Buying Literacy: A (Ghost)Writing Lesson

by Dennis Baron

The trustees of my university usually limit their role to setting policy; they leave teaching and research to the faculty. But in a rare display of instructional zeal, the Board of Trustees recently offered our students, and me, a lesson in how to write. Faced with a campus controversy that would not go away, the members of the Board hired a public relations firm “to help them craft their responses.” A university spokesperson told the local newspaper that the consulting firm provided “strategic communications advice” so that the trustees could say “precisely what they wanted to say.” More precisely, he explained, the “Trustees related their feelings . . . . [and] the consultants pulled those thoughts together in written form, but in the trustees’ own words.” [Julie Wurth, “Public relations firm helps board with statements.” Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, March 6, 2001, pp. A1; A8.]

What the trustees did sounds like ghostwriting to me, paying someone else to put your thoughts into your own words. Regardless of the stand they took on the campus controversy, our trustees sent students at the university an additional message: it’s O.K. to pay someone to do your writing for you. This is a message that most teachers do not want their students to hear.

I am not challenging what the trustees did. After all, university trustees are not typically professional writers, and they are seldom professional educators. While it might be nice if trustees could write for themselves, it is certainly an unexceptionable practice for people in power to hire their writing done. My guess, though, is that the faculty wish the trustees hadn’t gone on record about their ghostwriting. Students are not professional writers either, yet teachers expect them to do their own work. We prefer to send students the message, “Buy your papers, and you are toast.”

We frown on ghostwriting when students are concerned, but it is a practice that is not only perfectly legal, it is also more and more common. When a celebrity writes an autobiography, or a politician makes a speech, we actually expect them to hire writers to pull their thoughts together in written form. Ghosting is so embedded in our ways of doing things with words that we are surprised at the handful of politicians who write their own speeches, and we assume that any best-seller by a famous person is actually an as-told-to book written by a hired pen.

Ghostwriting is also business as usual in more mundane spheres. Executives routinely sign their names to reports and letters drafted by subordinates. Many of us know that comedians pay writers for their jokes, but I was startled to find out that cartoonists often pay for their punch lines as well. In a surprising number of situations, people take credit for writing done by others. So when the trustees purchased their statements, they did nothing wrong.

But they did present us with a “teaching moment” illuminating the complex relation between literacy and power that should be useful for everyone interested in how writing works. While educators insist from preschool to grad school that students master reading and writing for themselves because literacy brings power, students don’t have to look far to find just the opposite, examples where power buys literacy. The problem is that what the rich and famous are free to do – pay someone to write for them – is forbidden in the classroom. There is a law in my state that bans selling prose to students. Buying term papers – a form of ghostwriting – is frowned on as an “academic irregularity” in the university’s code of conduct. It is plagiarism, submitting someone else’s work as your own, and is punishable by failure for the assignment, failure in the course, or in extreme cases, dismissal from the university.

Perhaps anticipating that the trustees might be accused of plagiarism, of doing exactly what students are not supposed to do, the university spokesperson explained why the board used state funds to buy their policy statements: “The trustees wanted to have something down on paper that was succinct and to the point. . . . You go to experts for help on particular issues. That’s what you do.”

The trustees are right about this. Words are potentially the most durable of durable goods, and buying literacy from experts is classic capitalism at work. I consider myself a highly literate person, but I buy literacy expertise all the time, paying an accountant to fill in my tax forms, a lawyer to draft my will, a broker to execute my trades, a physician to write my prescriptions. These are documents that I cannot create myself, literacies that I cannot readily navigate without help – not to mention the fact that I could go to jail if I wrote my own prescriptions.

Students too are supposed to consult experts as they write their papers. But they’re supposed to cite their sources, acknowledge their debts, use quotation marks, and keep their checkbooks closed. Even “free” help must be doled out judiciously: our campus writing center, wary of the damaging stereotype of the tutor who writes an athlete’s paper, reminds students regularly that they must do all of their own writing for any writing assignment. But then, the on-line term paper services warn that the papers students buy from them are research, not substitutes for the students’ own work. Right.

 It would be scandalous to think of letting students practice textual free enterprise, allowing them to buy, borrow, or steal other people’s words and turn them in as their own. But we cannot hide the fact that inside the academy, where words are coin of the realm, prose is traded on the quad in the same ways that soy beans, junk bonds, or controlled substances may be exchanged on the street. Even academics hire ghostwriters. Research groups may pay a technical writer to draft their grant proposals or write up their findings. One nearby university hired consultants at a six-figure fee to write a five-word school slogan for the school. At the university where I did my graduate work, the president paid our rhetoric professor to write his graduation-day speech. The class was shocked to find out that ghostwriting was going on in our midst. But what we took as a confession by our instructor turned out to be a boast. He felt honored to be chosen for this duty, even though his authorship was never acknowledged. And he was even happier to get the extra cash.

Some teachers write for hire, freely giving up ownership of their words, but when it comes to teaching materials, many instructors regularly co-opt the writing of others without giving credit and without cash changing hands. We treat all manner of pedagogical prose like clip art: it’s simply there for the taking. Instructors routinely share syllabi with one another, usually with permission, and we often recycle assignments that have worked well in someone else’s class. Sometimes teachers silently copy material from textbooks or other sources for class handouts – a practice encouraged, even facilitated, by textbook publishers. None of this counts in the academic culture as plagiarism; no one is faulted for failing to use quotation marks, or neglecting to disclose the true authorship of these instructional materials. It is an unstated droit d’enseigneur that an instructor may copy an essay topic, while simultaneously cautioning students that they cannot copy their essay.

In rare instances, instructors may push their power too far. In a worst-case scenario about a decade ago, a Western state university lifted its plagiarism regulations wholesale, and without attribution, from the plagiarism policy of another school. There was no intertextuality, no anxiety of influence at work here: for whatever reason, a professor just saw the text and took it. It apparently never occurred to anybody at the offending institution that they were guilty of doing exactly what they were telling students not to do. When the story broke, the university, perhaps more embarrassed by the irony of being caught plagiarizing plagiarism regulations than by feelings of culpability, simply apologized. So far as I know, no instructor or administrator was flunked, demoted, or expelled for this academic irregularity. However, I imagine the teachers at the school made it clear to their students that the anti-plagiarism policy, though it was stolen goods, was still in force.

I think that the teaching moment our trustees provided is not one that our faculty will be tempted to take advantage of. For a number of reasons, instructors are uncomfortable discussing with their students culturally-acceptable ghostwriting, and other examples where the appropriation of words is normal. They may not want to acknowledge their own practice, but more likely they are afraid that simply talking about ghostwriting will tempt students into sin. They needn’t worry, for students know long before their professors do the addresses of all the best web sites where term papers are for sale. And despite this illicit knowledge, most students still do their own work.

Instructors are also uneasy confronting a more disturbing issue, the fact that the highly literate are not always the most economically successful, because it challenges our insistence that reading and writing are not simply edifying and educational, they also help students become ever more upscale. It’s bad enough when students drive around in cars the faculty cannot afford. It’s worse when they have enough disposable income to buy their assignments, too. I once had a friend – an educator – who insisted that the only thing wrong with selling term papers was that it discriminated against those students who couldn’t afford to pay. I am not challenging the perfectly valid expectation that students do their own work. I don’t want my students buying their papers, even if they are good capitalists who can afford to do so. I want them to read and write and think for themselves. But I also want them to understand the complexities of authorship.

Instructors should not be afraid that they are giving up power when they acknowledge that literacy can be borrowed, sold, or stolen. I agree with my colleagues that silently appropriating the words of others is plagiarism in certain contexts. When students do it in their essays, it may be inappropriate (while it is sometimes intentional, I think that more often than not it is accidental). When academics do it in conversation, it may be allusion (in extreme cases, it is pretension). When writers do it in novels, it may be homage – so long as you’re not writing a sequel to Gone with the Wind. And it is of course the stuff of satire. Instructors tell students to use their own words. Maybe our comics, CEOs, and political leaders should write their own material too, but it is part and parcel of how literacy functions that many of them don’t.

I recently came up against ghostwriting in my own work, and that experience helped me to understand what our trustees did when they had their words written for them. I was hired as an expert witness to provide an affidavit on the subject of a lawsuit. Here’s how I “wrote” that affidavit: the attorney who contacted me discussed the case with me for an hour on the telephone. I answered a number of questions that he posed. Satisfied that my answers supported his client’s position, he then sent me a draft of my “declaration,” which he wrote based on the answers that I gave him on the phone. Though I revised that draft, the changes I made were minimal, and we went back and forth a couple of times on email and over the phone till we were both satisfied that the affidavit said both what I meant, and what the attorney needed it to say.

The attorney assured me this was normal practice in the writing of such expert declarations, that I could feel free to testify, if I was called upon at trial, that he had written my statement, using my own words – just as the public relations expert did for our university trustees. Although I had a few misgivings about this writing process at first – I’m not used to writing collaboratively, let alone having my statements written for me – I finally accepted the fact that this is how some legal documents are written. The lawyer really did take my thoughts and put them down in writing, using my own words, while at the same time fitting them into the style appropriate to the affidavit genre, something I would not have been able to do very well on my own.

Now that I understand more clearly from the inside what the trustees and I both did, I would like to revise what I say when I talk to my students about writing, collaboration, plagiarism, ownership, and the nature of literacy. Yes, students need to write for themselves. But it is also important for them, in acquiring literacy, to understand how writing functions both in our culture and in our economy; how it becomes both politicized and commodified; how writing, both ethically and textually, is a complex phenomenon, something that is in the end not just black and white.

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.