demand continued to soar. As in any service industry, a satisfied customer is a repeat customer. And so they came in what seemed like a never-ending procession: future teachers, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, journalists, nurses, business majors, stoned zombies, wearing down my carpeting as fast as they were my nerves and patience.

In the winter of 1995, I sought escape from these local nudniks online, slowly wading into the already saturated U.S. term paper market, not quite sure what to expect. With a few online ads and the help of some friends at several Ivy League universities, Americans quickly began to dominate my academic harem, shelling out upward of forty dollars per page for my services. Supply and demand would ultimately determine my price structure: The busier I got, the more expensive my services became.

Many sleepless nights were spent mulling over the implications of what I was doing, especially as I began to see my local clientele graduate to assume their professional roles as teachers, journalists, social workers, and psychologists. Unlike Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, I had unleashed not one but a whole assembly line of inept creatures into the mainstream to wreak whatever havoc they would. Was I prepared to deal with the consequences? Did it even matter?

Either way, the long-term effects to society were as frightening as they were immeasurable. And whether I wanted to admit it to myself or not, my new business was part of the problem. Were one-man businesses like mine unilaterally responsible for this corruption, as the academic establishment of administrative scapegoaters would have the public believe? Or were we symptoms of a much larger, degenerative, systemic ailment?

The university landscape of today is foreign terrain even to graduates of just ten years past. Many of the once indelible foundations of higher learning have been gnawed away, gradually rendered impotent, soon perhaps even obsolete. Libraries, books, teachers, and the classroom itself--all are facing extinction because of what promises to be a century of rampant technological change.

In the not-too-distant future, scientists envision humanity's direct interface with artificial intelligence. Some form of cyber-genetic bridge will allow for neuron-speed downloads of whole libraries directly into one's cerebral cortex, overnight, perhaps while asleep. Such a technological milestone would virtually do away with universities altogether, much the same way the Internet is rewriting the rules of university life today.

For now, personal computers and the World Wide Web have given the student access to global cornucopias of knowledge, before and otherwise unavailable. Whole databases of information--accessible, clickable, and downloadable--all for one's learning or cheating convenience.

A DISAPPEARING LINE

Therein lies the first problem: The line between cheating and learning has been blurred, in part by our technocracy's growing dependence and infatuation with the World Wide Web. Many university students today don't consider it cheating to download a term paper off the Internet, change some words and a few bibliographical sources, and hand it in as their own. The Internet is, after all, a recognized research tool, not a societal subversion. In fact, it can be both.

Internet-based research and term paper mills are a booming industry that have been spewed out of the World Wide Web's womb like a series of unwanted, bastard children. And they continue to multiply like vermin on Viagra, despite increased legislation and national attention. Calls to exterminate these online varmints invariably wind up confronting the First Amendment before dying a fizzled death.

Since 1995, sixteen states have made it illegal to sell academic research and term papers. The legislatures of Massachusetts and Texas have laws imposing fines of up to five hundred dollars on students caught committing academic fraud. This is on top of existent university penalties, which almost always guarantee the culprit's expulsion. As yet, neither state can produce any raw data on whether term paper fraud has actually been curtailed.

While politicians and bureaucrats have been making laws that lull the public into believing the crisis of academic fraud is contained, incidents of university cheating continue to rise. Sites that masquerade as legitimate college resources have been proliferating exponentially, deeply entrenching themselves in the information highway. Five years ago, there were fewer than one hundred of these sites. Today, an innocent "Term Paper" search string on Yahoo reveals only the surface of this mammoth iceberg, yielding well over one million hits!

The plethora of online services targeted at today's downtrodden, brain- dead student is enough to perturb even the most stable minded. At the bottom of this food chain, hundreds of databases big and small offer downloadable university research. Not surprisingly, these polluted communal cesspools are a breeding ground for inaccuracy and error. Students should avoid these like the plague, and yet they remain among the Web's most-trafficked sites.

www.schoolsucks.com, www.essaydepot.com, and www.houseofcheat.com are several of the most popular sites accessed by online student denizens. Although they were considered beyond containment just a few years back, today's enforcement technology may well have caught up with these five- and-dime term paper mudholes.

The latest in Web development is the increased availability of search- engine technology. Many sites are now equipped with a site-search feature as well as a Web engine. This permits the student-surfer to enter a search string into a queue while the engine scans the Web, returning possible matches. Finding an online term paper on any given subject is easier than ever for both student and professor alike.

Programs like plagiarism.org, developed by John Barrie, a Berkeley graduate student, have already nabbed dozens of university plagiarizers but only those foolish enough to hand in papers downloaded directly off the Net. The online service employs proprietary plagiarism-detection algorithms to compare work against the thousands of papers posted on the Web. The technology is limited, and anyone clever enough to edit and update an existing online paper will likely get away with academic fraud.

Still, many are not even that savvy: The majority of those caught committing academic plagiarism to date have submitted term papers printed directly off their browsers. In still more cases, the term paper mill's logo was printed at the bottom of every page! Imagine the reaction of a college professor turning to the cover page of a student's report to read: "The Increased Rise of Extreme Nationalism in Eastern Europe: Post-Soviet Era (term paper courtesy of www.schoolsucks.com)."

As search-engine technology becomes better honed and professors begin to take advantage of it, say good-bye to the drudges of online term paper databases and prepare to enter the spa of "cyber-cheatdom"--the custom-tailored site.

The online ocean is already dotted with hundreds of these sites. Luring their lazy student prey with promises of unique, custom research are ex-university professors, international writing companies, and ex- students, operating out of mildew-ridden basements and marble-towered office buildings alike. Their tsunami-sized putsch onto the World Wide Web has shown no signs of ebbing. These sharks are hungry, and they're circling.

Catching these behemoths will require a lot more than the helpful hand of technology. How can legislators, professors, or administrators rightfully tell if a submitted piece of academic work was personally written or professionally subcontracted? With class sizes growing and more teacher assistants correcting assignments, the task of monitoring this type of academic fraud seems well beyond the system's ability. Ultimately, one would need a net the size of the Internet itself to catch all these entrepreneurial predators, and for every one caught, ten will rise to take its place. University cheating has become big business.

Further complicating matters is the internal wrangling of many educational bureaucracies, now run more like corporations than institutions of higher learning. With international companies such as Coca-Cola sponsoring universities and their sport teams, administration has become big business, often forcing education to take a backseat. What happens when professors, coaches, and administrators allow and promote cheating among their star athletes, many of whom, it turns out, are completely illiterate?

In the spring of 1998, a tutor at the University of Minnesota confessed to having written some four hundred term papers for many of the college's high-profile basketball stars. Her revelations sent the academic world into a frenzied public relations tailspin. The incident, played down as an aberration by university administrators, served to illustrate the complexity and pervasiveness of academic fraud at university today. Students are only a small part of a much bigger problem.

AN UNDERMINED BUREAUCRACY

Whatever their political or ideological association, all seem to agree that education is in crisis. While politicians scramble to contain the tempest of academic fraud, administrators debate classroom management minutiae, virtually ignoring the pandemic before them. Is the Establishment's relative inaction due to ignorance or a form of acknowledged self-defeat? The educational and political bureaucracies recognize how dwarfed and utterly powerless they are in facing off with the resource-rich student underground and its most prized information resource, the Internet.

So, if the solution to this educational crisis isn't going to come from technology and laws continually prove ineffective, the answer must be found at the heart of the university experience itself. What aspects of formal university education can be adapted to better fit the diverse needs of today's savvy, information-saturated learner? Can the university experience itself be modified, perhaps even custom-tailored to an individual's personal needs? This Rousseauian design will have to become a lot more prevalent if institutional academia is to survive through the twenty-first century.

A quick glimpse into my cracked academic mirror reveals but one fragment of the problem: If I were to return to university in pursuit of an education degree, for example, I would invariably be required to begin this slackly sojourn with such courses as Introduction to Education 101. Though I have written and researched several master's theses in educational psychology as well as hundreds of other undergraduate assignments within the discipline, the system would expect me to sit through umpteen hours of redundant, pedantic introductory lectures and courses. This would be mentally torturous at best and would require leaving my brain at home for the first two years of university. The individual disciplines at the university level must be prepared to offer equivalency-placement testing so that degree learning can be custom-tailored to an individual's time frame, taking into account his intellectual and life experience background.

In my seven-year stint as an "academic whore," I have been privy to the student voice. I have heard all the student excuses,and the complaints raised against university professors and the faceless bureaucratic institutions that tenure them without any regard for their teaching ability. I believe the scripts of excuses I have heard are especially relevant to the discussion, because they reveal what brought students to my doorstep in the first place.

ACADEMIC EXCUSES

Without further ado, and respecting everyone's anonymity, of course, I present my parade of lost academics:

"I completely forgot about the assignment until today. ... Oh yeah, and it was due yesterday, can you do it?"

Although I did work for students who often found themselves in this type of bind, the majority of my clientele were upscale high-achievers, who held down 3.8 grade-point averages. In fact, the most common line I heard was more of a war-torn plea:

"I'm so exhausted, and I have three other assignments due next Monday. I don't have the time to devote to them all. If I give you an extra $500, can you please squeeze me in?"

Then there were the regulars. Clients with whom I had biweekly engagements paid me well and thus received the bulk of my time and attention. Often juggling the workloads of several such student- dependents simultaneously, I often topped off my week with output levels of twenty-five thousand words or more.

One regular, Elyssa, went on to pursue postgraduate work, thanks in large part to my academic omnipresence. In fact, I wrote her master's thesis! Afraid of her own shadow, she never went anywhere without her mother. The pair would make the thirty-minute drive to my office three or four times a week, regularly picking up and dropping off slews of assignments and research material. Like many of my regular clients, Elyssa performed well academically but was completely unable to express herself, both verbally and in writing. Interestingly, Mommy, not daughter, was writing all the checks, paying me upon pickup and delivery of each and every assignment.

Elyssa's mom was not the only parent to commission my services. Over the years, dozens of predominantly affluent parents engaged me on behalf of their bored or academically challenged children. Often I dealt exclusively with parents as their children were away at out-of- town universities. The parent script of excuses was the most predictable, no doubt because I heard it repeated so often:

"Nowadays, the kids need all the help they can get. ... Teachers are crazy. ... Half the courses my kid wanted he couldn't even get into. ... You spend good money for what...?"

The parents I dealt with were good, caring people who only wanted the best for their children. Ironically, just a few decades ago, "the best" inferred getting a university education. In today's competitive job market, however, a university transcript is standard issue. Without the 3.8 grade-point average, many of the choice jobs are simply unavailable. With their child's whole future riding on these few quick years of postsecondary education, it's surprising that more parents haven't been recruited into the cheating contingent. From my perspective, it certainly seemed that everyone was involved, including university staff and administration.

SERVICING THE JOCKS

After tackling one running back's workload for an entire semester, I was expecting a full-court press of phone inquiries from other college jocks to follow. Instead, I received a single phone call from Coach Jenkins, who invited me to the campus to conference. After an hour-long meeting, I was "awarded" the unofficial title of team tutor and promised a steady wave of assignments all semester in return for big bucks. Naturally, I had to keep quiet about the arrangement that ultimately transformed me into Coach Jenkins' personal fast-food service window:

"Yeah, so I got six English assignments for ya, two political science essays. I got a take-home exam in sociology, two ten-question-and- answer assignments--I think one is history, the other is anthropology or something. I gotta buncha psychology crap here. So when can you pick it all up?"

Several times I jokingly asked him if he "wanted fries with that," genuinely taken aback by his nonchalance as he dumped countless assignments on my plate for what turned out to be a two-year, all-you- can-eat academic buffet. His insatiable demands on my time never seemed to be met. After two years' worth of twelve-hour workdays, fearing complete burnout, I told the coach I had had enough. Coach Jenkins, however, was not prepared to release his "star writer" that easily. It was only after I threatened to expose his ring of fraud that he let me walk away unencumbered and unscathed. A panderer, now an extortionist in the student underground, I certainly felt like I was getting full exposure to the cancerous underbelly of university life.

Rounding out my parade of patrons was the unending line of education students, drawn to my doorstep like drone ants to their queen. No other discipline was as represented in my portfolio of academic experience as education. Ironic, isn't it? Future teachers paying me to do work that would ultimately put them in charge of classrooms! This startling irony points to an array of fundamental problems at the core of educational scholarship today.

Teachers are the most underpaid, underappreciated contributors to society. As a result, the field often attracts two breeds of student: the dedicated scholar and the totally vacant. Both types graced my doorstep, though I must admit to doing more academic work for more dimwits in education than any other discipline. Many of these "graduates" are now teaching in the field. Look for them at an elementary or high school near you!

FACULTY FRAUD

The problems of plagiarism and academic fraud are not limited to students. In 1992, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal went on a shooting rampage, killing four fellow professors. The attack was not random. The murderer's courtroom testimony, fraught with allegations of theft, copyright infringement, and research fraud, prompted the university to commission an independent investigation into its own inner workings.

Exposed was the popular research culture that assigns grants exclusively to the tenured professor, inevitably creating huge interdepartmental rifts. Exposed was the vicious competition for research grant money, without which many professors say they couldn't afford to live. Exposed was the reality that the engineering department at Concordia routinely published papers that were coauthored by eight people when in fact only one or two were actively involved. Were all these problems endemic to this one particular university, or were they representative of a much larger, more corrupt research culture?

Research integrity becomes an issue when it is difficult to discern the primary authors and contributors of the research. With responsibility shared among so many, the most logical question to arise is who is responsible for the actual research and writing of the work? If this most basic question becomes blurred by a new research ethic dictating that researchers assign credit where none is due (to colleagues with whom they wish to gain favor, for instance), the public and the whole academic culture suffer.

Academic researchers routinely publish studies that are hailed as breakthroughs one moment, only to be totally discredited the next. Four years ago, researchers at the University of Montreal announced that they were on the threshold of a cure for breast cancer. The international media got hold of the story and ran it with jubilant fervor. Forced into a corner by the heat of the international spotlight, the Montreal research team was forced to concede that the announcement was made to assure a continuous flow of government grant money. They were not on the brink of a cure but of bankruptcy.

More often, research is being bankrolled by corporate money so that results can be manipulated to fit a company's agenda. Phillip Morris was a contributor of research capital in a study that, not surprisingly, demonstrated that nicotine was nonaddictive. Big money not only commissions and finances these studies, it determines their outcomes before any research is even undertaken. As a result, study findings regularly contradict themselves, making it near impossible to discern empirical scientific result from special interest.

SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS

The problems in education are systemic, beginning at the primary level and continuing beyond the postsecondary stage. Arriving at university unable to read or write, dumbfounded by the inner workings of a library card catalog, many are legitimately overwhelmed. In several of my first-year college classes, professors took the entire class down to the library so students could familiarize themselves with the mechanics of library research procedures. We were being shown how to use a library! The first time this happened, I spent the period looking for the "Candid Camera," convinced we were being filmed for an upcoming episode. How could one be at university without having previously used a library?

You don't need a diploma on your wall to see the ominous writing: The public school system is not doing its job in readying students for the academic challenges of university life and workload. Here once again, an outmoded, strained infrastructure is chiefly to blame: Broken-down, asbestos-poisoned schools, schools without libraries, outdated textbooks, uncertified teachers, violence, classroom overcrowding-- these are just a few of the more pressing challenges facing public education today. Twenty years of national and state budget slashing has created rips in the educational fabric through which many students have been allowed to fall. Often, it was my doorstep they crash-landed on.

With public school class sizes now averaging around thirty students, and the classroom populace more socioeconomically and linguistically diverse than ever, teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to design lesson plans that are all-inclusive. More often than not, they wind up teaching to about half the class at best, with one-quarter falling progressively behind and the other quarter struggling to stay awake. Breaking out of the standard teacher-centered classroom mold is the first step that public school teachers can take to alleviate this classroom imbalance.

Cooperative or small group--based learning environments have repeatedly proved to increase overall performance and participation among students. Mixed-age and performance-group situations also bestow greater responsibility on the individual learner, fostering an environment that promotes student self-regulated learning. Teaching new and existent teachers alternative strategies and methods as well as innovative classroom-management designs would result in a more adaptive, responsive, problem-solving role model. This improved facilitator would likely be capable of teaching more than 50 percent of the class at a time, ensuring that more students reached university in a state of academic preparedness.

As it becomes increasingly difficult to earn a decent living without a university diploma, more and more otherwise nonacademically inclined students pour into the halls of higher learning in search of something, they know not what. More often than not, however, higher learning is not taking place there, unless one considers learning how to beat the system to be a form of higher learning.

The majority of my clientele confided to me that they were studying education because no other three- or four-year program resulted in immediate job placement after graduation. Many more admitted that they were in the field because they had no sense of direction, singular calling, or passion. Just the right combination of attributes for the type of public school teacher we all want teaching our children!

I find it sad and even a little maddening. Knowing there are teachers so void of passion, direction, and, thanks to me, formal academic background molding young minds ... into what? They may very well have their diplomas and transcripts, but it is I who hold their educations hostage. These are the skeletons trapped in my closet, forever taunting me, begging for their freedom. How do I let them out, get credit for what I have done, and avoid incarceration? Sounds like a job for Superman!

COMING CLEAN

Last year, after seven years of "informal" study in over thirty disciplines, with thousands of pages researched and written from hundreds of books and thousands of academic periodicals, I felt it was finally time to set my skeletons free and come clean. It was time to take all that I had learned over the years and enter the mainstream. Mainstream society would have none of that, however, repeatedly proving unready for this whore's official premiere.

Years of self-employment in a field as risque and shunned as this have handicapped my efforts at societal reemergence. Despite my years of informal study, I am still viewed as a mere high school graduate with some university under my belt--insufficient criteria for an entry-level position nowadays. Today's employers place inordinate emphasis on transcripts, marks, and GPAs, more so than they do on the people holding them. Many are oblivious to the fact that marks, transcripts, and even diplomas can be bought as easily as an online term paper.

I know beyond a doubt that my freelance education was comprehensive, if not superior to the one I would have received as a formally enrolled student spending $10,000 a year on tuition. Ironically, the students I helped to graduate are now secure in their $25,000--$40,000 annual income brackets while I repeatedly get passed over for jobs scrubbing toilets or cutting deli meats at the local grocer. After a full year of wretched pavement-pounding unemployment, depleted and near bankrupt, I was about ready to consider a career in the circus when a familiar epiphany came over me.

This January, one year after retiring the whore to the back of my now- crowded closet, the term paper king was born, out of financial necessity, not spite. I have no subversive agenda to undermine society, although society has repeatedly given me the short end. I would much prefer working on the legitimate side of the fence but, to do so, the system insists I spend at least $25,000 for what I consider an inferior product. Until university becomes more adaptive and responsive to the individual needs of learners, the system will likely continue to produce incompetents, while people such as myself are held back by the likes of a piece of paper.

As my own boss, deciding what to learn, when and how to approach it, and finally getting paid to do it all in my pajamas, perhaps I have been spoiled. Why then should I have to settle for a minimum-wage job at some deli counter when I can get good money learning on behalf of those less inclined? It seems the perfect arrangement until one ponders the long-term societal consequences.

On the eve of my fateful decision to reenter the world of the student underground, I received the omen I was hoping would never come: a phone call from one of those societal consequences--my longest-standing client, Elyssa. Having graduated from a master's program in educational psychology a little over a year ago, why would she now be calling? Could she be going for her Ph.D. in education? No, Elyssa was looking for work and had a serious, albeit mind-numbing question to ask:

"Now that I have my master's degree, what sorts of jobs are for me?"

I haven't been able to accept a single assignment since.

SOURCES AND ADDITIONAL READING

Additional Reading:Joe Chidley, "Tales Out of School: Cheating Has Long Been a Great Temptation and the Internet Makes It Easier Than Ever," MacLean's, 24 Nov. 1997.

John Hickman, "Cybercheats: Term Paper Shopping Online," New Republic, 23 Mar. 1998.

Jon Marcus, "Tuitions Continue to Spiral," Associated Press, 9 Sept. 1994.

Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, Knopf, New York, 1996.

Karen Seidman, "High-Tech Helps Cheaters Prosper," Montreal Gazette.

Margaret Wang and Stephen Peverly, "The Self-Instructive Process in Classroom Learning Contexts," Contemporary Educational Psychology 11 (1986).

Abigail Witherspoon, "This Pen for Hire: On Grinding Out Papers for College Students," Harper's, June 1995.

M. Wolfe, "Dr. Fabrikant's Solution," Saturday Night, July-Aug. 1994.
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Title Annotation:illegal term paper writing
Author:Steinberg, Iain
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Words:5074
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