Essays and education

I enjoyed reading The Shadow Scholar and The Term Paper Artist. I found these articles funny, but the humour might only have limited appeal. At parties, while hearing the second author’s anecdotes, ``people start off laughing, but then they stop''.

I never laughed. Instead I smugly smirked in self-satisfaction as I indulged in a deep-seated prejudice: that essays are a flawed means of assessment, and therefore science and engineering degrees are worth more. Techy beats fuzzy, in the parlance of Stanford University students.

``Ed Dante'' states:

The subject matter, the grade level, the college, the course—these things are irrelevant to me. Prices are determined per page and are based on how long I have to complete the assignment. As long as it doesn’t require me to do any math or video-documented animal husbandry, I will write anything.

And he can do so from the comfort of his own home: a rare make-money-from-home job that is not a scam; at least, not in the usual sense. Evidently, as long as you can write well and have access to Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia, you can display graduate-level expertise. So how much can one really be learning in one of these courses?

In his laundry list of subjects, perhaps the most techy is cognitive psychology. Most likely because anything more mathematical is impossible to outsource to an untrained person, no matter how gifted they are as a writer.

For example, in an introductory course to the theory of computation, one might be asked to convert a regular expression to a minimal DFA. Easy when you know how, but such know-how is hard-earned. There’s no paragraph online which you can reword and regurgitate. You might find a detailed step-by-step description of the conversion, but tracing such an algorithm by hand requires computer science chops.

This is not to say that cheating is difficult in technical fields. Far from it: cheating occurs at every level, from students copying one another to researchers falsifying data. However, laymen will find it difficult to rely on internet searches to bluff their way through, because techy subjects are intrinsically meatier. Hard sciences are hard.

A troubled past

My beliefs developed in high school, chiefly because of English class. I liked some of the books we studied. I enjoyed writing stories. But I hated writing essays, and not just because I was bad at it.

The topics were dull. Certainly, aspects of other classes were dull. Who wants to memorize a list of foreign words, or the names of particular molecules? But why was English dull? I loved stories as much as everyone else. Outside school, I read many books, watched even more movies, and discussed them with friends. How did our teachers manage to ask the most uninteresting questions about them?

Moreover, I found their lack of logic disturbing. We were told there was no right or wrong answer. There were only equally valid alternative viewpoints, yet somehow some viewpoints were more valid than others. Discussions often seemed contrived, involving far-fetched speculations about the author’s mindset, or turned likely coincidence into unlikely evidence.

But more disturbing was the lack of logic with respect to grading. I expended minimal effort in my essays. Sometimes I was justly dealt a harsh score. Other times I was mysteriously awarded full points.

A couple of mischievous friends once wrote the same essay, word for word. Not only did the teacher overlook the duplication, but the two essays received markedly different marks. (Funnily enough, one of these friends now teaches high school English!)

My attitudes hardened within a few years. I was especially bitter after I heard that neat handwriting scored better. Not only was I personally penalized, as my penmanship is particularly poor under pressure, but my younger idealistic self took offence at the mere suggestion that presentation could affect one’s academic standing.

I found comfort in classes where truth and falsehood were clearly defined. Sure, there was controversy over partial credit, but I was a perfectionist; the fair cost of some error or other was a minor matter.

Two plus two makes four. Acid plus base makes water plus a salt. Amo amas amat amamus amatis amant. It didn’t matter how atrocious my handwriting was, provided it was legible. I couldn’t use specious arguments to seduce the reader, nor bury ignorance with vocabulary.

Much later, I realized I had missed the real message. In some settings, such as politics or fraud (a cynic might equate these), one gains confidence through fiery rhetoric rather than sound reasoning. Presentation trumps content. There may be right and wrong, but such absolutes are irrelevant; what matters is what I can convince you to do.

Writing is indubitably indispensable and immensely rewarding. But why use essays to measure competence in a field besides essay-writing? Why judge using instruments designed to cloud judgement?

The logorrhoea pandemic

It wouldn’t be so bad if the writing had to be good. Sadly, if the articles are accurate, then scholarly essays are literary junk food. Starting with ingredients with little nutritional value and taste, the manufacturer processes them until the result seems palatable.

Logorrhoea is an excessive flow of words. Incomprehensibility through verbosity. One compensates lack of insight with volume, by fattening sentences with unnecessary words. The words themselves are often individually obese.

It is an ancient disease that perhaps originated in academia. Sufferers believe prolixity implies intelligence and wisdom. If they hold positions of power, their affliction spreads rapidly because they measure others with the same perverted yardstick. Even the technical world has been affected: I’ve heard of clueless managers that measure computer programmer productivity by counting the lines of code written.

Many colleges have succumbed. Shady ghostwriters know this, and ``can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph''. The difference is they are deliberately faking the symptoms.

There is an art to disguising vapidity, and sometimes there are legitimate uses. In the brilliant comedy series Yes Minister'' and Yes Prime Minister'', characters intentionally stretch their speech to obfuscate and evade. Nonetheless, in most cases, logorrhoea is a nefarious means to a nefarious end, and should be eradicated.

I urge the infected to seek treatment. Research suggests that logorrhoea is worse than worthless. Not only do normal people see through the deception; it can backfire and make the victim seem stupider than they really are.

In 1946, George Orwell gave 6 rules to keep your writing lean and fit. See also Strunk, ``[The Elements of Style]''.

What to do?

I doubt a cure will be discovered. There are too many with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, though occasionally a brave soul tries to expose the intellectual con game.

I can only advise students to keep their wits about them. Most of us can detect feigned intelligence. Guard this ability well; train it and hone it. If you must write garbage for a grade, by all means, play along, but remember it’s just an act. Recall the words of Mark Twain: ``I have never let schooling interfere with my education''.

Should one employ the services of a paper mill? For someone who needs a degree as a stepping stone, I feel unqualified to answer because I have never been in that position.

As for someone possessing a genuine hunger for knowledge: to maximize gains I would avoid courses that anyone could pass with the help of a few websites. This sidesteps the dilemma. Steer towards hard sciences and engineering. Learn anything else on the side (perhaps from a few websites!), or come back for them later.

This unpleasant essay business is not the only consideration. Firstly, I know technically trained people who excel in non-technical areas: art, music, writing, business, cooking, etc. Yet I know of no, say, history majors who design circuits in their spare time. Some surely exist, but being techy first and fuzzy second seems easier than the other way around. Secondly, it is easier to gain employment in technical fields than non-technical fields.

Ben Lynn 💡