It’s not about cheating, it’s about care, passion and taking responsibility
Écrire est un acte d’amour. S’il ne l’est pas, il n’est qu’écriture (Jean Cocteau by Philippe Halsman (downloaded from Google Images)
Ghostwriting. A rotten issue that is not going to go away unless universities profoundly change their attitude to and understanding of what academic writing is, why it matters and how we learn to do it.
Several stories on how students cheat by paying ghostwriters to write their essays and on the essay mills that supply them have been hitting the headlines, such as this one, which appeared yesterday.
I have also drawn attention to unfairness in our academic writing expectations, the ethics surrounding essay mills, and the problem with not recognising academic writing as an actual subject or discipline .
What these stories on essay mills have in common (including reader comments) is that they often forefront the behaviour of the students as cheats, of the essay mills as moral corruptors and of the universities as upholders of standards and integrity, the sorry victims of an army of lazy, conniving, quick-fix customers who are undermining their credibility and who need to be punished and shamed.
My recent Tweets on this issue
I so profoundly object to the discourses surrounding ‘academic misconduct’ that I am compelled to point out a number of alterantive perspectives, all of which forefront the conditions that allow misconduct to fester and essay mills to profit.
Clearly, I do not condone cheating and I am not so naive as to believe the world is full of do-gooders who are hapless victims of an unfair system. But nor do I condone what I consider to be unhealthy academic writing cultures within universities which seem to be fundamentally and irresponsibly ignorant of a rich and established tradition of scholarly research on academic writing and how you learn to do it.
Some anecdotal evidence
Firstly, I have been teaching university students for 25 years in the UK and in Italy and I like them, trust them, find them interesting, learn from them, respect them. A very small number of these students cheat for no other reason than laziness and lack of interest, but some cheat because they are consumed with anxiety or lack self-esteem; others because they simply do not understand what is expected of them.
Secondly, I have recently become involved in an initiative to support home students with their academic studies – ie those students who have been through the British education system (as opposed to international students who have not). This is because, surprise surprise, home students also struggle with understanding the expectations of academic writing! This initiative is part of a wider university strategy to provide drop-in student services: with the huge amounts students pay in fees, universities need to be seen to be helping. Whether they are or not is contentious.
I have read some published work on how home students struggle with the transition from A-Level writing or Access courses (see for example Lillis 2011 and other work by academic literacies scholars) and on who is/should be responsible for helping these students: their departments, EAP centres, student services, writing centres, library staff? But talking to the students allows me to hear and see first hand what feedback their subject tutors are giving them and to glean insights into what is worrying these learners.
Here is a representative example of what I hear (from an undergraduate):
I got 48% in my midwifery essay and I don’t understand why. I got distinctions in my access course and when I was writing this essay, I thought it was good. I put in references, I looked at different aspects of the research question, my sister, who is really good academically, advised me to start with some context and give some definitions, but my tutor said I had too many ideas and they weren’t really connected to the main question. I also don’t really know what a paragraph is or how long it should be and what should go in the introduction and conclusion? Is the conclusion just a summary? I need to start writing my second essay and I just don’t know where to start now. I want to do it right, but I don’t know how. How do you write an academic essay? How is it different to what they taught me on my access course? I know people who have done A-Levels and they also say it is completely different to an A-Level essay
There is so much to unpack here. As an EAP teacher and academic writing researcher, this is my daily bread and it makes my heart sink to hear this. In a 30-minute drop-in session, I cannot possibly address systemic historical and political dysfunctions in how Further Education and Higher Education join-up, especially now that the UK has roughly reached its university widening participation targets of 50% of 18 year-olds (which means a huge range of students from diverse scholastic backgrounds). Nor can I single-handedly change each academic department’s perception of its own responsibilities when it comes to essay writing. But I can blog about it so let’s see who else out there shares some of my perspectives on this.
Some academic evidence
Much has been written on the issues raised by the student above. I’ve already mentioned work being done by academic literacies scholars. However, there are deeper and wider contexts in which all of this takes place. For example, ongoing work by researchers at Lancaster University on The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation is drawing attention to how academics themselves struggle to write and to meet the demands of an ever increasing marketisation of writing which requires them to publish in some journals and not others or to privilige some genres (eg the academic journal article) above others (eg the monograph or audiovisuals, and other multimodal texts). This leads to what Les Back has called a culture of ‘absenteeism’ because academics can’t meet their own writing targets if they have to be in their university offices, and therefore available for students, during the day. Consequently, universities are full of empty offices and the “smooth running of universities depends on those who are left behind. Usually referred to as ‘support staff'”(p. 104 of Academic Diary).
And there is the influential work of Charles Bazerman who draws attention to the ways in which writing shapes disciplinary epistemologies. This means that we cannot divorce writing from the socialisation processes that create it and this, in turn, means that academics and students alike need to be socialised into writing by their departments and not be palmed off to drop-in sessions like the ones I am doing or forced to resort to essay mills (see also this impressive collection of Open Access research on academic writing which, when taken together, provides ample evidence that writing is a highly complex cultural activity, not a transferable skill).
These, first and foremost, need to rein in some of the more legalistic and accusatory tones that end up stigmatising students as cheats when some are are genuinely struggling through no fault of their own. Yes, of course some cheat because they are lazy, but that is so far removed from the issue at stake that it shouldn’t even enter into the debate (yet it always manages to and ends up skewing the whole problem).
Here is what Paul Greatrix, Registrar at the University of Nottigham, has to say and why I find it problematic, despite it being well-intentioned (my reactions are in red):
“Companies like this are profiting from students cheating. This is their raison d’être. The approach they take makes it very difficult to detect, but the sector has to find a way to deal with this corrupting activity. Legislation is not the only way forward – we do need a multi-faceted approach as the QAA suggests including:
- educating students better about the importance of submitting their own work
students know about the importance of submitting their own work. The question is how to foster their passion for writing and their engagement with their discipline, and to raise their awareness of how the two are related. We need to inspire students to write their own work and to care about it, and we need academics in each discipline to do this
- improved study skills provision
no, writing is not a skill, it is an embedded disciplinary social practice. See, for example, Ursula Wingate here and Joan Turner here. This is why it can’t be outsourced to somebody who is not socialised in the academic discipline that the student is learning to engage with. Students who already come from academic backgrounds, both in terms of family life and in terms of schools, adapt more quickly to university writing, but even they need nurturing once at university because they are unlikely to have written essays in the disciplines they are now studying
- ensuring more assessments are designed to prevent plagiarism opportunities
this I agree with but not if the rationale is to ‘prevent plagiarism’. The rationale should reflect what counts as academic writing and the values we place on it, including process writing, multimodal writing, writing for different audiences.
- working together across the sector, with the QAA and other agencies, to take on the cheating companies profiting from our students
- ensuring university regulations specifically address essays procured in this way, including listing companies to be avoided, and stressing the punishments that will be fairly and rigorously applied to those who cheat
There would be far less need for law enforcement strategies if universities took a bit more responsibility for how their sector approaches the representation of knowledge. I urge students to speak out about this. What do they think is going on and what are they doing about it?
And to finish, here is Les Back again on how we should re-evaluate what academic writing means (p. 64, my emphasis):
More than any other measure the value of what writers do, even academic ones, is to provide companionship for further thought. Writing here is less an achievement that is measured extrinsically than an invitation to imagine beyond its own terms of reference. Books and essays here befriend and encourage thinking with interlocutors that remain anonymous. This value cannot be audited or cheapened through the mechanisms that aim to judge, measure and distribute repute and ultimately money.