Paper Money

Students with more cash than brains know how to get their term papers written fast. Scott McLemee looks under a rock....

October 22, 2008

A novelist named Nick Mamatas has just published an essay in the Drexel University magazine The Smart Set confessing to what he calls the “terrible secret” of his career – that much of his income once came from ghostwriting term papers for students. Some clients, he says, were bright enough. They had fallen behind on their workload during the semester, or were just having trouble in a particular course; and there were immigrant students (some of them with advanced degrees from other countries) who did not feel confident enough in their English to venture an analysis of gothic imagery in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

But overextended overachievers were not, presumably, the norm. The agency for which Mamatas worked flagged some orders with the code “DC,” which meant “Dumb Client,” so that the ghostwriter knew better than to use polysyllables. The professors wouldn’t be fooled, while the DCs themselves would be perplexed, and require an explanation of what they had “written.”

Efficiency was important to the whole racket, as Mamatas describes it. He would accept an assignment and quickly skim the material it was supposed to cover. He knew – as the students, generally, did not – what the professor meant by such terms as “thesis sentence” and “argument.” The main challenge was to harvest a few good quotations from the assigned reading, then laying in a few pages of plausible filling to connect them. In a service economy, this was a marketable skill, and the consumer could pay for it by credit card.

The only other depiction of the life of a “term-paper artist” that I have come across was the character Dave, as portrayed by Will Farrell a few years ago on the short-lived program "Undeclared." When asked by students how he can churn out reports on The Brothers Karamazov or the origins of the Great Depression overnight, Dave says that he reads eight or nine books a week. “I also take a lot of speed,” he says. “A lot of speed.”

Farrell's character was a freelance – unlike Mamatas, who worked for a company selling what it euphemistically called “model” term papers to its customers. Either way, it was a business. The late David Foster Wallace may have been the rare case of a term-paper artist who was in it for – well, the art. Or so goes a story that has made the rounds.

Aside from writing two senior honors theses at Amherst College in the mid-1980s (one, in philosophy, on modal logic; the other, in English, his first novel), it is said that Wallace may have written the theses of several other students as well. It was “one of those open-secret kind of things,” an editor who worked with Wallace told The New York Observer last month. “The thing you have to understand about David is that he was the most facile -- and I don’t mean that in a bad sense -- the most facile writer since, I don’t know, Dickens.... It might be apocryphal, but I don’t think so. David could have knocked off the average undergraduate A paper on anything in a half an hour.”

My own brief, inglorious career in that corner of the black market was characterized neither by big bucks nor flashes of genius. Whether or not there is a statute of limitations on one’s callow youth, I will go ahead and confess that 20 years ago I wrote four or five papers, bringing in a total of well under a thousand dollars. It is tempting to blame the whole thing on the Zeitgeist of the 1980s -- which was, actually, one of my rationalizations at the time. It involved a willful effort to be cynical – to care about “the price of everything and the value of nothing,” more or less.

But the rationalizations were an afterthought. First there was the cash. And in my case, it was as simple as being broke despite working a number of jobs. One such was a very sporadic gig at a tutoring agency that served the very dim children of the lower upper middle class.

Nearly all of our clients were attending college with a major in getting drunk. By the standards of really rich people, they were not really rich. But they thought they were, and behaved with an arrogance that became all the more astounding after a session. For many of them were just functionally literate, and some in only the strictest sense. When even grade inflation could not get them a C, we tutors were available to help, for a price – one they (or their parents rather) could well afford.

It was honest work, but irregular. Every tutor was sooner or later presented with the opportunity to make a little something extra. A few of us took it. This was (we joked) a matter of redistributing a little wealth. There was also the pleasure of being paid for writing.

And finally, as if such rationalizations were not enough, there was Diderot. At the time, I was reading everything I could by and about the philosopher, if not actually wearing a “What Would Diderot Do?” bracelet. In his 20s, he, too, went through a long spell of rather precarious living. One way be got by was to crank out sermons for lazy priests. (Enjoyable work for an atheist, no doubt.) I don’t know whether professors assigned term papers at the Sorbonne in the 1730s. But if they did, Diderot seemed a likely candidate to have ghostwritten them, too.

But after a while, it became clear that I had a serious disqualification for this line of work: the lack of speed. (Speed of production, that is; amphetamines were never part of the process.) In his article, Mamatas reports that he could turn out a term paper in 20 minutes. I spent longer than that just on the outline. By black-market standards, this was highly unprofessional.

It was a matter of time before I left the business. And then my conscience started playing catch-up.

A few months after hacking out a final paper for some kid with more cash than brains, I met a woman who was working on her dissertation. Its topic was something I knew just enough about to be able to ask some questions. For a guy with no good moves, this was a good move. Word from our mutual friends was that the interest was reciprocal. But it soon turned out that the grapevine was only doing me just so many favors.

She mentioned having suspicions about the work being handed in by some of her students. And -- she continued -- the word was that I had first-hand information about the market for ghost-written papers. Could I tell her more about that, at some point? (This in a tone more curious than overtly disapproving; but still....)

Now, cheating my customers out of an education had never seemed a cause for concern. They were doing a pretty thorough job of that on their own. But suddenly I could picture things from the vantage point of an earnest, hard-working instructor who would no more have gamed the system than she would have held up a bank.

All the rationalizations fell away in a second; the embarrassment, so long evaded, now finally hit home. The experience was mortifying. Twenty years later, I still feel it. Regret always comes too late to do anyone much good, but better late than never.


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