Passing off

According to the BBC today, students buying an essay and calling it their own work is going to be illegal in the UK. It’s sort-of good news, if it puts a stop to the ads essay mills posted for writers that fooled even a PhD friend into applying as a ‘sector-expert’ until she realised her expertise was intended to be used to give rich or lazy – or rich and lazy – kids a free ride – or at least, one they’d paid for – at university.

This was the future.

I looked at those ads too. I’d heard for years of Indian students rioting unless they were allowed to cheat in exams, and heard about Chinese students demanding better grades or the teacher was going to be reported to the principal. As soon as you start treating learners as customers then obviously they’re going to start negotiating on what they’re getting for their money. As the Advertising Standards Association said in 2018, upholding a complaint about a company that sold essays, their website gave the misleading impression that “consumers would be able to submit purchased essays as their own without repercussion”. Consumers seemed to be the key-word.

A better grade is just another way of impressing the boss, after all. How else do you get a better job, when many if not most jobs aren’t really about specific knowledge but more about not punching the nearest David Brent clone in the face before coffee-time?

So far, so good. No more contract cheating. Students will have to write their own essays. Oh dear, how sad, never mind, as Windsor Davies used to say. Personally, I found it sad that guidance was issued to universities on how to deal with the problem of students buying their essays and pretending they’d written them. Some of the measures were obvious, for example, setting university IT networks to block essay writing websites, or not exactly outrageously, getting familiar with students’ writing styles so that a lecturer would notice when Hugo all of a sudden isn’t writing like Hugo, starts spelling words the American way and hasn’t just read The Ginger Man for the first time.

Equally sensibly, the guidance recommended that there should be clear procedures for reporting student cheating, now that most university disciplinary procedures don’t include a frosty stare over the rim of a sherry glass and the ominous ticking of a clock while a coal shifts in the fireplace in a book-lined study.

Some of the guidance though, seemed to be at odds with the whole purpose of a university experience. You could, it suggested, avoid students using fake paid-for essays by, oh, I don’t know, set them fewer essays. Or hey, if they can’t write essays, support the ones that can’t to improve their writing skills.

And here I have to declare an interest, because for the past several years, this is what I’ve been doing and being paid for it. I had a private student. She’d failed her A Levels and I was originally hired to get her through her re-sits. It was her written English that was the problem. She could explain an idea perfectly well out loud. Ask her to put it on paper and all you’d get would be at best blank paper, or a string of un-connected clauses and apparently random ideas that didn’t seem even vaguely linked to each other, let alone the subject. But after a year of once a week really quite hard work on both sides, we won. She passed and got into the university of her choice, to do a performing arts degree. The family thanked me, she thanked me, I got paid, smiles all round and I had the satisfaction of thinking I’d done something well that changed someone’s life for the better, the best thing about teaching.

A few months later I got a phone call from her mother. Um, could I sort of do the same thing again, but at university level? Because the university isn’t all that happy about the essay work. I surprised myself how much I knew about Cabaret, inter-war Berlin and the rise of Nazism, but I’d read Isherwood, met two very old men who had actually been in the Hitler Youth (they loved it, apart from the thought-control bit, apparently), written Janni Shenck and listened to a German girlfriend talking about her grandfather’s trek on foot from Czechoslovakia to Bremen, on the run from the Wehrmacht Heer after he’d laughed at a joke about Hitler and was sentenced to death by firing squad. It wasn’t that hard to help someone write about musicals, once I’d taken Howard Kirk‘s dictum that history is inevitable.

The two old men who had happily marched in their shorts singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me would probably have agreed that if you had any sense and especially if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders, all you had to do with history was lie back and enjoy it.

South Pacific was much the same. There Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame? Some Enchanted Evening? It’s yer actual sociological context and involuntary geodemographic displacements, innit. That and the prospect of being blown to fly-blown atoms or working on the Burma railway making the prospect of a final quick leg-over pretty darned good, anyway. Discuss, as examiners used to say.

Then we did 42nd Street. What was amazing was how little my student knew pretty much about anything at all that had happened in the twentieth century. And more so, what any of that might have meant to people and their dreams and ambitions. She had no real idea of the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl was something to do with cleaning products. Bread lines, pre-Brexit HGV driver shortages, were a totally novel concept and barely believable at that. Ok, she wasn’t a friend of mine but Dorothy was right, there’s no place like home and 42nd Street isn’t even vaguely like rural Suffolk, which was for this student. But I didn’t chose the degree course.

When I asked for some fact-gathering (How many people lost their jobs in the Great Depression in the USA? What was the population of the USA at that time? Proportionately, was that a lot? Did most people live in towns or in rural areas?) it all seemed an alien concept. I don’t understand how it could be, given the plot of 42nd Street specifically is about a small-town girl coming to the city to make it big. The facts weren’t gathered unless I gathered them. The essay didn’t have a structure unless I structured it. Themes weren’t explored – even purely musical themes and references – unless I not only suggested the links but sketched out a format and wrote a draft.

More than once a week went by without any work at all being done on this essay unless I did it. It was lockdown. Whatever the student was doing, it wasn’t being out being a student. I’d suggested using speech recognition software. Great idea. No follow-up on it at all. I suggested Grammarly, a free app that not only fixes your spelling but touches up your grammar and sentence construction too. Not downloaded. Finally, I talked to the parent. The issue had been going on for years. Talking, fine. Writing, forget it. Which is slightly problematic when you’re enrolled in a learning programme that requires writing. Unless of course, you get someone else to write it.

I didn’t know that who sang Elton John Your Song? is a genuine question online. To me, that question isn’t about knowing Elton John’s repertoire. I thought it was about being able to use English like an adult while calling yourself a university student. But I’m old and the past is a different country. They do things differently there.

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Carl Bennett

Not born in a cross-fire hurricane because there is no such thing. Actually Stratford on Avon general hospital, since when Dorset, Wiltshire, compulsory London and currently Suffolk.

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