by Kylie Medeiros
Kylie is a biology major from Fairhaven, MA. Because she was specifically told for this assignment that students “couldn’t bullshit this essay,” she was reminded of all the times throughout her academic career when other teachers said things of a similar nature. “Being short on time, and desperately in need of a research topic,” she found that it would be “incredibly ironic to bullshit my paper in the form of a research on the topic of BS itself.” While writing her essay Kylie found it interesting how much creative freedom she was given to research and write about something she truly cared about. This essay is special to her because of its significance in her life and the ways in which it can be meaningful to others. Kylie is extremely passionate about science and is looking forward to becoming a forensic pathologist in the future. She looks forward to meeting new people from all walks of life during her time at UMass Boston.
Teachers are known to be infamous bullshit detectors; every student in their academic career has heard the familiar phrase “we can tell when you write bullshit” from at least one of their professors. As students, we are told that we can’t do a number of things when it comes to our assignments and more specifically, our essays. You can’t write an essay the day before it’s due, you can’t write a paper on something you aren’t interested in, you can’t go into a project blind. Throughout my years in school, I have heard each and every one of these excuses. And to that I have always said…watch me.
On Friday, March 25, 2022, I found my exigence for our biggest writing assignment yet. Earlier that same week, the assignment was introduced to us; it was a research paper. And that was it – we the students got to choose our research topic as long as it fell within the realm of linguistics. It was an attempt to make the project easier on us, following the concept that if we chose our own research topics, we may be more motivated and interested in the copious work that goes into a research paper. While the sentiment was there, for indecisive people like me, it felt like a nightmare. What was I passionate about? What did I thirst to learn more about? Quickly I could feel myself spiraling downwards into a pit of questions that I knew would only trap me further in writer’s block. The sinking feeling was all too familiar and with research needing to be at least started for homework, I was beginning to feel desperate for a topic – until I thought about my past writing experiences in depth. I thought about how my most recent piece of writing was so different from any other English piece I had done before, and it was because of my teacher and the relationship promoted in the classroom – we were encouraged to be ourselves in our writing and to be bold in our writing decisions. And so, I wondered, how does the relationship between a student and a teacher impact the quality of a student’s writing, if at all?
Finally! I had done it – I had my inquiry. With the basis of my research discovered, I set forth using the library’s database for scholarly articles in search of sources to act as secondary research. In doing my research for homework, I soon realized that I had come to an issue: there was a significant lack of sources on any usable type of data. I could find nothing that would help me formulate an essay in the coming weeks. I made an effort to find the most relevant articles to my inquiry, to get my homework done at the very least, but I knew I could not continue. My topic had to change.
After watching a presentation in the library about how to search for the best sources in the easiest ways, I felt taunted, knowing that I would not be moving forward in my search, but back to square one, thinking about my topic. When I expressed my issues to my professor, she sympathized and offered help by asking what I was passionate about or things I found interesting. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to know, I couldn’t pinpoint a topic that could hold my interest for the coming weeks. “You can’t write about something you’re not passionate about,” my professor said after I voiced my lack of interest. Well, that certainly wasn’t true; I knew I could write a paper on a topic I didn’t find interesting, in fact, I had done it many times before and likely would again. Her statement got me thinking about the copious amount of times I had heard teachers assume that we can’t write papers on books we didn’t read or write papers about topics we barely understand; they assume we can’t bullshit our way through it. Once again, I felt the cerebral glow of an idea forming and realized I had found another inquiry, “How can a teacher tell if a student is bullshitting, if they can at all?”
Bullshitting to get through an essay isn’t a rare occurrence: it’s something that nearly everyone has done or will do, whether it be babbling to reach word counts or lying about the amount of information known about a topic. In fact, when asked, 30 out of a total of 36 people (83.3%) admitted to having bullshit a paper before, much like me (Medeiros 2022). So, if bullshitting is so common, surely teachers mean it when they say they can tell? But it may not be so simple. If teachers were certain in their bullshit detecting abilities, students who do it should, in turn receive lower grades on their essays. This, however, was not continuous with the data collected in my survey, or my past grades, which received average grades of A-B (87.9% of students). Why then, if bullshit is so discouraged, do teachers continue to reward those students with good grades? Would that not only incentivize them to keep doing what they are doing? Maybe the truth is that teachers aren’t so sure what bullshit means to them.
Bullshit is certainly a difficult term to define, especially when it’s more of an idea or concept that varies from person to person rather than a concrete adjective that can be used to explain the quality of a paper. In “Antecedents of Bullshitting”, the author John Petrocelli, as he searches for the cause of B.S. writing, offers insight from philosopher Harry Frankfurt to create a partial definition of bullshit. He states: “…bullshitting is defined here as communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge. When people intentionally or unintentionally express ideas or information in ways that are disconnected from a concern for evidence or established knowledge, they are in essence bullshitting” (Petrocelli 250). This idea is further explored by Joshua Cruz, a Texas professor, when he concurs that “…students play by the rules of the classroom and produce a piece of writing that meets academic standards, but they care nothing for the topic that they have chosen to write about,” (Cruz 8). It has been inferred that bullshit is what the author believes the audience wants to hear and the process of writing it is centered around convincing the reader to believe them. Essentially, bullshit is a type of falsification in which the author must appear to be more credible than they actually are to form an opinion about something. This is a researcher’s definition though, so what do the students qualify as bullshit? What exactly do they believe makes their essays “bullshit”?
To gain a better understanding of the concept, I asked the bullshitters themselves (college students mostly) what was considered bullshit. Based on the survey I conducted, to garner how students actually view bullshit, I found that they tend to believe that bullshit writing is work that is passionless, unrevised, and is likely done with little to no preparation or even before class. There seemed to be a general consensus that bullshit was not synonymous with poor writing and that bullshitting did not include plagiarism. In a sense, bullshit writing is the final solution and is written with little concern for the truth of the information presented and focuses more on convincing the reader that they know what they are talking about. The survey revealed that 18 out of 36 students (50%) focused more on what the teacher, who is also the audience, wanted than the actual information they were presenting or directly applying what they had learned. (Medeiros 2022).
Unsurprisingly, the definition of bullshit provided by a few anonymous teachers varied from the student definition and did not hold the same sentiments. Educators tended to interpret bullshit as “good at first glance” but lacking structure, flow, and substance, with one teacher stating, “Often bullshitters connect ideas from different sources but there is no flow to the paper. Also, the evidence may not support the idea because there is little understanding of the topic” (Medeiros 2022). While there may be some truth, it is not unlikely that a bullshitter would be able to provide evidence that supports their idea. In fact, Emily Wilburne shows how bullshitters may even change their initial claim to match the reports of the evidence they have chosen, in “Pulling Essays From Your Ass: A Guide on How to Bullshit Your Way to an A.” It is possible and likely that there is not only one way to bullshit, but the way in which most students do tends to follow a pattern of trying to impress the audience for a good grade, rather than simply trying to fill a page, regardless of the sense it makes. Having a better idea of what bullshitting meant to the perpetrators and victims alike, I could dive deeper into the phenomena, which had me wondering – why do they do it? Despite the deterrent that teachers use, telling students they’ll know what is bullshit, the students take that risk, so why?
Why anybody does anything is a challenging thing to determine, especially with variety in situations and differences in the way people think; even so, there tends to be trends in behavior. Bullshit appears to be a defense mechanism of sorts – a last ditch effort for a situation. In “Understanding Undergraduate Bullshit as a Function of Language and Subject Position,” Joshua Cruz, a professor at Texas Tech University and Doctor of Education, offers the idea that bullshit happens as a result of lack of knowledge or interest. He states that, “several empirical studies contain interviews with students who openly admit to bullshitting an assignment when they felt they simply could not respond in any other way…” and “bullshit is a response to something that perhaps we do not want to admit as educators: we can be boring” (Cruz 2). Because students are generally uninterested in the material they are being forced to write about, as well as tend to be substantially uniformed about the topics they are forming opinions on, bullshit is produced to fill in the gaps. The reasons provided by Cruz are strong possibilities and I agree with them to be the primary causes of the bullshitting. When I asked college students about the reasoning behind their own experiences with bullshit, most motive to do so came from the fact that they felt forced. While individual responses varied from procrastination to lack of interest, to poor understanding, the broadness of explanations could be boiled down to the simple fact that they felt obligated to turn something in.
Writing bullshit to complete an assignment is still taking the effort to complete the assignment; in fact, bullshitting and trying to make it look like one knows what they are talking about sounds incredibly difficult. If so, is there a possibility that bullshit may be useful in some ways? Journalist Emily Wilburne in “Pulling Essays From Your Ass: A Guide on How to Bullshit Your Way to an A” explains how to properly bullshit a paper and shows that it is more work than one may think: “By the time you stop writing, your goal is to have a set of complete body paragraphs. Each paragraph should be focused on one idea and should contain all the information and quotes that demonstrate that idea. Again, your writing does not have to be fancy, it only has to be able to explain your ideas to anyone who reads it” (Wilburne). Her article shows that bullshitting is a skill in itself and takes its own type of thought. Because of the manipulation of information and knowledge of the rhetorical situation used to formulate good bullshit, it can nearly be compared to rhetoric. Cruz backs up this idea, claiming that the use of bullshit as rhetoric comes from an absence of power in the students and that “the use of bullshit itself is a gesture of power” (9). Surprisingly, in the survey I conducted, the opinions of the students on how beneficial bullshit could be were extremely varied, despite over half of them already having admitted to bullshitting before. Even more surprising was that 18 out of 30 responses were certain that bullshit had the opportunity to be useful (Medeiros 2022).
Using this information, coupled with my sources and prior experiences, I have determined that bullshit is a form of rhetoric and can be very advantageous. As indicated by Linda Flower and John Hayes in “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem,” the best writers are those that consider the audience: “This difference matters because, in our study, one of the most powerful strategies we saw for producing new ideas throughout the composing process was planning what one wanted to do to or for one’s reader.” (Flower and Hayes 27). The authors believe that manipulation of the audience for a specific literary goal is an example of rhetoric due to the awareness of the entire rhetorical situation that is necessary to do so – much like when bullshitting. Because writing coherent bullshit requires the author to use information to formulate an opinion that can convince the reader that the author knows enough about the topic and requires knowledge of the project’s rhetorical situation, it can be used to show one’s understanding or to develop a better understanding of rhetoric.
Having a better idea of what exactly bullshit is, and under what circumstances it tends to occur, leads me back to my initial inquiry: How do teachers know when students bullshit? To put it simply, they don’t. Bullshit has become a word synonymous with laziness and a lack of effort; it can mean many things, but at its core, bullshit is a falsity, whether it is done well or not. Teachers are not able to detect bullshit, they are only able to detect poor writing and poor skill; just because a paper was bullshitted, doesn’t mean that it is bad, in fact the point of bullshit is to be good! The entire premise of bullshit is to convince the audience of your knowledge and authority, and if the teacher has seen through that, then you have done a bad job, either in the linguistic aspect or in the rhetorical aspect. Bullshitting is forming an opinion on the basis of knowledge that is assumed to be true, rather than proven, meaning that in order for a professor to fully be able to detect bullshit, there must be an inherently correct answer. As long as the paper contains data necessary to back up one’s claims and provides appropriate reasoning in a well-written and effective paper, a teacher will not be able to detect bullshit. I am a firm believer that teachers should seek out poor understanding of the rhetorical situation and weak writing abilities, rather than “bullshit.”
Cruz, Joshua. “Understanding Undergraduate Bullshit as a Function of Language and Subject Position.” Researchgate.net, Sept. 2018.
Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 1, 1980, pp. 21–32,
Medeiros, Kylie. “Bullshit!” Student Questionnaire. 6 April. 2022.
Petrocelli, John V. “Antecedents of Bullshitting.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 76, 2018, pp. 249-58.
Wilburn, Emily. “Pulling Essays from Your Ass: A Guide on How to Bullshit Your Way to an A.” Medium, Medium, 11 Jan. 2018.