New York Times published this article recently that talked about writing companies offering essays, academic papers and the like, as services to American college students. I have seen examples of this in my own classroom, though have been handicapped in proving that this work is completely written by someone else. This goes to the heart of an issue in academic integrity : You cannot detect plagiarism if it is someone else doing your entire work. For that, you need good old commonsense.
The authors of the story, Stockman and Mureithi point out that “The essay-for-hire industry has expanded significantly in developing countries with many English speakers, fast internet connections and more college graduates than jobs, especially Kenya, India and Ukraine. A Facebook group for academic writers in Kenya has over 50,000 members.”
What this means is that many American and international students get help and an unfair advantage over others.
I have seen this in my classroom and it makes me sad that students resort to this sort of behavior. What this does is make learning purely an instrumental idea, something purely done for the sake of earning that degree/ diploma.
The statistics are not positive. As the article in NYT points out, “A 2005 study of students in North America found that 7 percent of undergraduates admitted to turning in papers written by someone else, while 3 percent admitted to obtaining essays from essay mills.” I would hazard a guess and say that this number is possibly higher, given the difficulty in getting accurate responses on such sensitive topics.
This sort of ‘contract cheating’ is harder to detect, point out folks from Turnitin, a software that catches plagiarism. However, the same company is coming up with another product called Authorship investigate, that will determine if the said author actually wrote a piece.
There are no federal laws against contract cheating in the US, the authors point out. Such laws have come into effect in Australia and the U.K.
So, what can universities do to address this? What can professors do, to eliminate such practices?
There are no easy answers. While it is easy to accuse someone of contract cheating, it is very hard to prove it.
I have tried to institute inclass work, to see how much of their work matches with what is turned in – I tend to have writing heavy courses – so this is a real problem for me.
I have also interviewed students suspected of this practice. I talk about plagiarism and related issues regularly in class, not to shame anyone but to let them know that it is not ok!
But I still wonder, how can I teach someone the value of putting in the effort, of actual learning – that is supposed to enhance one’s life and quality of thinking? That is a tall order indeeed.
In this candid interview, he talks about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to be launched on July 16, 2013.
How did you come about writing this book?
I became a fundamentalist Christian at the age of 15 and intensely read about Jesus and Christianity. This is what led me to become a scholar of religion, early on. What happened is that after I began my academic studies, I left the church altogether and went to the faith of my forefathers, continuing my academic study of the New Testament. I wanted to find out the historical Jesus, the historical context of his actions and the forces that shaped them. The more I did this, the more I became devoted to Jesus, the man and not Jesus, the son of God. And over the next 20 yrs, I researched the historical Jesus, the man, as he was and what his actions mean. The result is the book you see.
What are the sources you used?
Outside of the gospels, there is no historical source of Jesus. The only mention outside of the Gospel is this throw-away phrase by a Jewish historian, who mentions Jesus, but is not interested in him, but rather his brother – James. He tells about the death of James, at the hands of a high-priest. And you must remember that back in the day, people did not have last names, and you were referred to you from your fathers’ name or village. And he refers to Jesus here as James’ brother. That is how we know that he is referring specifically to Jesus.
My book is unique in that it doesn’t use Gospels as the primary source material. I do rely on Gospels in filling a loose outline of Jesus’s life, but my first source is the history of first century Palestine, an age we know a lot about, thanks to the Roman occupation. The few facts we know about him – that he was a Jew and he started a Jewish movement, whose focus was in establishing a kingdom of God. We also know that he was convicted of crime of sedition and crucified.
My argument is that, if that’s all you know, it is enough to create a biography about a person. Anyone with those characteristics would be a radical, political revolutionary in those times. I draw on the gospels and investigate the context of Jesus’s actions. I make sure to investigate the claims of the gospels, given the context.
Who is your audience? Is it a scholarly work or a popular book?
It is definitely a popular book, though there are 100 pages of footnotes and the book is meant to read like a non-scholarly historical biography. It is meant for people who are interested in his era and are aware of the legends and myths. Jesus is an enormously complex and interesting person. I am aiming to reach mainstream Christians, those who go to church and see him as the son of god. These believers have heard all these stories, but don’t really know the world in which Jesus lived. These people tend to read the Gospels, as if there is no context to his actions- we must remember that he lived in a turbulent period and the recordings of his actions are contextual and in response to those events. If you truly want to know him, you need to know the world he lived in.
Your biggest surprise in researching the book
The biggest surprise is just how un-extraordinary Jesus was. There were a dozen people during his time, at least a dozen, who walked around claiming to be messiahs. They gathered disciples, exorcised demons and all of them were captured and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. Jesus just happened to be one of them. Many of them were more popular than Jesus, in their lifetimes. But what is fascinating is that only one of those is still called messiah, today. And my question is, why that is? That’s part of what I answer in this book.
Are you expecting any controversy?
For the most part, anyone who thinks of Jesus as God made flesh, is going to be upset with a book that sees him as just human and a historical figure. At the same time, the book is very respectful. I have deep, abiding love for Jesus and I see myself as a follower of Jesus and the very notion of looking at Jesus as a man will find it offensive. Many people won’t read it for this reason. And others will also not read it because I am Muslim, though I have a PhD in religion.
Some will see this as a Muslim attack on Jesus, which it is not. That audience is obviously out. They will be upset regardless. There are some conclusions in the book, some general assumptions that are part of Christian orthodoxy, that are overturned by my analysis. The fact that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem for instance and did not debate with the learned Rabbis, as he was illiterate. The passion narratives perhaps never occurred. These will be seen as controversial, but based in research of the holy-land.
How long has it taken you to write it?
I have been researching this since my freshman year in college. But in terms of actually researching and writing, it took me four years. That’s about how long it takes me to write a book.
What projects are you currently working on ?
I am working on some film and TV projects and also gearing up for a novel. This is going to be my last non-fiction book.
Here is a classic that will help you become a better reader, and as a result, a better thinker. How to Read a Book – A Classic guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is bound to make you re-evaluate your reading habits. No matter what level of reading you do, the tips and advise that the authors offer is priceless. Especially, for those who are engaged in higher education or research, the book is a goldmine of advice on how to read analytically and gives a thorough step by step process on how to go about being an active reader. First published in 1940, the book has remained a must read for any serious student and academic and I, for one, recommend that you get a copy of this book, today.
The book is broken down into four sections, each dealing with a different aspect of reading: The dimensions of reading, Analytical Reading, Approaches to different kinds of reading matter, The ultimate goals of reading. The authors go to painstaking details in illustrating how one should tackle each, with examples to guide you, in the process.
In short, the first part of the book is about reading actively, with the purpose of making sense of the content in the book and also to discover the meaning of what is being said. They offer some practical tips for dealing with difficult books, such as:” In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away.”(pg.36) They ask the reader to do this, to “inspect” the book to grasp what you can. They recommend coming back to it later, trying to grasp the fuller meaning of the book. They also offer advice on reading speeds, depending on the difficulty of the book and one that must be kept in mind. As an active reader, the authors ask us to ask the following four questions, of each book: 1. What is the book about, as a whole? 2. What’s being said in detail and how? 3. Is the book true, in whole or part? 4. What of it?
In the second part, the authors talk about the various elements of analytical reading, primarily asking us to come to terms with the arguments that the writer is making, by determining the message- at times reading in between the lines, if need be. They call for looking for the various parts of the book, its organization, and their relation with each other and also looking at how the author has defined the problem or problems that are to be solved. They caution us to be careful about criticizing any book, before we fully understand what the author means. This means, parsing out the arguments, propositions and phrases that they are using and being careful not to mis-interpret them. Only then, can one criticize it. They further point out that the criticism should be along the lines of what are the logical inadequacies, flaws in argument and structure, rather than giving our own opinion. In this, they offer a rather scholarly etiquette of evaluating and judging any piece of writing.
The third section is about reading different kinds of books such as fiction, social sciences, history, math and science and philosophy- each one calling for a different orientation and style. The last part of the book deals with syntopical or analytical reading, i.e, two or three books of the same kind and what they say about a subject. This is outlined in five steps that the authors suggest: 1. Finding the relevant passages – that speak to the issue(s) that you have in mind, as a reader 2. Bringing the authors to terms, meaning identifying the terms and phrases that you are interested in, and getting the multiple authors to speak to those terms. In other words, it is about forcing the author to use your language, rather than his. 3. Getting the questions clear: This can be done by establishing a set of neutral propositions, that shed light on our problem, and to which each of our authors give answers 4. Defining the issues and finally 5. Analyzing the discussion : To ask, if the issues under discussion are true, what do all the authors say about it, and wherein they differ or agree.
In conclusion, it is good to remember their advise about tough books:” Good books are over your head; they would not be good for you if they were not. And books that are over your head weary you unless you can reach up to them and pull yourself to their level. It is not the stretching that tires you, but the frustration of stretching unsuccessfully because you lack the skill to stretch effectively. To keep on reading actively, you must have not only the will to do so, but also the skill- the art that enables you to elevate yourself by mastering what at first sight seems to be beyond you.”
How to Read a book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren: Simon and Schuster, New York, First published in 1940