Lazy Student Turned Literary Scholar: A Cautionary Tale

Photo by ilovebutter via FlickrIn an age of online paper mills spitting out weak, sickly puppies of papers and destroying the integrity of college composition, I find myself becoming an anti-Cruella De Vil out to eliminate any use of such atrocities, checking and re-checking students’ papers to make sure no Dalmatian spots of plagiarism are found.

These internet services offer essays, term papers, research papers and the like to students of all ages and subjects. The more "reputable” of these sites prefer to charge a fee for their services, but free sites also exist for the less-fortunate (but no less-lazy) students. Don’t be fooled into thinking only freshman composition professors need worry about such sites. These mills prey on all matter of students. If a student must write anything in your class—from journal entries to theses—you, too, are in danger of receiving regurgitated ideas from the outer limits of cyber space. All manner of poorly-written essays on subjects from the Iliad to Iconography to Israel are left to be picked up and cuddled by students who like the looks of such a cheap and innocent-looking "puppy” in the cardboard box on the sidewalk.

Google and have proved more than enough to catch any poachers out to pull the proverbial wool over our eyes. However, the following tale warrants a new level of alarm in the scholarly world. What happens when our students are given the power to plagiarize and the ability to create fodder for others to use, resulting in a domino effect of bad writing and research? When did the ability to upload a document become the right to publication and circulation?

This spring one of my students, I’ll just call him Joe Student, introduced me to a new type of paper mill service. This site allows you to access thousands of papers on hundreds of subjects—not any different than most so far. This particular site, though, preys on the cheap rather than just the lazy. If you would like to bypass the normal fee to acquire a term paper, all you have to do is upload one of your own papers to the site for others to use. Easy! So, rather than keeping some kind of filter on what students can access, this site is proliferating the problem by allowing students who obviously cannot (or at least will not) write their own papers, to write papers for others. This fact would be no less appalling, but a little less entertaining, if I did not share with you Joe Student’s story.

Early in the semester Joe was a quiet, often no-show, with interesting but succinct answers to any in-class assignments. The radar went up when Joe’s first essay assignment sounded a bit too by-the-book for a rather unique kid. As I suspected, caught similarities, leading me straight to a popular literary summary and analysis website. Joe had plagiarized. After a lengthy discussion in my office and a completely re-written assignment, the student seemed no more concerned about the sin than he was about his now-failing grade.

When the final paper was upon us, and the end of the year grading binge had begun, I started grading with none other than Joe Student’s paper. When the Turnitin results were in, I found his entire paper uploaded to a paper mill as described above. Of course, I couldn’t see the whole paper because I had neither paid the $30.00 nor uploaded my own work. This had to be the last straw, but how could I punish someone for using his own paper from the internet? Joe refused my invitation to chat about his paper and, for other reasons as well, failed the class. Unfortunately, his story does not end there.

One week, and about 50 papers later, I came across some very curious works cited pages. Two of my students from a different section of the same class as Joe Student had actually quoted and cited "Joe Student” as a source in their papers! Yes, my failing, lazy, corrupted student had become the expert on the subject. This student who had shown no integrity and certainly no writing ability had now been read and quoted by students researching the same topic. I could elaborate on my disappointment in the two students who thought this particular source was worthy to be cited in a scholarly paper, but the issue at hand is that Joe Student became "Dr. Joe Student.” He is now considered an expert writer and scholar, though he was too lazy to write his own paper, he will certainly write a paper for you or at least give you "sound” advice and commentary on something he knows little to nothing about. Especially when I have yet to see my own name cited as a published and scholarly source, this was a very bitter pill to swallow.

Will these mills continue to degrade the health of college writing and research as we know it? Is it possible to stop the Cruella De Vil of composition—creators and maintainers of such sites? I have no answers to the questions flooding out of this experience, but I do have ideas of how to embrace the technology rather than attack it. This experience reminded me of the importance of teaching students about the paper mill industry and its evils as well as teaching about the wonders of scholarly research which abound on the internet. Maybe I could set up a blog or message board where people like Joe Student might feel comfortable typing out their thoughts in the free space of the internet rather than turning them in. All I know is that I hope the next time I see a student’s name on a works cited page it is 10 years from now when one of the bright ones has published his first book and, of course, thanked his freshman composition teacher in the forward.

About the Guest Author
Mollie MooreMollie Moore is an Instructor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. She enjoys presenting her work on Mark Twain and writing poetry when she is not reading and grading student writing. She currently teaches sections of freshman composition and classical literature, as well as creative writing and editing.