The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."...  ...Gene Fowler.

Commentary of the Day - April 9, 2009:  Terms.  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

Since I occasionally advertise my tutoring, writing, and editing services online, I was not surprised by the call that started, "You the one who put the ad on Craigslist?"  In the past, I have been able to fill in the gaps this way.  Lately, the gaps are a bit bigger and harder to fill, but I am managing.

I received a few calls before this one.

In fact, I have met with one young boy twice, and I think it may turn into a long-term relationship.  His mom was frantic when she called. "He just can't stay focused!  He tries, but he's all over the place."  She had tried the free tutoring offered by her son's school, but she felt her son needed something individualized and what the school offered was in a group.  "He gets in trouble when other kids are involved."  This student is eleven and has been diagnosed with ADHD.  So far, he and I appear to be a good fit since my specialty is working with children who have learning disabilities.  Having five cats seems to be a great bargaining chip since I told him if he does what I ask, I'll let him play with my kitties before his mom comes to pick him up.

Another parent wanted me to come to her home to tutor.  I tutor from my office where I have resources that would be impossible to carry with me.  I explained this to the mom, but she wasn't willing to do the driving because it interfered with her other child's soccer and karate schedule.

A third parent wanted a tutor for her daughter in French and calculus.  I don't tutor foreign languages or calculus -- which, to me, is a foreign language.

A fourth parent balked at what I charge and that I did not accept credit cards or checks.  She actually lectured me about the state of the economy and how I had a lot of nerve setting my fee so high.  She said something about equalizing the playing field.  That's when I stopped listening and turned my attention to American Idol, where I, too, could win if the field were equalized to accommodate for the tone deaf.

I also received a series of emails that turned out to be a version of the infamous Western Union Scam.  The author of the emails claimed to be living outside of London with his wife and children.  His writing had hints that English wasn't his first language.  Mr. Isreal Osagawa said his son was "coming to America on holiday and he want to provide him with greatness lessons to be for learning more of the English and Math." (sic)  He did not answer my questions about where he was staying and why they were coming in the first place.  He did say his son was traveling to Arizona by himself, which surprised me.  I assumed there was family in Arizona who would be looking after his son.  There were no clues that lead to this assumption.  I learned that his son was ten years old, and a nanny would deliver him to my home, five days a week for two hours at a time for four consecutive weeks.  I was already doing mental math and dusting off my credit card.  When I asked what subjects I would be tutoring, the father said, "Whatever you want that he should be of good learning for him and exciting fun time.  Teach him fun and good lessons in the English. ' (sic)

My intuition was already working overtime, being the glass-half-empty type that I am, but when he mentioned his method of payment, I knew for sure I was being taken for a ride on a bridge to nowhere.  He said he would pay me, a complete stranger, "the total cost for four fun and excitement weeks" before his son's arrival.  A check would arrive from which I would deduct my total fee.  Then immediately, I was to mail a certified bank check for the remainder to the nanny at an address he would provide.  This is a common scheme.  Craigslist even has warnings on the website about it and its variations.  The check bounces after the certified check is mailed, leaving someone (like me, but not as smart) holding a rubber check.

Being angry about time and effort wasted and the impudence of scammers, I contacted a few federal agencies and provided them with the information I had gathered about Mr. Isreal Osagawa.  Then I wrote Mr. Isreal Osagawa a pleasant email telling him I would be happy to tutor his "son" and to send me the check, and I would forward the balance, as directed, to his nanny.  I gave him the address -- a post office box -- that the nice woman at the federal agency told me to use.  Interestingly, his son never showed up on the first day I was supposed to tutor him.  But then again, he didn't have my address.

Last night when the telephone rang during Dancing with the Stars, it was a woman who needed help with a term paper she was writing for a college class she was taking at night.  I have worked with adults before, and it is usually a different -- and pleasant -- experience.  Since they are paying for it themselves, they seem to take full advantage of every minute of my services, waste no time, and appreciate the results a lot more than children.  Children tend to invent ways to waste any time they can in order not to do the work.

The woman on the phone said the term paper was due in two weeks.  It was assigned in January and she had "just gotten around to it."  She said she had already turned in the required "sentences" about her paper, and her topic had been approved -- also in January.  She also said she had her reference list.  When she asked what I charge, I explained that I charge by the hour.  (As an explanation, I have charged by the page and not all pages are created equally.  Some writers are simply looking for fine-tuning and improving style, where others are total train wrecks.)

When this woman spoke, I could detect a definite difficulty with grammar.  I had a gut feeling from her spoken English that this would be one of those train wrecks.

"How long will it take you to get done?" she asked. "It’s gotta be handed in on time."

"I'd have to see your work first," I answered.  "Why don't you email what you've completed to me so I can see what we're talking about."

"I don’t have a computer,” she replied.  (Afterward, my husband wanted to know how she found my Craigslist ad if she had no computer, but that didn’t register at first.)

"I can't give you an estimate without seeing what you have."  I said. "How many pages have you written?  How long does it have to be?"

"5000 words."

"Is that what you’ve done so far or what you have to do in total?"  I asked.

"I handed in those sentences I just told you about."  She didn’t answer my question.

"Did you start your paper?"  I asked.

"I have the list of references."

"So you haven’t started it?"

"I just told you it's gotta be 5000 words and I handed in the sentences and got my references."

At that point, I made an assumption (something I should stop doing) that I would be working with her to get this paper written.  "So you haven't started it yet?"

There was a long pause.  Then she asked, "Can I make an appointment to meet with you?  How much do you charge for a consultation?"

I repeated my fee and said I could see her the next day.  It was Monday evening when she called.  She asked, "What about next Friday at 3:30?"

I looked at my calendar and told her Friday worked, wondering to myself how she intended to get this paper in on time by wasting a week.

Then she started complaining about how far she would have to drive after work and how she would hit traffic on her way home.  She asked if I could meet her somewhere in between, and I said I work from my home office that is set up specifically to work with students.

Then she said, "I hope you don't have cats.  I hate cats," she said.

I told her about my five feline friends, and she said, "I’ll talk to you out by my car."

Knowing we weren't going to get any work done out by her car, I told her I would be happy to hook up my laptop in my backyard and we could work out there.

"I can't just come and pick it up when you're done?'

Then it hit me -- I'm slow when it comes to the unethical.  She wanted me to write her whole paper for her.  She had no intention of doing any of it.  She wanted the work done for her, and she would hand it in with her name on it.

"I don't write term papers," I said.  "I edit them for those wishing assistance.  I can also help you write it or at least get you started."

"I don't want to write it," she said.  "That's what I'd be paying you for."

I was trying to stay away from a conversation about morals and ethics. I don't write term papers." I said.  "Isn’t there a school policy about that?  Why are you taking a course if you don't want to do the work required?"

"It's a required course, and the teacher will never know.  Them things don't matter anyway," she said. (sic)

"Don't you think the professor will be able to tell from your other writing that it’s not your work?"  I asked.

"You could make some mistakes on purpose," she said.

"Sorry, I don’t write term papers for students. I just edit them."

"Editing is writing papers," she said.

"I don't write term papers," I repeated.

"Well, I don't have time to do it," she said,  "I'll pay you time and a half."

"I don't do term papers."

She continued to debate me as I quietly hung up the phone.  I sat back down at my laptop, pulled up Craigslist and edited my ads: "I DO NOT WRITE TERM PAPERS."

Then I went back to enjoying Dancing with the Stars, imagining how well someone would dance if they had someone else go to rehearsals for them.

2009, Felice Prager.
Felice Prager is a freelance writer and former English teacher from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.

The Irascible Professor comments: Unfortunately, there are some students in college today who only want a degree, not an education.

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