BOOKS SEPTEMBER 12, 2012
by Dave Tomar
Bloomsbury, 272 pp, $25
IT WILL COME as news to no one who reads Dave Tomar’s new book that college kids cheat as enthusiastically and ritually as they tailgate and copulate, especially since Harvard recently announced that nearly half of the 279 students in a single “Introduction to Congress” class are under investigation for academic dishonesty. In the ethically challenged haze of freshman dormitory life I did it myself, writing an occasional paper for an attractive or underperforming friend, and it never really occurred to me that this was wrong until I became a college professor and sat outraged on the other side of the desk, interrogating a barely literate student who had suddenly blossomed into an eloquent critic of Milton’s Paradise Lost. And after reading The Shadow Scholar I’m eyeing my current crop of students with an entirely new level of suspicion.
Tomar’s book grew out of an article, penned under the name “Ed Dante” in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November 2010, that became the most widely read piece in the Chronicle’s history. The article, and now the book, document the astounding scale and sophistication of cheating in today’s wired world, which the author knows well: he worked for ten years at highly organized Internet companies, writing term papers, class projects, and even a dissertation. In the wickedest of ironies, he found his employers through a website that aims to prevent cheating by exposing the worst offenders. At this website, an interested reader will find links to two hundred such companies, all accepting Paypal, MasterCard, and Visa, and all eager to make your college experience utterly painless. One site (CustomWritings.com) provides statistics, including (at press time) a 97 percent satisfaction rate and 1,373,890 pages written. I don’t now how much to trust a company that relies on its customers’ willingness to lie, but if those numbers are true, then this firm alone has produced over 170,000 of the 7-to-10-page papers usually assigned in introductory level classes. Many sites promise that their writers hold at least an M.A. or a Ph.D., and nearly all of them guarantee that the customer’s essay will cruise through the plagiarism-detection software that most American universities have purchased, at a tremendous cost, as the silver bullet in their anti-cheating arsenal.
As Tomar describes the process, the writers for his former employer log in to the company’s website and select an assignment from an online bulletin board. Students provide the topic and the deadline, and specific guidelines from their instructor, and the desired citation style. Some students even ship required course texts to their hired hand: Tomar claims this practice larded his shelves with thousands of dollars worth of books on constitutional history, literature, business, and psychology. But that was one of the few perks. Like a high-tech whipping boy, Tomar says he took on so much work that he ruined his health and his relationships, all so that the pampered and unprepared could enjoy a painless college experience. The cheery photos of carefree students on the professional cheating websites bear this out. As in the promotional materials distributed by the universities themselves, everyone is always smiling.
Tomar is very, very angry, and although he comes to loathe the students who hire him, the real target of his ire is the universities. He is himself a graduate of Rutgers, and he seems genuinely traumatized by his own stint on the banks of the old Raritan, which he believes left him without the skills to land any real job other than writing fraudulent college papers. From this experience he gleans several ways that higher education in America has gone awry. “It’s not simply that some colleges are structured more like corporations than like places of learning,” Tomar notes, but that they are structured like failing businesses that “don’t give a crap about customer service or quality assurance.” This is one of Tomar’s more astute observations. While nimble businesses, from Lego to Apple, have made customers fall in love with their reinvented products, universities still persist in replicating the early twentieth-century factory model espoused by Henry Ford: customers can have a car painted any color they want “so long as it is black.”
As a teacher of Shakespeare, I benefit from this model all the time: students from across the disciplines are forced to take my classes to fill various requirements, whether or not they will ever use iambic pentameter. It pays my bills. But where such requirements do not correspond to clearly defined and valuable outcomes for students, they also contribute to the truly frightening $1 trillion in outstanding U.S. student debt that, as Tomar notes, has mostly been accumulated in the past four years. The driving engines of that debt remain the for-profit degree mills such as the University of Phoenix, which do not escape Tomar’s fury. “The work assigned at such institutions was so easy, the standards so low, and the priorities so far removed from the interests of honest student evaluation” that students might be forgiven for turning to the free market to meet their intellectual needs. As the Harvard cheating scandal has affirmed, however, even the best universities have some such slack in the system. Students caught up in the investigation have reported that the course was notoriously known as “an easy A” with take-home exams and low standards. Combine such factors with the universities’ generally sluggish stance toward technology, Tomar suggests, and the cheating he documents is nearly inevitable.
These points are well made, but not much else in this padded book has the same force. In discussing his erstwhile career, Tomar has called himself a master “bullshit artist,” and he boasts that he knows all the “little tricks” for churning out papers, “like fluffing sentences with unnecessary clauses or adding gratuitous lines summarizing previous claims.” Yet Tomar’s book may prove to be his bullshitting pièce de résistance, as it employs these same techniques at length, including notes and a bibliography drawn mostly from blogs and websites. For a brief moment, it seems as if this might be some sort of brilliant meta-narrative: a Joycean performance of the sloppiness, cliché, and superficial analysis that passes for writing in our universities today. But as Tomar reaches his solemn conclusion, explaining that he has attempted to describe “the things that I had come to know, with the hope that it could help all of us,” this begins to seem less likely.
The problem is that The Shadow Scholar’s argument never really achieves the escape velocity that would propel it beyond the author’s own miscellaneous grievances. By his own admission, Tomar doesn’t know how to use a library and doesn’t have “a fuck’s clue how to do research if my Internet is down and my phone battery is dead.” For Tomar this is a point of pride, because the ease with which he manipulates the system—tricking all those doddering professors—shows that libraries and library-based curricula are hopeless anyway. Again, I half-sympathize: if any professors still ask students to conduct research without online resources, they are clearly acting negligently. But surely the more responsible—and the more common—approach is to guide students through the digital archives, accepting that they use Wikipedia and Google, but teaching them that this should be the beginning rather than the end of their research.
But Tomar obviously never learned this lesson, and his argument rarely reaches beyond the level of Googling, like one of those machine-authored books that use an algorithm to collate information about a given topic. (If this is unfamiliar, see the 345,000 titles by “Lambert M. Surhone” on Barnesandnoble.com.) When arguing, for example, that American education loads students with debt without providing the skills to pay it back, Tomar writes that “according to the Guardian, ‘student loans have been stripped of nearly all basic consumer protections.’” Nothing wrong with that, except that after continuing this quotation for some length, he launches directly into a new paragraph on “An article in Mother Jones,” and this takes us to a paragraph relating what “the Washington Post” surmises, before a final section provides the truth “according to the New York Times.”
The already underdeveloped argument must also share space with a memoir of the author’s misguided youth, and while Dave Tomar finds his lead character fascinating, his will probably be a minority response. After the tenth account of Tomar getting stoned, or reeling out of a bar to vomit, it seems worth asking whether he may have borne some responsibility for his failure to find academic fulfillment and develop marketable skills on campus. One suspects that Tomar was very good at churning out “C-” papers and that some of his clients got exactly what they deserved.
Although The Shadow Scholar is a failed invective, it is an extremely timely reminder that we would be unwise to brush off accounts of cheating at Harvard or our local junior college as a few bad apples. To prevent the offenses that Tomar describes, professors will also need to become more proficient at pedagogies both old and new. Our first priority may be teaching students to navigate an online world where the meaning of intellectual property is in flux. Universities clearly must also do a better job teaching students actual skills rather than running them through hoops until they accumulate enough seat time, measured in dollars and hours, to graduate. Just as important as such innovation, however, is the very traditional work of forming tutorial relationships that will model intellectual responsibility and demonstrate that thinking, rather than paying someone to do it for you, can be its own reward.
Blaine Greteman is a professor of English at the University of Iowa and the author of a book on the history of childhood and education, The Poetics and Politics of Youth in Milton’s England, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2013.