Writing term papers for a living

Nick Mamatas has written a funny and fascinating post on The Smart Set about his lucrative former career as a writer for a term paper mill. In the piece, he describes his typical clients (generally clueless and/or lazy college students), as well as his methods for churning out two or three term papers per day:

You have to make your own fun. In business papers, I’d often cite Marxist sources. When given an open topic assignment on ethics, I’d write on the ethics of buying term papers, and even include the broker’s Web site as a source. My own novels and short stories were the topic of many papers — several DUMB CLIENTS rate me as their favorite author and they’ve never even read me, or anyone else. Whenever papers needed to refer to a client’s own life experiences, I’d give the student various sexual hang-ups.

Mamatas says that the gig has not only helped his other, more substantial writing pursuits, but has also given him insight into why so many students struggle with writing a term paper in the first place:

It’s because students have never read term papers. Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a “slice of life” featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles. That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.

There’s some solid advice there for all you first-year composition teachers out there: please, please be extremely clear in your expectations, and give your students some examples of successful papers to work from. As a librarian, I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had a reference interaction with a student who simply didn’t understand what a research paper was. They’d come to me with a vague idea that they were supposed to copy some things from journals and then type them up in Microsoft Word, and would often show signs of bafflement and fright when I’d explain to them that they were actually expected to do things like construct their own original argument while marshaling support from the works of scholars and other experts. The whole concept was often foreign to them: most first-year college students have never seen an academic journal before, and many have barely read anything at all. And a good proportion of them have never been asked to build an argument or analyze a text: generally they’ve summarized things in book reports and answered “objective” multiple choice questions, but that’s about it. The task of writing a research paper, then, can seem truly daunting—but as Mamatas points out, it would no doubt go a long way if more instructors would simply give beginning students examples of successful papers, and talk about how and why they work.

Mamatas goes on to argue that he’s no more of a “cheat” than the colleges and universities that happily cash tuition checks from students who can’t really be gaining much of anything from their classes. This is an insightful observation. But all the same, I think Mamatas lets himself off a little too easily: certainly profiting off of students and educational institutions makes him complicit in their failures. It’s kind of like condemning an angry mob of looting rioters, but then reaching into a smashed store window to grab a TV set anyway.

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