Thursday, December 2, 2010

What is the real value of effective writing?

This shocking article, written by a man who makes a living writing college papers for other people, has had a lot of mileage around the web lately.

I had two immediate reactions to the essay: “I would love to invite this guy to a dinner party, he sounds really interesting” and “this is just another example of the profoundly broken economics of the American higher educational system”

In the midst of this great recession, business is booming. At busy times, during midterms and finals, my company's staff of roughly 50 writers is not large enough to satisfy the demands of students who will pay for our work and claim it as their own.”  Stated the pseudonymous Mr. Dante.

Alex Reid wrote about some economic observations from the article. “… it's a little sad that people who are clearly accomplished writers (to be able to produce quickly good academic material across the disciplines) are willing to work for such little pay.”  This is in stark opposition to my own reaction, which was along the lines of “wow, I could increase my post-doc salary by a substantial margin by doing this!”  And recall that despite my whining, my salary is quite reasonable when compared to my adjunct peers in the humanities.  I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Reid’s assertion that we should really start questioning our paradigms about college education.

To review: our students can’t afford not to get a college degree, and end up paying smart individuals who might otherwise be teaching them if it wasn’t more worth their while economically to pass them through the system. These students are in college because it’s just “what you do” to get a job that doesn’t involve flipping burgers.  What kind of education do people need to have for a typical job? How do we best scale this to the largest number of people?

Of course, this ghostwriting problem is far from limited to the college population. This week’s Nature had this article about “editorial services” that help with everything from experimental logic to type setting that help researchers get work published.  Such a service operates in a massive ethical gray area of authorship ethics – if a service organizes your ideas and suggests a critical control experiment, is that not a unique intellectual contribution?

Although both cases are very different, it is evident that the inability to clearly communicate one’s ideas is a primary barrier to academic and life success, and although we do not compensate teachers for this skill, its value is shown on the black market.

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