Polonius’ Guide to DIY

Mr Stephen Woods, Director of English

Gathering his (probably eye-rolling) young adult children for a teachable moment, Hamlet’s Polonius dispenses some sage life-advice: on finance, ‘neither a borrower (from friends) nor a lender (to friends) be’; on clothes purchases, ‘costly thy habit as thy purse can buy’; and on loudmouthery in the workplace, ‘give every man thy ear but few thy voice’. Quaint as its pronouns are, the advice holds up well four centuries on from its writing. The most famous of Polonius’ precepts, though, is my focus in this essay: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.’

Where am I going with this? I want to argue that students should to their own learning — and I lay no claim here to any area other than English — be true. In an era of bad examples: cut-and-paste ‘journalism’; politicians unsubtly, unapologetically, and unacknowledgedly using others’ words; and FLOTUSes present plagiarising egregiously from their immediate predecessors, it may be time to argue the point that students should buck the evident trend and do their own work.

Perhaps it’s my wholesome country upbringing, but I have always held this particular truth to be self-evident. Recent revelations from the tertiary, and our own secondary sectors, suggest that quite a few others do not subscribe to my old-fashioned notions. News reports have recently exposed what we insiders have known for a long time, that online platforms — such as Airtasker, Gumtree, and MyMaster — have enabled some to set up tidy businesses doing students’ work for them. Yeah-nah, it’s not just retired sportspersons who have ghostwriters nowadays.

Universities and secondary schools are having to contend with freelancers and assignment guns-for-hire who work at moral arm’s length in cosy online anonymity. The popularity of web-based cheating-to-order services derives partly from technological advancements; good old-fashioned plagiarism is so passe nowadays, because killjoy databases like Turnitin have made the purloining of online and previously-submitted material easy to detect, and to penalise. There seems — paradoxically — to be a Luddite pivot to a more artisanal, bespoke approach to academic dishonesty for the simple reason that the ‘original’ work of a freelance cheat-writer won’t appear on searchable databases.

I went undercover into this world of handcrafted cheating. It took me less time than you’ve taken to read to here (thanks for doing so, by the way) to find a slick, stand-alone site staffed by a bevy of photogenic writers ready to take on topics from ‘biomolecular reactions’ to ‘postmodernism‘ with as little as three-hours’ notice. ‘Don’t waste your time writing essays!’, I was advised.  An array of pleased-looking photostock clients testify to the wondrous efficiency of the service, which they assert they will use again. Nowhere on the site is there any suggestion that by becoming just such a satisfied patron, I will have done anything untoward. Move over Polonius, Mephistopheles has entered the building.

There is clearly an ethical sleight of hand at work here. If a student looks across at a fellow examinee’s work and copies their answer, we call this cheating. If a student stays home and sends a presumably smarter impostor to do their exam for them, we call this cheating. If I pay a ‘freelancer’ to do my uni research assignment or Year 12 short story and then submit it with my name at the top, for some in the education community, the ethical spade somehow becomes a soil dislodgement and relocation apparatus.

While the high-tech end of the cheating economy is a novel and interesting development, there are still non-virtual ghost-writers who will scribble off an assignment to order. There are also plenty of upstanding operators who won’t. Concerns within the tutoring community about unethical practices have led to the establishment of a professional body, The Australian Tutoring Association, with a Code of Ethics that expressly forbids plagiarism and the ’creation of dependencies‘.  If a student can’t start work on an assignment until they’ve seen their tutor, for instance, we could be looking at a dependency.

While the mercenary and knowingly wrong end of the spectrum garners news coverage and — hopefully — public and education industry opprobrium, help given freely closer to home, and with the best of intentions, can get in the way of learning too. Each term, I have meetings with girls who have received a disappointing grade. In quite a few of these discussions, a backstory emerges in which an unquestionably well-meaning family member or friend has provided assistance. This help is too often a contributing factor to the grade in question.

Unlike in my earlier examples from the academic underbelly, the issue here may not always be ethical.  It may simply be one of distance. The teachers who set the assessment design a curriculum that equips their students to do their best in that assessment. The teacher is, therefore, the best help available. The students who share the lessons are the next-best informed on the task and its requirements. The further we move away from these immediate classroom players, the less attuned to the nuances of each task and its requirements any other player is bound to be. As in a game of ethnically non-specific whispers, it doesn’t take many removes for a message to get garbled, and the visiting law-student cousin from Melbourne or the ex-teacher friend-of-the-family who get co-opted into helping, while well-intentioned, are clearly at several removes from the original.

My sincere hope, to borrow from Mark Twain, is that reports of the death of academic honesty are exaggerated. I hope so because outsourcing an essay or assignment is about as far from the process of learning as I can imagine, and I am quite a fan of learning. I’d argue that part of the issue here is that learning is very often conceived of as a purely academic pursuit, and when it is so defined, the acquisition of good results becomes the sole measure of success. The slippery Faustian slope of outsourced cheating is testament to this impoverished view of learning.

Learning has a moral dimension. The words displayed so prominently on the wall of Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s Cherrell Hirst Creative Learning Centre say so.  We are in the business of developing, as best we can, young women who ‘contribute to their world with wisdom, imagination, and integrity’. As a student and teacher of rhetoric, I would argue that the third item in a triple carries the greatest emphasis, and ‘integrity’ sits third for just that reason. Doing one’s own work is crucial to achieving all three of these goals, and by requiring and allowing our students to do so, we help them embody Polonius’ sweetly phrased urging that they ought to ‘their own selves be true’.