Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind by Gerald Graff

Graff, Gerald.  Clueless in Academe:  How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.  New Haven:  Yale U P, 2003.  Print.

Despite Graff’s best efforts, Clueless in Academe still reads like what essentially it is, a collection of his essays from the previous decade, rather than a unified text and coherent book-length argument about how educational institutions, especially colleges and universities, could better develop student potential for argumentation and intellectual inquiry.  Nevertheless, the book and its diversity of material provide many useful ideas.

One of Graff’s most important ideas is that students need to see models of the intellectual discourse that they are supposed to produce.  He cites the experience of a college English instructor who found that students wrote better essays when they read not only literature but also criticism about that literature (163).  Though Graff is careful to note that students cannot just be given any criticism as some will be just too far-removed from their understanding (174), he makes a strong case for providing better models for student writing.  It is surprising that this pedagogical approach is so rare.  Would a baseball coach make her or his players watch tennis matches and then expect they would be able to be better baseball players as a result?  Hey, both sports involve balls and hitting them with modified sticks, right?  Yet, such mismatches happen a lot in education.  Many instructors have students read stories but want them to write essays, a different type of writing.  If, as instructors, we want students to produce a certain genre or type of writing, then we would be wise to show them some models of it first.  Otherwise, students are left essentially on their own to create a genre, and, in most cases, they don’t succeed.

To help students along in learning academic genres, Graff proposes another important idea, that of the template, an idea that he developed further with books such as They Say/I Say:  The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.  Basically, to help students make academic arguments, Graff suggests having the students fill out templates such as “Whereas X argues that . . . , I contend that . . .” (169).  Otherwise, he notes, “These moves seem disarmingly simple, but they are often hellishly perplexing for inexperienced writers” (168-69).  The templates make the necessary moves utterly transparent.  Much of academic writing is formulaic; Graff suggests we embrace that aspect, so students can concentrate on content and enter the academic conversation.

And entering a conversation is ultimately what Graff and most instructors want students to be able to do.  In fact, Graff’s endorsement of using topics that students are interested in to teach students the conventions and methods of academic inquiry (226) supports the Stage I Ursuline Studies anchors approach to research, in which students pick a personal topic to research.  In those courses, the goal is to teach college-level research; the topic doesn't matter so why not let it be something that would engage a student?  Then, once students have the skills, those same skills can be employed throughout the curriculum, whether the student has an initial interest in the topic or not. 

Other useful bits of the book include a handy explanation to students about how and why to use quotations in academic writing (241-42) and an epilogue that instructs students and teachers in how to write an argument (275-77).  Given how Graff bounces around ideawise in the book, he might want to follow some of his own advice.  For that reason, I wouldn't suggest reading the book straight through; instead, bounce around yourself, according to your interest.  Graff has many good ideas in these essays.   

The book is available through OhioLINK.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Shadow Scholar: How I Made A Living Helping College Kids Cheat by Dave Tomar

Tomar, Dave.  The Shadow Scholar:  How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2012.  Print.

Dave Tomar, a former writer for an academic paper mill, has crafted an entertaining, albeit also horrifying, memoir of his days (and nights) cranking out essays for college students.  Though Tomar’s story is interesting, the implications of his experience are more noteworthy.  According to Tomar, people can make a living helping students cheat through college, which is an indictment of the current state of higher education. 

Unlike conventional plagiarism where a student swipes some text from the Internet or whatnot and presents it as her or his own, paid for plagiarism is much more difficult to detect.  Indeed, aside from using in-class writing assignments to prevent it entirely, paid for plagiarism may be nearly impossible to detect.  But, beyond the question of detection, why are so many students so desperate to pass a college course that they will cheat?

According to Tomar, “For many people of the Millennial generation, there is a rational pragmatism to cheating that did not exist for previous generations” (19).  In other words, in a world where the value of an education has essentially been degraded to a certification which provides financial benefit (for example, qualifying for a job), cheating makes a certain sense in a cost-benefit analysis.  The likelihood of getting caught is low, and the rewards can be substantial.  Since college is viewed anyway as an expensive scam by some students, those students see no ethical problems in spending a bit more to employ someone such as Tomar to ease their passages through college.  In their eyes, if one needs to get a clogged sink fixed, one hires a plumber; similarly, if one needs to get an A on a paper, then one hires a professional writer.

In addition to telling his personal story, Tomar comments extensively on the issues within higher education that have led to the flourishing of his former profession.  These include the increasingly impersonalization and bureaucracy of many large educational institutions (25), the increasingly higher cost of college (56), Internet entrepreneurs willing to provide a commercial service regardless of the nature of the service (75), the accessibility of knowledge on the Internet (81), the growth of the entitlement mentality among students and their parents (106), the growth in for-profit institutions (123), and so on.  We could probably add a few of our own as well that Tomar doesn’t note, but, regardless, his essential point stands:  Something’s wrong with the higher education system when this can happen.  To illustrate this fact most vividly, Tomar describes writing a doctoral dissertation in five days (177).

Of course, it wasn’t his own.

So what can be done to guard against students cheating in such a manner?  Well, first of all, those of us in higher education need to work on the conditions that have allowed this cheating to flourish.  In the meantime though, at the level of the individual instructor, it might be wise to develop assignments and assessments which can’t be gamed by bringing in a ringer such as Tomar.  For example, in-class writing assignments effectively force students to develop their own intellectual capabilities.  Beyond guarding against people such as Tomar, we can also lower the demand for such services in the first place.  For instance, breaking large writing assignments down into steps may help students be more confident in their own abilities and less likely to hire a “shadow scholar.”  Thankfully, most students probably do do their own work (if only because college is expensive enough as is), but it’s probably good to know that this situation does exist.  Tomar is supposedly retired now, but it’s likely another talented writer has taken his place in the paper mill industry.  Perhaps you have read her or his work already . . .

The book is available through OhioLINK.