Term Paper Fever

Term Paper Fever

I just found out that Nick Mamatas wrote a piece on his time doing term papers for money.  It’s an excellent essay and may shed some light on the state of our educational system.  Back when I was doing my World Tour (couch surfing my way across the country after Clarion West) I didn’t need a lot of money, but did need to get from place to place.  I made some money doing websites, but during the lean times I did some of Nick’s papers for him.

The “Why apples [the fruit] are the best” paper was my first, and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever written in my life.  It was a dumb assignment to begin with, but dead easy to do.  (Luckily I did not attempt some deep research into apples, I just said some vaguely interesting things about nutrition, the history of the apple in the US, and the benefits apples bring to our health and environment… plus a lot of filler.)  I think I only did two or three after that before I quit.  I wasn’t necessarily trying to write term papers, I was just so mind-blown by how simple most of them were and why the students in question couldn’t just do them themselves.

During the last one I also remembered that the thing I hated about college was writing term papers.  Non-fiction never came easy to me until I started blogging.  Plus, it was usually much more productive to have a discussion about the topic than write down stupid shit about it.  This is why I ended up in Gallatin.

I mentioned once in the OWW chat room that I was writing these papers and was promptly set upon by people aghast that I would ever do something as horrible and dishonest as writing term papers for money.  My eyes roll forever.  Beyond the fact that all this hand-wringing came from people who’d never faced real financial hardship, I found that I couldn’t get worked up about the morals of doing such a thing.  Nick is right that the colleges are a big part of the problem, asking students to write term papers even though they never or rarely read them.

Only a very few times in my college life was a paper a useful method to crystallize what I’d learned in a course–and the majority of those times it was a Scott McPartland class, so there ya go.  My freshman year I was forced (along with almost every other NYU student) to take Writing Workshop 1 and 2, where we read books full of personal experience essays (creative non-fiction, it’s called now) and then wrote our own personal essays based on the ones we’d read.  That was nice and all, but prepared us for absolutely nothing.  We weren’t writing term papers, but essays.  I recognized the difference, but did most of the other kids?  I kinda doubt it.  And, of course, in our other classes and beyond, we were rarely asked to write essays of this nature.  8 wasted credits, hooray!

And when we were asked to write papers, it was always on some stupid topic.  Maybe not as bad as “Why apples are the best”, but for Greek & Roman Culture class I was once given the topic “Should Aeneas Have Left Dido or Stayed With Her?” after we finished the Aeneid.  My answer: That’s the wrong question to ask.  Because it’s not a matter of should or shouldn’t — Fate had already decided that he was going on to Italy.  There was no changing that, according to the worldview of the guy who wrote it, so it’s a useless question to ask.  The better question is: What Would Have Happened If He Tried?  Or maybe: How Would It Have Been Different If He’d Taken Dido With Him?  But again, it’s not something that could really be considered, because that whole section of the story was about why Rome and Carthage are enemies.  So really, this whole topic is dumb.

I got a C.

Had it been a Gallatin class, I would have gotten an A.  Of course, had it been Gallatin, they wouldn’t have asked that asinine question.

A lot of liberal arts courses do a really bad job of making the learning relevant to the learner.  Thus, term paper mills.  Sure, even if this wasn’t true, there would still be people who would cheat.  But broken educational systems need to take some of the blame.

2 thoughts on “Term Paper Fever

  1. My problem wasn’t with writing term papers — I was very good at them — but with the fact that term papers are the one big formal collegiate example of persuasive writing, and that example does not translate beyond college. If you’re a nerd, and read lots of academic writing before you get to college, then you actually do know what a term paper is from your own experience, and can write one just fine. And then you get a corporate job and write your boss five pages instead of five bullet points.

    OTOH, in my third grade class, I was treated to the best training I ever had on expository writing: we had to write instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The teacher had us each read our instructions out loud, and she performed literally what each of us told her to do: she tried to stick the knife into the peanut butter without unscrewing the jar lid; she spread the peanut butter with her hands because a knife hadn’t been specified; every ridiculous effect that would illuminate the problem to eight-year-olds. (Mine said “two pieces of bread,” and she ripped misshapen pieces off a slice.)

    The surprise was how many college-level writing instructors use the PBJ Sandwich exercise in their classes. I went to good schools, but I really don’t think I was getting collegiate training in the third grade!

  2. I did that back in college too. Hundreds of bucks from a rich kid for a few hours of time is easy money for a starving student. A lot of college courses aren’t exactly based on textbooks these days so I’d usually have to speed-read at least one of the assigned books to get a sense of what the prof wanted. Grades ranged from B+ on up, pretty good for never being in the lecture.

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