those dark satanic mills

Here’s a terrific article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about essay mills — companies who hire writers to write papers for college students and in some cases graduate students. (There’s even an anecdote here about someone from MIT wanting to buy a doctoral dissertation in aerospace engineering, though I’m inclined to think that one is a hoax.) For students with money in hand, this is an appealing alternative to the copy-and-paste of plagiarism: there is virtually no way to get caught, even when a teacher knows that a particular student doesn't have the skills to have written what he or she turned in. A cheater with a live credit card and true firmness of purpose is almost bound to get away with it.

The excuses and justifications made by the students and the writers alike are just what you’d expect them to be; that’s not where the interest of the piece lies. It seems to me that the most noteworthy fact here is this: essay mills of this kind can succeed only because college professors all over the Western world assign precisely the same kinds of papers. No wonder some of the writers can turn out dozens of the damned things in a week — “I can knock out 10 pages in an hour,” one of them says. “Ten pages is nothing.” The assignments we professors give are so woodenly predictable that they positively invite woodenly predictable essays in response.

So there could be something good to come out of the rise of the essay mill, and the similar rise of copy-and-paste plagiarism — but only if professors develop and exercise some imagination, and come up with assignments that are distinctive to a particular class, a particular body of material, even a particular teaching style: assignments that would throw a professional essay writer for a loop, and that wouldn't benefit from something found on the internet and pasted in. Not that I’m expecting any such development, you understand. I’m just saying.

(Of course, a lot of these problems would also go away if we eliminated or at least radically revised our system of grading and credentialing, but I don't hold out any hope for major changes in those areas.)