Policing the student essay

Last week, The Independent reported that three student essays were handed over to the police for fears to do with potential radicalisation. No detail was provided about the nature of the content, simply that the essays were investigated and that no action against the students was taken.

Student essays have always been under scrutiny beyond the normal practices of marking and grading. Student essays are reviewed for academic irregularities, most notably, ones involving plagiarism and collusion. Ethical practice is another aspect of student writing that is monitored. Primary data collection must be accompanied by some sort of approval from wider university structures – this should be explicitly stated in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of what the essay work is based upon. Reflective pieces that refer to real-life contexts are expected to be pseudonymised and any mention of children or use of photos is often controlled and steered by safeguarding policies.

But it is easy to see why these policing practices are in place. All of these policing measures share specific traits that bundle them neatly together.  One commonality is the protection of others. The published writer and their contribution is acknowledged through appropriate referencing conventions. Academic standards, parity across the marking of student work and securing the future value of having a degree are maintained through the monitoring of academic honesty. Participants taking part in research studies are protected by ethical protocols, as are the people who are part of the professional and vocational contexts that some students will write about during reflective writing. These ways of policing student writing are steers in the way academic writing should be conducted – with due consideration to others – accountable and traceable.

Secondly, academic honesty and ethical practices, in research and in reflection, are easy to spot – to the point of being quantifiable (see McWilliam 2009). Verbatim quotes can be identified by Turnitin reports and made available for further scrutiny along with calculated percentages. In the case of ethical practice to do with either research or experiential learning, ethical clearance is either granted or not, data collected is stated as anonymised or not, a paper trail for working ethically is either provided or not. In other words, ethical practices are so broadly agreed upon that it is ascertainable whether these practices have been abided by, or not.

But policing the student essay because of the danger it might pose to others in terms of expressed sympathy to terrorist activity and ideology is a completely different ballgame – and one which very few of us are likely to have a secure footing on.  The need to protect others is clear. No one would want to miss the signs that someone was intending to do harm to others, or that someone was in danger of being drawn into a pathological and dangerous way of thinking.

The problem is defining what the signs of radicalisation look like within the student essay. This is especially problematic for writing within the disciplines characterised by debate, such as Politics, Sociology and Philosophy. The essay for these disciplines provides a medium to help think with theory – it is the quintessential tool for rehearsing and fine-tuning the intellectual gymnastics expected of many budding Humanities and Social Science graduates. Poignantly, Cole (2012) reminds us that the very word ‘essay’ comes from the French word ‘essayer’ meaning ‘to attempt’ or ‘to try out’. This way of writing – to try out – might also mean that writing is sometimes used by students to explore ideas that they themselves do not agree with in order to advance their own understanding and strengthen the counterargument. Boris Johnson, for example, famously wrote two essays to help him think through whether or not he was for remaining in the EU or against it. So within the playful, experiential and exploratory nature of writing, particularly so within certain disciplines, what can be deemed of as displaying a more sinister intent? How extreme is extreme? What does that look like? What are the red flags? What counts as benign theoretical gymnastics and what falls within Prevent legislation and the remit of counter-terrorism? When should we be worried?

If academics marking student writing do not know, then it is fair to say that the students writing the essays do not know either. One key underlying problem for this opaqueness is the threat that it poses to freedom of speech – pointed out in the article featured in The Independent. Students as writers are placed in a situation of having to continually negotiate what can be said and what cannot be said, and in what ways. The potential worry of having police involvement over what has been written, however remote, has just upped the ante. With these impositions looming over writing, it might be easier (from the student-writer point of view) to avoid certain subject areas altogether. But the cost of avoidance is that some things then become the undiscussed, the unconsidered and, most ironically of all, the unchallenged.

The enigma outlined here is not easily solvable – and I am glad that my own discipline does not readily fall within these difficult parameters. But as an educationalist with a research area in student writing and risk, I am very much interested in what happens next. Talking about the problems and pitfalls of counter-terrorist instruction in relation to essay writing at least tables the issue for debate. If some things should not be discussed in certain ways, then at the very least, we need to be able to discuss what cannot be discussed, and explore why this is, what this is and what it looks like.

Verity Aiken

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