Revision and the Rhodes

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

February 10, 2014

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in a coffee shop responding to emails when a colleague walked in and set up camp a few tables away. After working quietly for a bit, he asked if I would take a quick look at an essay he was writing for a popular magazine. I made three suggestions, then returned to my email.

This morning, another colleague poked her head into my office and asked me if I would edit an administrative report she was producing. We huddled over it for 20 minutes and realized that her final paragraph belonged at the beginning, and that a small detail she had buried in the text deserved more space.

This evening I will be doing some of my homework in Cathy N. Davidson’s MOOC, "History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education." In the class wikis, we are encouraged to work together to (re)design higher education from scratch.

And after I finished a complete draft of the essay you are reading, I sent it to a friend who works in the field of postgraduate fellowships and scholarships, and asked him to let me know whether my argument made sense.

That’s how academe works. That’s how the writing process works. You have an idea, you articulate it in some form, you seek suggestions from people whom you know will help you express your idea more clearly or eloquently, and then you revise. You do that with your peers, your students, your editors. You do it in every aspect of this profession.

Unless, that is, you are a student applying for a Rhodes Scholarship.

On January 17, Elliot Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust, sent an email to a list of faculty members and administrative advisers of Rhodes applicants, explaining that all future applicants would have to sign a written statement attesting that they had produced their application essays with no help whatsoever.

"I attest that this essay is my own work," the statement reads, "and is wholly truthful. Neither it nor any earlier draft has been edited by anyone other than me, nor has anyone else reviewed it to provide me with suggestions to improve it. I understand that any such editing or review would disqualify my application."

The Rhodes Trust is concerned that too many students are getting too much help on their essays from faculty members: "Many essays," the secretary wrote, "are now edited extensively and repeatedly by advisers, fellowship offices, university instructors, family, and others. We are no longer confident that the essays reflect the writing ability and style of the applicants, nor, even more important, that they reflect accurately applicants’ true personal goals, values and aspirations."

In response to an immediate outcry, and to the many valid criticisms of the new policy from American faculty advisers, Charles Conn, warden of Rhodes House, sent out a clarifying email several days later, announcing that American applicants shouldered the full blame for this trend toward overly polished and (seemingly) dishonestly produced essays: "We have to note that this is almost exclusively a problem in the United States. In most of the 29 other countries we elect Scholars in, applicants submit the kind of straightforward personal statements that you would expect from young people."

Students who receive Rhodes scholarships are chosen, according to the trust’s website, in part for their "outstanding scholarly achievements."

As I have tried to demonstrate in my opening paragraphs, scholarly achievement of any kind—in class, in the lab, in articles and monographs—occurs as a result of collaboration among intelligent people who believe in the power of ideas and are generous in providing guidance to peers and students. Most important, scholarly achievement happens because of intellectual dialogues from which good ideas are formed, expressed, evaluated, and revised.

In an apparent attempt to soften the seemingly draconian nature of the new policy, the warden explained in his email that advisers could still play a role in helping candidates with their essays: "Tell your candidates when their essays aren’t personal, contain mistakes, or aren’t good enough. But please let them make it right (or not) without editing or content suggestions."

Envision a colleague walking into your office with an essay she has just completed, excited to hear your reaction before she submits it to the top journal in her field. You read it through slowly and carefully, and then hand it back. "Not good enough," you say. She stares at you blankly, awaiting more. "Not good enough. Good luck fixing it."

Would that be helpful? Collegial? Scholarly?

With this new policy, the Rhodes Trust has essentially asked its American applicants to: (1) reject the intellectual process that has fostered their success as students; (2) produce this one document without any assistance; and then (3) after winning a scholarship, return wholeheartedly to an academic culture in which they routinely seek help from peers and mentors.

And students are supposed to make this exception to tradition in a high-stakes, life-altering effort to demonstrate their potential as scholars.

I understand the concerns of the trust’s officers. The impression they give is that applicants are engaging in what the authorship theorist Rebecca Moore Howard has called "patchwriting"—making minor changes to someone else’s ideas or work and claiming it as their own. Instead of patchwriting from published sources, though, Rhodes applicants are cobbling their essays together from the suggestions of their advisers.

I commend the trust for seeking to combat that subtle form of academic dishonesty, and for attempting to discover the real intellectual qualities of applicants. But this new policy sends promising scholars exactly the wrong message about the nature of scholarship, writing, and intellectual life. It ignores the realities of scholarly production, not to mention the collaborative nature of contemporary digital life.

Instead of sending these wrongheaded and conflicted messages, the Rhodes Trust could ensure the integrity of the application process by requiring students to do precisely what academics are expected to do in a final draft: acknowledge their sources. Ask Rhodes applicants to append a list of people who have helped them craft their essays, with a brief description of the role each one played in the process.

That would help Rhodes officials to distinguish between candidates who don’t have the advantage of a cohort of faculty advisers helping on the essay and those who do. It would alert Rhodes to particular colleges or faculty advisers who consistently play too strong a role in the essay-writing process. And it would convey to students the importance of acknowledging the sources who have played a role in their intellectual lives and in their scholarship.

Most important, it would help candidates recognize what we all know, experience, and teach: The scholarly enterprise is a communal one. We get smarter, our ideas get better, and our writing gets sharper when we receive feedback and have a chance to make revisions.

The Rhodes officers announced a policy, and the feedback they have received from their American advisers seems clear enough. Time for a revision.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.