I’ve done a spot of freelance editing for an agency that has tried to throw all kinds of strange projects my way. Among the offers I’ve turned down are two to write undergraduate (i.e. college student) papers. Besides my hesitance to write anything depending only on the Internet as a source (and the fact that, while the Efrat library has a good English fiction section, it probably lacks anything valuable in terms of research except, perhaps, on the history of Zionism), I object on other grounds.
I remember college almost as though it were yesterday. I spent a good portion of my time there engrossed in my studies, but certainly not all of it. I spent time with friends, toured the cities of Boston and Cambridge, sang in the college choir, trayed down the snowy hill on which my dorm was perched, and was a coxswain in intramural crew. I can only remember a half-dozen facts I may have learned in college, though I’m sure the academic discipline and methods of inquiry instilled in me are so ingrained by now as to be indiscernible from the rest of my education.
Looking back, I could have spent more or less time with friends, more or less time off campus, and choir, traying, and crew were strictly optional. The one thing that was expected of me was that I produce the work products (a sterile educational term for tests, papers, and other grading instruments) necessary to earn decent grades. (This became all the more important once a woman on my floor figured out that it cost $50 an hour for us to be there.) That meant that if I didn’t hand in papers that were mine, then there was very little of my education that I could legitimately call my own, and my purpose for being at an academic institution could be called into serious question.
There was a recent debate on the CIWI chat list (Connecting Independent Writers in Israel) over “a standard per-page rate for upgrading the English of a 100-page MA thesis in Israel.” The chatters were divided between those who have compassion for non-native speakers of English and people with great ideas but poor writing ability, and those who expressed their disgust with deteriorating skill and professionalism in a world where someone without the English or the writing chops can just hire someone to make them look good. I could see both sides of the story when it comes to getting help to bring an important document up to high academic standards.
I have more difficulty with the notion of being a pen-for-hire for undergraduates whose only reason for being in college—besides discovering how much beer they can hold without passing out—is to study and to produce something of worth.
I never moralized about this to the agency that sent me the offers. In fact, I was flattered that they thought I’d be good at it. (See, kids? Practice makes perfect.) But I always politely declined. I could never live with myself if I thought I’d helped a kid through college by doing his work for him. The fact that in this competitive writer’s market, someone else is probably willing to turn those tricks without the pricked conscience, only makes it sadder. (No wonder I can’t get any writing work.)