who cheats and why

I’m back from two weeks on a beach in the middle of the ocean where I did nothing but read (favs here) and sleep for twelve hours a night. I find it easy to relax on vacation but am often frustrated that I get vacationed out: by the end, I’m like, let’s make some lists! But I’m trying to think of that as a sign that the vacation “took”: I got the rest, and now I’m genuinely excited to go back. Fiji’s fucking great, but I love my house and my bed and my dogs, too.

Vacation’s about respite from your life, but also about contrast with that life — at first, that contrast is euphoric (so much sleep, such close ocean!) and gradually it becomes about appreciation (consistency, routine, broccoli, water from the tap). I was thrilled to come home, but I also couldn’t imagine going straight from the place of intellectual exhaustion I was in when I turned in the first draft of the book to full-time work at BuzzFeed. But I did just that, three years ago, with the last book! Bad idea! This strategy is far superior, even if was just going into the woods for two weeks instead of across the international date line.

Every time I’ve gone away over the last three years, coming back to the news felt like jumping into a freezing body of water filled with stinging jellyfish. There’s the added stress of continually finding new articles (some of which are linked below) that demand inclusion/reference/consideration in the burnout book. (See also: this piece on how education debt is transforming the middle class). And then there’s all the new ideas/phenomena that transform when placed within my newly developed framework of burnout.

Take, for example, this excellent piece from the NYT on the continued expansion of “essay farms” which allow people from around the world to “bid” to get paid for writing essays for American college students. The interviews with the people writing these essays (in this case, mostly Kenyan) is what makes this piece exceptional — and highlights a very 21st century phenomenon, in which educated English speakers, unable to find work in their own countries, are paid relatively small amounts of money so that Americans (and some Chinese) can receive the credentials that will allow them to find full-time work. For example:

Roynorris Ndiritu, 28, who asked that only part of his name be used because he feared retribution from others in the industry in Kenya, graduated with a degree in civil engineering and still calls that his “passion.” But after years of applying unsuccessfully for jobs, he said, he began writing for others full time. He has earned enough to buy a car and a piece of land, he said, but it has left him jaded about the promises he heard when he was young about the opportunities that would come from studying hard in college.

Or:

Now Ms. Mbugua finds herself at a crossroads, unsure of what to do next. She graduated from her university in 2018 and has sent her résumé to dozens of employers. Lately she has been selling kitchen utensils.

Ms. Mbugua said she never felt right about the writing she did in the names of American students and others.

“I’ve always had somehow a guilty conscience,” she said.

“People say the education system in the U.S., U.K. and other countries is on a top notch,” she said. “I wouldn’t say those students are better than us,” she said, later adding, “We have studied. We have done the assignments.”

The piece is an incisive (and accurate!) take on the American educational system and its place in the global hierarchy. It’s explicit about how America’s general reluctance to crack down on these services has allowed them to flourish (in a way they no longer do in the UK or Australia) — and thorough in its exploration of how the supply of essays is generated. But it leaves the demand for those essays largely unexplored, a hazy vision of the unmotivated, unprepared, overprivileged college student willing to pay $30 a page for an essay three hours before it’s due.

Just to be clear, this isn’t a critique — no piece can do everything, I mean that. And significant regulation of these sites would temporarily solve a problem, as it seems to (at least temporarily) have done in Australia. But if the American demand remains, it’ll just find a different outlet. And that demand is far less rooted in entitlement than in fear. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t cheating: it is. But “catching” students with software like TurnItIn isn’t actually a deterrent when students are acting out of abject anxiety.

When I was in the classroom, the students who plagiarized were never the worst students in the class. To be sure, there were a handful of students who are exactly the douchey, rich, entitled asshole you’re picturing as the customers of these services. But most teachers will tell you that the students plagiarizing weren’t the laziest, or the most entitled. They were often the solid B students, desperate, truly desperate, for As. They’d do extra credit, they never skipped class. For some assignments, they were in my office, asking questions, talking over drafts, incredibly anxious about thesis statements, at a loss about how to craft the rest of the essay. And then something would happen with an assignment — not even necessarily a big one! — where they’d get super overwhelmed, panic, and copy something from the internet.

These students don’t cheat because they’re lazy; they cheat because they’re incredibly anxious, terrified of failure, and haven’t been taught to come up with original arguments (or trust themselves when they do). They’re the students who got into a desired college through sheer determination. They’re not dumb or stupid or anything close to it. But they’ve become convinced that any sort of failure (on an assignment, in a class) is tantamount to total life failure, and accumulate anxiety about each assignment accordingly.

If you’ve never experienced anxiety, then it’s difficult to explain how counterintuitively it works: instead of helping you plan out the steps to succeed at a given task, it makes the task seem so insurmountable that you avoid it entirely, which creates more anxiety, which makes it seem even more insurmountable. Hence: googling “pay for essay” three hours before the assignment is due.

Many of these students are natural people pleasers: it’s part of how they got as far as they did. Which is why the idea of emailing or coming in to talk to their teacher about their failure to start the essay ahead of time is anathema. And a lot of teachers — myself included, in my early days of teaching — tell students things like “no extensions, no question” or “I’ll only entertain extensions if requested a day in advance.” And simply not turning something in, or turning it in late for a docked grade — also anathema for the striving, anxious student. So they do some ethical self-bargaining, and spend the money intended for food and “expenses” on an essay.

(Another version of this phenomenon, and one that the piece addresses briefly = international students, frustrated or insecure in their English, desperate to perform at the level they did back home, terrified of bad grades sent to their parents, unable or reticent to articulate their concern to their professors, especially if they had a very different paradigm of education back home).

There are ways for teachers to help combat these tendencies — protracting the essay writing process, requiring students to turn in outlines ahead of time — but they’re often limited to small classes or classes explicitly focused on writing. And for already overworked teachers, they’re also incredibly time-consuming. The problem isn’t that professors aren’t attentive enough; it’s that the entire American educational system primes high school (and then college) students to conflate A’s with actual thinking, and the ability to exclusively get those A’s with personal value.

Whether the student is fifteen and terrified about what their sophomore grades will suggest on their transcript, or nineteen and desperate to maintain their GPA for their scholarship or for grad school, that attitude only grows more and more destructive. The result — a degree without the ability to think — only further evacuates that degree of actual value.

In the NYT piece, several of the Kenyan essay writers described general dismay that they’d put so much time and money and energy into getting college degrees — a promised ticket to prosperity! — only to find themselves forced to cheat for other students. They were disillusioned, and rightly so, with the value of a college degree. We’re getting there in America, too: a college degree may still up your wages for the rest of your life, but it doesn’t guarantee middle class stability, or intellectual edification. More and more, American education simply reproduces the de facto millennial condition: heavily indebted, almost comically insecure, and paralyzed by anxiety.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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