Essays on Demand: The Desperation of the Unprepared

Here’s The Chronicle of Higher Education offering an appalling view into the seedier side of post-secondary education.  In The Shadow Scholar, academic mercenary, Ed Dante (a pseudonym), chronicles his experience as a ghost-writer for hire.  Dante works for a custom-essay company, an organization birthed from the deficiencies of students ill-prepared for the academic rigors of university life and dedicated to churning out essays for students to pass off as their own:

 The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”

I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

There’s no gray area here.  Even the most adept sophist would be hard-pressed to dress this practice up  as anything other than plagiarism – a practice we’d prefer to view as a rare mistep  by the desperate few.  That might be a mistake.  Dante argues that the practice of paying others to produce essays is far more pervasive than most would like to believe.  And it’s not constrained to a particular discipline or department.  Moral ambivalence, apparently, goes all the way down.  Unable, or unwilling, to produce even marginally competent work has led both graduates and undergraduates alike to enlist the help of writers, like Dante, to churn out thoughtful work that they can turn in as their own.  And, as Dante writes, there’s no pattern to the customer base.  The clientele is just as varied as the topics on which they refuse to write:

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work.

Dante offers up his own experience as a ghost-writer for the ostensible purpose of opening discussion as to why students cheat in the first place.  Any misgivings he’s experienced, however, seem long lost as he appears to consider the ethical implications of his actions from the safe vantage point of ironic detachment.  Dante seems mostly comfortable in his role and even relishes ‘the thrill in seeing whether I can do it.’  In fact, at times Dante appears to revel in his own cleverness and to find a perverse pleasure in the irony of the requests of his many clients:

I have become a master of the admissions essay. I have written these for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton M.B.A. program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of your chosen course of study. I do not mean to be insensitive, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid to write about somebody helping a loved one battle cancer. I’ve written essays that could be adapted into Meryl Streep movies.

I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.

Dante is quick to shrug off his own culpability.  Instead, he points to systemic rot, locating responsibility within a market that allows him to flourish and an educational system that has created a demand for his services in the first place:

You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students’ writing. I have seen the word “desperate” misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn’t write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren’t getting it.

For those of you who have ever mentored a student through the writing of a dissertation, served on a thesis-review committee, or guided a graduate student through a formal research process, I have a question: 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?

I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created. Granted, as a writer, I could earn more; certainly there are ways to earn less. But I never struggle to find work. And as my peers trudge through thankless office jobs that seem more intolerable with every passing month of our sustained recession, I am on pace for my best year yet.

Bracketing ethical considerations for a moment, one thing seems clear: whatever path has led Dante’s clients to enlist his assistance in committing plagiarism, many of them are undoubtedly unprepared to tackle the well-documented rigor of academic life after high school.  The text complexity of many secondary textbooks has been on the decline for the past several decades, while the complexity of college texts has been on the rise – creating a significant gap between high school proficiency and college readiness.  As a result of this gap, many students begin university careers unable to handle the complexity of the core curriculum texts they encounter.  A surprising number of university students wind up in reading remediation courses in order to handle the increasingly sophisticated texts required in most courses.

We’ve already written much on the reading/writing connection.  An inability to handle even basic levels of analytic or informational text translates into an obvious deficiency in expressing oneself through the written word.  In other words, it should come as no surprise that Dante’s clients are desperate – they are simply unable to produce coherent written work at a passable level.

There’s hope yet.  All is not lost.  Just this week, NAEP reported that the reading and math scores for high school seniors rose.  And many states have now adopted the Common Core State Standards, a set of standards that will stretch student reading levels and require that students increase their ability to handle progressively more difficult collections of text.  In addition to offering online utilities like, Lexile Find a Book, which can be used to mitigate summer learning loss by targeting students based on their reading level and area of interest, MetaMetrics also offers personalized learning platforms, like Oasis.  Oasis provides students with opportunities for differentiated practice in writing, reading, and vocabulary.   By allowing for targeted practice, Oasis facilitates the sustained, deliberate practice of writing (increasing the amount of time spent actually writing) and targets student writing based on reading level – addressing the reading/writing connection. 

Writers like Dante will always exist.  And there will always be a desperate few willing to plagiarize and to employ the more talented in a host of ethically questionable ways.  But it’s our hope that as educators begin to pay increasing attention to text complexity and what it means to be college and career ready, fewer students find themselves unprepared for the demands of academic life after high school; and that those same students find the services of writers like Ed Dante as abhorrent as they do unnecessary.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.