College Professors Are Using Smart Drugs to Grade Your Crappy Essays

It's not just students taking modafinil to help them power through their workload.

Max Daly

Image via Flickr user Geoff Greer

The hand of modafinil, the drug designed to treat narcolepsy and used by fighter pilots to stay sharp, is all over university coursework these days. But it's not just the students taking the "king of smart drugs" to get verbose essays and dissertations done. Now lecturers are using it to grade the never-ending things, too.

VICE spoke to a number of university lecturers burdened with mounting workloads due to rising student numbers and extra bureaucracy who are breaking the law to import modafinil over the internet in order to plow through the paperwork.

Rachel, a lecturer in her 30s who teaches social sciences at a university in southeast England, loves modafinil. She first started using it a year ago to grade a mountain of 3,000-word undergraduate essays in three weeks—triple the amount of grading compared to a decade ago.

"The use of modafinil by students is just the tip of the iceberg," says Rachel, who buys her pills at 70p [$0.91] a pop from a Chinese website. "It seems bad to say, but grading essays is quite dull work. It's hard to keep focused and motivated when you've got to your fifty-ninth essay answering the same question.

"But with modafinil it's brilliant," Rachel continues. "My concentration is phenomenal, and my brain never gets tired. My eyes can just skim over the page, and I'll take it all in. I'm better at writing comments—on modafinil, I go into serious detail. I get it done twice as quick and I feel cheerful about doing it.

"Even when I don't have grading to do, I have a day every week cutting through all the teaching admin with the help of modafinil," she says. "I call it 'Super Monday.' Suddenly the dull tasks, like dealing with unanswered emails, become fun. I take a pill at seven in the morning, and I'm thinking, Bring it on. In fact, I'm slightly worried. I enjoy it so much. Super Monday is my best day of the week."

Modafinil exists in a legal gray area. It is legal to possess in the UK, but since the Psychoactive Substances Act that came into force in May, importing it is against the law. However, in Rachel's course team of eight lecturers, four are using modafinil to get their work done. And they aren't the only ones. Dr. Anders Sandberg is a research fellow at Oxford University specializing in futurism and philosophy. He told me: "Yes, I do use modafinil occasionally, about every two weeks. I know at least a few other researchers and administrators who use it; there are sometimes interesting discussions about dosing, stacking, and suppliers at the water cooler.

"As I see it, it is not just about increased workload. It is about being able to determine when you are clear and focused. I mainly use it for days when I need to give a really good presentation, participate in a key meeting, work on the core of a paper, or get a lot of stuff done."

Sonia, 30, is a newly qualified lecturer at a London university. She started using modafinil in 2013 when she was writing her thesis at the same time as teaching and grading. "My thesis involved a lot of data analysis. Before modafinil I could work for six hours, but I would be distracted—looking at my phone, making coffee, going to the toilet. Now I'm able to do ten-hour days, and I am more efficient, instead of taking lots of breaks where I lose concentration and the quality of work goes down."

But Sonia says there are downsides to the unnatural levels of concentration modafinil provides. Sometimes she can become too focused, spending far too long marking individual essays, or rooted like a statue in her chair. The first time she took a pill she was so focused on her screen that she got a bad backache because she hadn't moved an inch in three hours. Sometimes the act of eating lunch just passes her by totally unnoticed. She also uses modafinil as a cocaine substitute, to keep her social life going when she's fatigued.

For some lecturers, modafinil has been a life changer. Will is a senior lecturer in his 40s in computer science at a well-known city university in England. He's been using modafinil for six months to cope with grading torturous piles of often badly written, 5,000-word-long essays, while being dyslexic.

"The pressure of grading is massive on anyone, but for me it's worse because I'm dyslexic," Will tells me. "No one likes grading, but it took me three times as long as anyone else. I love my job, but this was actually the most horrible thing for me. I would read and re-read the same paragraph. I was having a cup of tea every half an hour. Marking sometimes made me want to explode with anger. I would rather do anything else in the world."

After a PHD student suggested he use modafinil, Will started taking 100 to 200mg a day on mornings he was grading. "Suddenly grading became almost a pleasurable thing to do. I couldn't even recognize myself. I can't skim read, but I can read faster now. It helps me memorize what students have written, so my feedback is immensely better. I can write pages of comment. It's much a better quality of grading."

It's not just teachers at universities taking it to get through the day. Mark is an assistant head teacher at a pupil referral unit in the east of England who uses modafinil most days of the working week. He was prompted to try the drug after seeing the beneficial effect the stimulant drug Ritalin had one of his pupils with ADHD.

"The first time I took it I did six weeks' worth of lesson planning in one Saturday afternoon. I got it done in one go, and it was high-quality work—the lessons went really well. I wake up and take a pill every morning, and I'm a motormouth. On Monday mornings, I used to find it hard to get my words out, but taking modafinil gives you a little oomph. It's not the paperwork that's hard work in this job. It's the classroom. The kids can be very abusive, and they will talk back at you, so modafinil keeps me motivated and positive."

He says the illegality of modafinil does not bother him. "I do bring them into school, but if I was caught by the head teacher, there would not be the same stigma attached to cannabis or cocaine. I would just say the truth: that I was using it to work harder."

Despite cautionary tales, such as that of journalist Johann Hari who went down a modafinil-shaped rabbit hole in 2008, it's a drug on the rise in Britain. Prescriptions rose from 20,000 in 2004 to 80,000 in 2014, it is being used by a growing army of professionals such as shift workers, drivers, computer programmers, and writers, and a quarter of students at Oxford University have admitted using it. One 22-year-old electronic engineering degree student told me: "We go to the library in a group of five to revise on modafinil. Every three hours, we'll have a spliff and relax as a reward. For exams, we'll all take a pill twenty minutes beforehand. I don't become a genius, but it's a good boost for motivation and clears the mind."

Oddly, three of the lecturers I interviewed about their use of modafinil said that the drug appeared to have had a lasting effect on their ability to focus, even when they had not taken a pill. "Strangely enough," says Rachel, "sometimes I mark without modafinil, and it's OK, it feels like I'm still on it. It seems to have changed my mindset."

Research into modafinil and exactly how it works in the human body is thin on the ground. A review last year of the existing research found modafinil was safe to use in the short term. Yet, despite the fact this drug has become a daily dose for a rising number of people, little is known about the impact of its long term use.

"What I've realized after a year of taking this drug," says Rachel, "is that you only feel the benefit if you are willing to work hard in the first place. It's all about harnessing it, not becoming reliant on it."

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