Gordon Campbell on university essays for hire, and Allie Brosh’s take on depression

Unfortunately, the buying and selling of ghost-written university essays has been part of academic culture for decades. In the mid 1980s for instance, to cite just one of many examples… the late, revered novelist David Foster Wallace used to earn a living by writing term papers for hire. “It was really good training for writing in different voices and styles,” Wallace told Patrick Arden in a 1999 interview, “[Because] you’d get kicked out if you got caught.” Writing essays for fellow students is also a pop culture staple. In the “Doppelgangland” episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer for instance, the question of whether Willow Rosenberg will ghost-write a term paper to help a scholastically challenged star football player get through college is a key point of the story. Faking it for money really is the world’s second oldest profession.

So, one can feel a certain level of sympathy for Tertiary Education Steven Joyce over yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times report that a firm in Auckland has reportedly been making money out of providing ghost written essays-for-pay for some Chinese students in New Zealand. NZQA appears to have been tipped off three months ago about the practice. Perhaps because the alleged incidents occurred in 2007, NZQA warned a number of universities and polytechs, but failed to alert its own Minister. The practice in question is not confined to New Zealand tertiary education, nor to Chinese students, nor to foreign students from any other country, nor only to foreign students, fullstop. In 2008, the BBC reported on the UK experience with the same problem in this fashion:

Essay-writing services are reporting a sharp increase in demand from overseas students at UK universities. UKEssays.com says it has had a threefold increase in overseas students buying university essays – representing almost half of its customers. Universities have accused essay writing firms of fuelling plagiarism. But a spokesman for UKEssays.com says the rise in demand is caused by universities recruiting students with inadequate English language skills… the essay-writing firm accuses universities of turning a blind eye to the problem of overseas students with poor written English – with financial pressure overcoming any academic doubts.

At that point, any sympathy for Joyce runs out. The New Zealand tertiary education system is coming under intense pressure to recruit foreign students and fulfil the government’s ambitious earnings targets from international education. In addition, the relatively high tuition fees paid by foreign students take some of the funding pressure off our tertiary education system. (When questioned on RNZ this morning after an academic made this point, Joyce replied that universities had got a funding boost and anyone who couldn’t make a positive contribution on this subject “should get back in their box.” What a charmless bully the man is.)

In reality, a nasty dilemma faces those working in the sector, and it has been exacerbated by the inadequate funding over many years for tertiary institutions. Officials are under pressure to look the other way when it comes to English language requirements, in order to increase enrolments and meet the government’s earnings targets, while policing the same standards just strictly enough to avoid the kind of rorts highlighted by the Sunday-Star-Times. It is time that Joyce shouldered some responsibility for this situation, rather than shouting down anyone in the system who dares to bring it to public attention.

For an update on how well and how badly New Zealand is currently doing in its attempts at wooing international students, check out the percentage rise and falls recorded in the Country Of Citizenship table contained within the Export Education Levy: Full Year figures publicly available here on the Education Counts website.

Overall, there was a 5.4% decline in international student numbers in New Zealand tertiary institutions between 2011 and 2012 – but China, which accounts for the largest segment of our international student intake (26.6% of the total last year) has bucked that trend, and recorded a 4.5% increase last year. Even so, the government’s goal of doubling the current returns from export education to reach the declared target of $5 billion by the year 2025 is looking very, very ambitious.

In passing, one can feel a few twinges of sympathy for those foreign students with poor English language skills who are struggling to get the grades that will justify the investment being made in their careers by their families back home. Not that this can justify any surrender to cheating. The wider reality is that the vast bulk of foreign students in New Zealand do manage to honestly contend with their language disadvantages, and without recourse to ghost writers.

Depression & Allie Brosh
All my people that have mild depression or severe don’t worry because! There’s someone that loves u! and he’s a rapper with gold teeth – Lil B

Over the past few days, almost everyone and their dog has linked and tweeted that the popular US blogger Allie Brosh has returned from her self-imposed two year hiatus, and her struggles with depression. All the more reason to be glad that her comeback column on her Hyperbole and a Half website – which you can read here – also happens to be one of the most incisive depictions of the nature of depression that you’ll find anywhere. At a time when thousands of New Zealanders – and their families – are coping with depression, loneliness and the suicidal inclinations that come with the territory, Brosh’s column deserves the widest possible circulation.

It needs to be read here. According to this report, Kiwis under 30 are the age group most prone to depression: not old people living alone, but the supposedly social media-connected young. Clearly, Facebook and Twitter are not an adequate substitute for human interaction. Not when work remains so elusive, and when so many jobs are experienced as being comprehensively soul-deadening by those ‘lucky’ enough to find them.

Obviously, there was a danger that Brosh’s depiction of depression could suffer from an Unintended Cuteness Effect. Rendering depression in serio-comic form will always carry that risk, common to the pop cultural treatment of mental illness. The film Silver Linings Playbook for instance, portrayed manic depression as an adorable personality trait that enabled both the main characters to transcend the deadening rut of social convention in which almost everyone else in the film seemed to be trapped. (The terrors of bipolarity didn’t quite fit the film’s rom-com format.)

Brosh’s column isn’t like that. It doesn’t make depression seem like an enticingly superior mode of being. Yet as much as it humanely depicts depression in recognisable ways, I think its main value will be less to depressed people – or to the marginally depressed – than to the people who are trying to support a depressed person through the crisis. With devastating wit, Brosh shows how empty the usual things that we say to depressed people do sound. To make her point, she caricatures the well-meaning, but the caricatures are deadly accurate, regardless. So…what should the cluelessly well-meaning be doing? It seems to be a matter of hanging in for the very long haul that recovery from depression involves, and being at hand until…as Brosh shows, the depressed person finds their own way out of the swamp of non-feeling. The depressed can’t be cajoled, guilt tripped or rationalized out of it by other people. The escape has to be personal. Many of us will be thankful that Brosh made it through this far, and has portrayed her struggle with such fierce clarity.

Brosh’s earlier column – from 2011 – when she first communicated about her depression, is also worth reading.