The Shadow Knowledge Economy

2535365969_dd11dd5b6f_zThere are no atheists in foxholes, goes the saying.  Abstract concepts of the afterlife become concrete when bombs detonate over your head.

You would never write a paper for someone else.

Unless you needed money to pay for your own education.

“People would ask me all the time to write their papers,” a student said to me causally, as we discussed something else. “And I would say, no, this isn’t what that is.”

I took a breath. Rumors abound on college campuses. Of a phantom hard drive that was passing through the hands of cousins, friends, and alums, with past papers for the core courses. Never one to let an urban legend go untested, I asked a few students about this. “No,” they would say with a dismissive hand, as if I were paranoid.

Here was someone presenting an older form of cheating: the direct approach. What if they wouldn’t take no for an answer?

“I would tell them to go and find someone else,” she said with a laugh.

And that’s what often happened, I found out, as I asked other students (gently, cautiously) if they knew their classmates were producing/purchasing assignments.

Yes, university students face this dilemma at an alarming rate, chimed students with relief, as if they wanted to unburden themselves of nagging guilt.

“I never heard about this until I graduated,” a recent alum said. “I was never approached,” he said. “I had a reputation that I wouldn’t do that.”

Cheating at universities is transforming from breaking into cabinets to steal exam answer sheets. You don’t need to record a professor’s keystrokes to access their hard drive. Or meet with a tutor one on one to learn how mastery of the difficult task. Some have say no, living on private funds or, when available, doing other jobs on campus. You can hire other older, smarter students to complete your assignments.

“I couldn’t say yes,” someone else said. “I really wanted to. I could use that money. What they’re offering is a lot.” She is part of the university student leadership and couldn’t reconcile the inherent conflict.

But others, approached more directly, more and more often, say yes.  To filling out college applications, completing problem sets, or writing term papers. If your client wants to meet with you and give input, that costs extra.

This is money that they use for necessities in their own educational pursuits. Paying for accommodation, food, transportation: you can make enough to cover all of these expenses.

“People used to cheat all the time,” another alum said. “They would have answers written under their sleeves, or pretend to check their phones for the time, looking at answers.”

“You never said anything?” I asked, eyes round. “You didn’t feel like they were lowering your grade.”

“I didn’t,” she said. “The professor knew. He had to know.”

I’ve read a few papers, wondering at how the student who rarely came to class, or contributed to discussion, managed such a coherent analysis of a literary character’s symbolism.

To accuse someone of plagiarism, you have to be able to find the original source. and other software work by crawling the Internet and their databases of papers to find a match.

What if the paper isn’t online but in someone’s brain?



How to Rock Being a University Student

Photo by Kevin Dooley
Photo by Kevin Dooley

August means the first day of university for many students, at least in North America. You could be attending for the first time, starting your senior year, or coming back as a non-traditional student.

The rules for success are the same: show up. That’s right – Woody Allen is credited with the saying “80% of life is about showing up.”

That means be on time to class; turn in your assignments when they’re due; come to your professors’ office hours with questions.

That is what it takes to be successful as a student. Show up, again and again, do the work, engage in class. You think I’m down playing it but trust me.

This advice comes to you after teaching and working for 14 years on at 9 different university campuses.

The hardest lessons in life are deceptively simple.

What advice do you have for university students? Or what do you wish you had known on your first week?