A popular article in the Chronicle detailing a "shadow scholar" who writes original essays and other academic material for students for pay is making the typical academic rounds, including this one, I guess.
A couple things pop out for me. First, who knows if we can fully believe everything "Mr. Dante" says in the article, but setting that aside I would accept that this general practice is out there and growing. Second, 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. But I suppose the service being offered is viewed as a basic commodity and quality beyond a basic service rendered is of little concern. Third, though this article focusing on cheating at writing, I would imagine that a student who is willing to pay $1000s for papers will also cheat in other ways as well.
I don't know how one prevents this from happening as a professor. I don't have the investigative resources or powers to track down such activity. We try to prevent or discourage academic dishonesty by having students write multiple drafts, participate in online discussions, and so on. But if the student is willing and able to pay someone to do all this writing for him/her, then I'm not sure how I can stop it. Of course, one can build in-class essay exams into a course as part of the evaluation. But if part of the purpose of education is to teach students to write more formal texts, including revising, and to conduct independent research, then these are activities that will be done beyond the teacher's purview.
If academic dishonesty of this sort where criminalized then these activities would probably be federal crimes (since I assume the often take place across state lines) and authorities could track down the companies and individuals who advertise these services. But maybe in the larger scheme of things, such a move would be over the top.
Or maybe that is missing the point.
Probably we could argue that the Internet makes this kind of cheating easier, but students have been writing papers for each other for a long time. Ghost-writing has been around for a long time. The Chronicle article makes clear that this writing for hire is not just about composition classes. In fact, FYC would seem to be a minor area of concern. It's really about courses in majors, MA thesis, and dissertations. So we can't say that this is the way students respond to courses they don't think matter. This is the way students respond to the courses that are presumably preparing them for their professions… and not just in humanities but in business, nursing, education and so on.
So what does this mean? That students don't feel like they need to learn anything? That they don't feel like they learn by writing? That the stakes of failure are too high to risk it? That they are just lazy and don't even think through the implications? Perhaps it is mostly laziness and immaturity. "Mr. Dante" suggests that students are "hopelessly deficient." If so, what is the cause of this deficiency? Is it a systematic failure of education? Maybe. But I look at Dante's story and think of my own. Sure, schooling was a part of my education from age 15-22 (when I entered grad school). But most of the learning, reading, and writing I did during that time was self-sponsored.
If one imagines that all one requires is a degree, then that's something you pay an institution for, and that maybe you get in the most economic way possible, just as you would purchase any product. However if one imagines one requires an education, then that is something that an institution can support, not "provide." In the light of stories such as this one, it is understandable that one might be cynical about the numbers of students who are actually interested in an education. In some respects it's unfortunate that people who do not wish to be educated feel they are compelled to attend a university to make a living.
And maybe here is the strange lesson to take away. If higher education is becoming de facto compulsory education for many students, then we might need to change the way we think about it.