Thursday, October 31, 2019

Australia outlaws Editing Student Work

I've just read that Australia has passed a law with fines of $250,000 and/or two years in jail for anyone editing a student paper. This makes my brain hurt.

I completely understand that one wants to stop rich students from hiring someone to write their papers for them, and I understand that there is a thin line between 'editing' and 'rewriting'. But the law banning editing is stunningly stupid for several reasons:

First, it's not going to slow cheaters at all. It just means they have to outsource their papers to paper factories outside of Australia--you can't fine or jail a guy in India or Philippines, so how is banning local editors addressing the problem?

Second, besides being unenforceable, the law is fundamentally discriminatory. The ability to write academically is a learned skill, but some students are disadvantaged by speaking a different dialect even if 'native speakers'. Undergraduates from impoverished, ethnic minority, immigrant, etc household are clearly discriminated against by the demand that students write in a certain style with which they have not been raised.

Third, the fiction that students are taught these skills in undergraduate courses is rubbish. I do have colleagues who spend time developing their students' writing skills, but these individuals are few and far between. The vast majority of the professoriate have little training in pedagogy let alone in the subtle and difficult skill of teaching writing. Although some take some interest in learning how to teach their particular discipline, most have little interest and take no responsibility for teaching writing, not even the writing skills specific to their discipline. When I challenge these individuals they inevitably say, "The students should have those skills when they show up in my class, it's not my job to teach them how to write." For the flaw in the argument that these skills are a pre-requisite for which the professorate has no responsibility, see #2 above.

Fourth, since few professors are prepared by training or motivation to teach writing skills, how exactly are students supposed to learn them? If it is proposed that helping students learn how to write by editing their papers with them be made illegal, what you are really saying is that it is illegal to help students from the working classes, ethnic minorities, and so on, succeed. Whatever the initial intent (which may have been to stop cheating) the actual impact of such legislation is the suppression of social mobility.

Fifth, as a former prof and now editor, I do a lot of thesis rescue work. Supervisors approach me to help their students with the writing process, saying that their student's research is fine, but they are struggling with the writing process. When I was a prof, they would bring me on as a committee member to help the students learn how to write, like other committee members contributed their expertise in methodology or stats or whatever. Now that I'm retired, they send the students to me as an editor, trusting me not to write the paper for the student, but rather to tutor them on how to do it. I'm very good at teaching graduate students how to manage the writing process, whereas their supervisors often are not. Why should it be illegal to delegate a task the supervisor does not want to do, and is not trained for, to another professional who is trained and is prepared to do it? Ideally, such instructors should be provided by the university, but generally, they are not. I would, therefore, argue that any legislation regulating editing has to allow for tutoring, and specify the permission process/documentation to ensure this doesn't devolve into cheating. The Editors Association of Canada, for example, has a set of guidelines for the ethical editing of student texts that clearly sets out the limits of what can be done and the process for obtaining instructor/advisor permission and transparency.

Sixth,(in North America, at least, though I assume it's the same in Australia) roughly 50% of graduate students fail out of their thesis and dissertations programs—in some programs, it's as high as 75% of thesis-route students. That figure has remained stable since the 1950s. If people failed out in their first two semesters, then fine, the program wasn't for them. But 85% of these failures come after 8 and 9 semesters--i.e., as the student sits down to do their thesis. Withdrawing after sometimes 7 or 8 years of paying tuition, of foregone earnings, of investing their self-image in academe, such failures are personally traumatic and an economic drain on the system. So--either the professoriate is spectacularly bad at recruitment and selection of grad students, or there is a systematic failure to teach students how to successfully manage the thesis-writing process. Making it ILLEGAL to help students learn the skills that would allow them to complete their masters or dissertation is either insane or part of a deliberate policy of labour market manipulation and subsidizing university costs. I always prefer to assume incompetence rather than conspiracy, but the fact that legislators and university administrators continue to ignore 40 years of research on this topic does make me wonder.

More and more Canadian universities are adopting anti-editing policies. Most have based their policies on the Editor Canada guidelines, but others are more restrictive. I hope the trend doesn't continue so far as provincial legislation. Such laws are unenforceable and would only have the effect of maintaining or increasing the suppression of able members of discriminated against populations, particularly the working class.

(My paper on thesis writing strategies which--based on the work of Howard Becker--explains why 50% of graduate students fail, is here: http://www.essentialedits.ca/ThesisStrategies.pdf The appendix lays out the research on failure rates.)

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