Category: Academic writing

What’s Wrong With Education?

One of the central themes of scholar Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It is the outdated nature of our current educational system. A key tenet of her argument centers on the design of classrooms and the style of teaching–and how both are out of date. She says, “If kids must face the challenges of this new, global, distributed information economy, what are we doing to structure the classroom of the twenty-first century to help them?” (12). As the economy transitions from a skills-based one—an economy rooted in manufacturing and hands-on labor—to an information one dominated by jobs which require advanced education, it would be natural for the means of delivering this essential education to also adapt and reflect this change. But our educational system has remained largely unchanged over the past century. Sure, our classrooms now have laptops, iPads, and SMART Boards, but their structure (as well as the teaching that occurs in them) looks much like it did one hundred years ago.

The design of classrooms needs an overhaul in order to better prepare students for participation in the modern knowledge economy. Davidson highlights the need for this change, saying “Her [grandmother’s] classroom could be plopped down almost unchanged in any large, urban public school today” (12). Classrooms of the twentieth century were designed for the economy of the time. Individual desks mimic the individual workstations at which students would likely work at for their entire careers. This type of work was non-collaborative, and relied heavily on individuals being able to perform specific tasks on their own. In addition, the separation of subjects in schools reflects the specialization of tasks in a manufacturing-based economy.

Look at the above image. What do you see? It’s an ordinary classroom from the turn of the century, when students could expect to enter industry as laborers or become part of the large agricultural sector of the economy. They sit at desks—representative of where they’d work every weekday, for hours at a time. Their learning was individualized and non-collaborative. They would read from their own books, take their own notes, and be focused solely on their teacher and their own work. Now look at the image below. Depicted here is a present-day classroom. What do you see? It certainly doesn’t look much different than the classroom from a century ago above. Students still sit at individual stations for individualized learning, but this does not reflect the work that drives our economy. Many present-day positions require at least some level of collaboration with coworkers—something that today’s classroom fails to prepare students for. The classroom must be redesigned to better prepare students for work in the modern knowledge economy.

Supporters of the current model of education in the United States may point to technology as a major tangible change that has taken root in our classrooms over time. This observation is accurate. But how–if at all–has technology truly changed the way students learn? In my own educational experience, high school chemistry is the most glaring example of technology’s failure to truly change student’s learning. My chemistry teacher, Mr. Russell, was one of the first teachers in our school to have a SMART Board in his classroom. At the time, it was like nothing we had ever seen–it was fascinating to be able to interact with the computer on a giant touch-screen interface. It seemed far superior to the chalkboards of old. But as I look back to those class periods six years ago, I fail to see how the SMART Board truly enhanced my learning. In fact, it was more of a hindrance–half of the time it wouldn’t calibrate correctly, and Mr. Russell would eventually give up on it and go back to using the chalkboard to draw his molecular structure diagrams.

I learned chemistry much the same way that I imagine students learned it half a century ago. We sat at desks facing the teacher’s lab station, with a chalkboard (and SMART Board) behind it. Mr. Russell would often lecture us for the majority of the period (sometimes using both boards to write vocabulary terms and draw diagrams). We, the students, diligently took notes in our notebooks. During lab periods, we’d go to our lab stations to perform the prescribed tasks of titration, heating compounds, and other hands-on activities. Although technology was present in our classroom, this presence was never really an integral part in the learning process. Even during labs, the use of technology was limited. This is the limitation on technology’s value in education–it is dependent on the student’s interaction with it. Sure, it’s great to have SMART Boards and laptops in classrooms, but how much students use these tools for learning dictates its value to the overall educational process. Just as it does no good to simply park a car in need of gasoline next to a gas pump, so it goes with students and technology–unless some sort of interaction occurs, no benefit will be seen.

Make no mistake, I believe that technology has a valuable place in education–tools such as Blackboard have changed the way students and instructors interact, and how students receive course content. But technology must not act simply as a surrogate for other learning tools (such as a SMART Board acting as a chalkboard’s more modern cousin). According to Davidson, the use of iPods at Duke University was incredibly beneficial to students. She writes, “[The iPod experiment] was an investment in a new form of attention, one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed. It was also an investment in student-led curiosity, whose object was not a hunk of white plastic, but the very nature of interactivity, crowdsourcing, customizing, and inspired inquiry-driven problem solving” (Davidson 69). The problem with my high school chemistry class was that the technology incorporated into the classroom didn’t allow us to let our curiosity lead or customize our learning experience. The model was still very one-dimensional, forward-facing, and learning “from on high”–it reflected a twentieth century experience in a twenty-first century world.

So, what should the modern classroom look like? Rather that sitting at desks, I image a classroom where students are seated in groups at round tables. This breaks the model of a solitary, one-dimensional workspace. Such an arrangement makes the possibility of collaboration in the form of group work much easier and more plausible. Our economy has shifted to career where collaboration in one form or another is increasingly present–incorporation into the classroom would break the old model where each individual nearly always performed their own work without much interaction. The use of technology in the classroom is vital–but it must be used in a way that allows students to let curiosity guide their inquiries and make their educational experiences customizable. Technology is present, there is collaboration occurring, and the overall setup is not of the forward-facing, one-dimensional design of old.

The educational system is under-preparing our students to perform adequately in today’s modern economy. The method of learning done in our schools best prepares them for the jobs of yesteryear—for manufacturing, not for business, law, or the sciences. In order to reflect the shift in our own economy, the classroom must be redesigned, and the style of learning must be changed to allow for greater collaboration with others. Technology can play an integral role in a classroom that better prepares students for a twenty-first century reality. When students leave our schools, they should be able to take on the careers that dominate our society and economy–many of which are ever evolving with the progression of time. Only when we reconsider our current educational methodology and pedagogy will this goal be fully realized.


Exploring My Prospects as a Ghostwriter

When I used to hear the term ghostwriting, my mind would conjure up images of celebrities hiring diligent yet invisible writers to pen bestselling autobiographies for them. Now, I couldn’t name any celebrities in particular, but my instincts told me that it wasn’t too uncommon a practice. I had no idea that ghostwriting had so many facets—some more perplexing than others. It appears that professional ghostwriters begin the same way: As a dream deferred, leaving them with little options. As a writer and an aspiring academic, the prospect of my own career turning to ghostwriting terrifies me. When I consider myself as a potential ghostwriter, I find that I’d find certain forms of it much less objectionable than others.

Ghostwriting takes many forms—from tweeting for a celebrity to writing a research paper for a pharmaceutical company. After studying these different areas, I’ve placed them on a spectrum, from acceptable to objectionable. Where various forms of ghostwriting fall on this spectrum directly correlates to my level of comfort when considering them as my hypothetical future career. First, there’s updating celebrity’s social media accounts, such as Twitter. According to a 2009 article published in The New York Times, “[many] celebrities and their handlers have turned to outside writers…who keep fans updated on the latest twists and turns, often in the star’s own voice.”[i] I find this form of ghostwriting to be the least objectionable of all the forms we’ve studied. Besides the fact that some fans may be disappointed that the words of their favorite celebrity are being ghostwritten, it seems that this form is largely inconsequential. What sort of profoundly negative impact could ghosting on Twitter for Miley Cyrus have?

I would have no qualms being a “ghost Twitterer” for a celebrity—I’d imagine that it would pay a decent amount, and it’s likely that I’d have no ethical objections to the work being done. Were my career to come to the point where I’d be forced to choose between welfare and tweeting for a celebrity, I would choose tweeting every time. Although my name wouldn’t ever go on any of my work, the aura of celebrity surrounding my hypothetical employer would likely fulfill my innate desire as a writer to see my name on my writing. Being a little star-struck never hurt anyone, right?

Second, ghostwriting Internet reviews for various products, attractions, and vacation spots has recently become a common practice. Online retailers “increasingly depend on reviews as a sales tool,” according to a 2011 New York Times article titled “In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5.”[ii] While this type of ghostwriting has the potential to have negative consequences (such as a couple wasting money by going out to a terrible restaurant that had been given a ghostwritten 5-star rating), I consider it to be more of a “white lie,” or largely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Human opinion is so subjective and diverse—one person might consider a particular pet groomer to be spectacular, while another individual may find their work to be shoddy and unprofessional. Because such a vast array of opinions exists, it would be more beneficial to take all online reviews with a grain (or perhaps a shaker) of salt, especially given that it’s difficult to tell the authentic from the ghostwritten.

As with ghostwriting for celebrities on various social media platforms, writing ghost reviews would be an acceptable career of last resort for me. I suppose that my guilty conscience would be activated upon hearing that one of my reviews led to someone wasting financial resources or some other negative experience of that nature, but what is the likelihood that my review in particular would be the cause of it? Moreover, how would I even find out about such a consequence? In this case, the positives—a quick and easy way to make money writing—outweigh the potential negative consequences associated with that work.

Ghostwriting takes yet another form which poses a major problem in academia—ghostwritten papers. According to “This Pen for Hire,” a piece written by professional ghostwriter Abigail Witherspoon, writers in this profession spend their careers writing papers for student clients, from term papers to senior theses.[iii] This type of writing is highly objectionable, because it not only represents an infraction of plagiarism on the student’s part, it’s downright fraud; it takes one writer’s work and portrays it as another’s. But even though I am strongly against this kind of writing, I understand why writers turn to it as a career. For Witherspoon, ghosting for students was a last resort. She writes:

“I used to tell myself I’d do this work only for a month or two, until I found something else. But the official unemployment rate in this large Canadian city where I live is almost 10 percent, and even if it were easy to find a job, I’m American, and therefore legally prohibited from receiving a paycheck.”[iv]

The author never intended to be ghostwriting for students permanently, but the circumstances life has forced upon her have left her no other choice. This is understandable.

For people in these kinds of situations, I don’t blame them for doing what they’re doing—and I really can’t blame them. People still need a home and need to eat, and this work gives them a means to fulfill those needs. If I were ever placed into a situation similar to the one the author of “This Pen for Hire” was in, I would likely take the ghostwriting job. Although I wouldn’t agree with the work on principle, the need for work (and thus survival) would outweigh the reservations I have.

There is one form of ghostwriting, however, that I find difficult to picture myself doing, even if I were in dire straits. Medical ghostwriting is something often employed by pharmaceutical companies, in an effort to make their products appear more effective, and thus attractive to doctors. The article “Ghost Marketing” describes this practice in more detail: “…A pharmaceutical company…will commission an academic physician or researcher to ‘author’ a journal article about a particular drug or illness. Sometimes the academic is paid to write the article, which is then submitted to an academic journal, but more often the academic will be asked to collaborate with a medical writer—a ghostwriter.”[v] Basically, a pharmaceutical company will pay a researcher to laud their product, and then this research is submitted to scholarly journals under the guise of being independent.

Medical ghostwriting is, in my opinion, highly objectionable. Given the influence that medical journals have on doctors and other medical professionals, it is possible (and probable) that medical ghostwriting also has great influence on doctors. What if this ghostwritten research was flawed, or if it missed a huge negative side effect of the drugs it was reviewing? The potential for negative consequences—namely harmful side effects or death—is profound. This is not only a true crime of writing (at least ethically speaking), it is a crime against people’s bodies. I could not in good conscience become a medical ghostwriter, because the potential negative consequences of my work are enormous. The only time I’d ever consider doing this form of ghostwriting is if I existed in the worst possible conditions—if I were to end up homeless, jobless, and penniless.

When I look to the future, I see myself doing big things. I aspire to earn professional degrees and spend my career teaching at an institution of higher education—I aspire to make a difference in people’s lives. Were those aspirations to go unfulfilled, my skills as a writer could be used in a career in ghostwriting. Some of its forms—such as managing social media for celebrities—I can see myself doing, perhaps even with some enjoyment. For reasons of conscience, I cannot participate in other types of ghostwriting, particularly in the medical field. When I examine the possibility of the course of my life changing because of a dream deferred, I find that ghostwriting might not be all bad after all.

[i] Cohen, Noam.  “When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May Be Lurking.”  New York    Times.  27 Mar. 2009: 1.

[ii] Streitfeld, David.  “In a Race to Out-­Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5.”  New York Times. 16 Aug. 2011: 1.

[iii] Witherspoon, Abigail.  “This Pen for Hire: On grinding out papers for college students.”  Harper’s Magazine.  Jun. 1995: 1.

[iv] Witherspoon 1.

[v] Moffatt, Barton, and Carl Elliot.  “Ghost Marketing: Pharmaceutical Companies and Ghostwritten Journal Articles.”  Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.  50.1  (2007): 19.

Academic work forthcoming!

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. Every time I write something new for this blog, I always tell myself that I’ll do a better job of posting things more regularly, but of course that never happens. So here I sit again, promising myself that I’m going to be a good blog owner and not neglect this for a month. (But we both know that isn’t true, right?) As you may notice, this blog now operating under a different name–“Orange Perspectives.” I decided to change its name because my posts focus not on my life at Syracuse (as the name “Life as an Orange” implied), but focus instead on my ideas and other experiences. So this new name is more appropriate–at least I think it is.

Anyway, I’m taking a digital writing course this semester, and our professor suggested that we keep some sort of online portfolio showcasing our best writing. This seems like a great idea to me, so I’ll begin to post some old papers that I’ve written for classes these past few years (don’t worry, I’ll try to pick the most interesting of the lot). As a writer, it’s gratifying to receive feedback on your work from someone other than a professor. I’ve already got my first posting in mind–it should be up within the next day or so. Stay tuned!