Monthly Archives: February, 2013

Other people’s papers. Or, what’s in a college degree?

cheater cheater

cheater cheater

I did it in college. I might have done it in high school. And here we are –  nearly ten years later – and I’m still getting paid to write other people’s research papers.

2004: One of my senior-year college roommates offers me $50 cash to write her 10-page research paper on cleft palates. (She was an education major.) And while my parents were my only source of income at the time and their preferred method of payment involved my blue-and-yellow VisaBuxx card (the credit card you pre-load; Target market? Teens.), I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for the thrill.

It took me 24 hours. I stayed up. I took Adderall for the first and last time. I learned kind of a lot about cleft palates. I finished the paper, literally sick and tired, but found myself curled up in my Ikea bed around 10am after the all-nighter bloated with a strange pride. We gamed the system. We stuck it to the man. This is what it feels like to live!

My love affair with academic dishonesty flared up again this past week: Through a virtual-assistant web site, I started working for a girl – T – who needed some help with a short research paper for her business class. “Help” really meaning someone who would write the paper for her. I worked on it at work. At home. I became invested and engrossed. I emailed the final version to her with a little note: “I love doing this kind of work, so if you have more and would like to work outside the site, let me know!”

She took me up on the offer. It’s all a little mysterious, but from what I can gather, I now seem to be completing the course for her. And while I love the work and the set-up, it doesn’t mean I think it’s ok.

This is how I look at it semi-freakonomically. I think the argument against T and I’s arrangement is a) it’s dishonest, and 2) it isn’t good for the student. And what would we as a society do if a majority of our college graduates had actually employed a smaller minority of outside individuals to complete their collegiate work for them? Are the graduates fit to enter the workforce? It really begs the question – what does having a college degree in America today mean?

College can be just as much about learning to live with the institutions that govern our lives, figuring out how to maneuver around the red tape, as it can be about learning. For all I know, T is a hustler – she’s getting a degree to get ahead, not to apply the concept of marketing myopia to her employer’s mission statement. There’s an opportunity cost to doing her college coursework – what could she be doing instead? How do we know that that something is not more beneficial for her?

I do it because I miss the urgency. The high stakes. The deadlines. I’m lucky – at least in terms of collegiate work. I love learning, particularly through writing, putting pieces of a puzzle together and not having the luxury of over-thinking the whole thing. (It’s pretty rare that someone approaches you three weeks ahead of time with a paper to write.) I think I especially like the ability to put the work aside when I’m done. It’s the best way to get around the writer’s ultimate dilemma: that the success, or lack thereof, of something we produce says something about us fundamentally. This kind of work – it’s part of me, but not who I am.

At this point, I’m mostly worried that T will start spending money on me that she doesn’t have, the dependency issue. I’m also worried that maybe she does need to know some of this stuff. If I start getting indications that either is happening, I’ll have to take a second look at our arrangement.

For now, it’s one of those things in life that’s best approached as…it is what it is.


Downtown Los Angeles is not what you think it is.

"For Tunnel Sake," Zack Herrera

“For Tunnel Sake,” Zack Herrera

Los Angeles is a really interesting place, a megalopolis that exploded before anyone had a chance to think about “urban planning,” let alone coin the term. As a result, it’s a somewhat-random amalgam of a bunch of smaller cities. On the Westside – Santa Monica and Venice. On the East – Silverlake and Echo Park. There’s the valley – Sherman Oaks and Studio City – and the Southside, which houses Compton. And then there’s downtown.

Many major financial-services’ firms and other “professional” firms have offices downtown. Location scouts suggest it for shoots because certain streets look like New York City on-screen. Downtown LA is bustling during the day, part of a proper city. But at night? Crickets.

It’s the weirdest thing.

"Bunker Hill East"

“Bunker Hill East”

There have been efforts to revamp it – notably Tim Leiweke‘s hope to bring a professional football team to the city and his company’s horrifically sad LA Live complex – for which Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Mauricio Umansky sells luxury condos – but they still haven’t caught on. And downtown is dangerous; it’s home to LA’s Skid Row, a neighborhood which houses one of the nation’s most stable populations of homeless individuals.

So downtown LA is basically bipolar, experiencing mania during the day and depression at night.

Randomly last fall I got an email that featured an interview with Zack Herrera, a photographer who worked with downtown LA’s natural evening light to develop a photo series in which he likened downtown to Frank Baum’s land of Oz. (HERRERA DIDN’T USE A FLASH. I CAN’T FIGURE OUT A BETTER WAY OF SAYING THAT SO, CAPS.) The pictures brought to mind the depiction of downtown LA in the 2011 movie Drive; they captured a different kind of underbelly to downtown LA, with their cool streaks of purples, greens and greys. I love them.

The thing with these pictures is…they make downtown LA at night look – well – warmMagical.  For some of us, downtown LA really is an Emerald City, and now we have proof.

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