Dave Tomar, The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), $16.00 paper; $9.99 ebook.
Reading this book solved a small mystery in my teaching career.
Every once in a while, even without Turnitin.com, a paper screams: “plagiarized!!!!” About a decade ago, I received one of those papers. Only partly coherent, grammatically idiosyncratic sentences were sutured to others that flowed beautifully, delivering a punchy argument that the rest of the paragraph had lurched towards in an often obscure way. What I suspected was something called “mosaic plagiarism,” in which the students’ own writing is used as filler in between quotes lifted from books that have no quotation marks around them. I went to the library to check a couple of the books that had been cited, and sure enough: bingo.
In response to my question — “Is there anything you would like to tell me about this paper?” — the student insisted that s/he had absolutely not plagiarized. With heavy heart, I took it to the honor committee. Again, the student denied everything, bringing in a character witness who kept saying over and over that s/he had seen the student write that paper. When it was my turn, I pulled a pile of books out of my bag and began to read from them, directing the committee to specific paragraphs in the student’s work. After weeks of denials (including a lot of emails asking: “Why are you trying to ruin my life with these ridiculous accusations?”) the student collapsed like a house of cards. “I did it, I did it,” s/he said.
But did s/he? Three things nagged at me. Why had the student cited books s/he had actually copied from, making them easy to find? Why were the books in the library? Had they been in the student’s room, and had I not had access to incontrovertible evidence, I might have simply given the paper a D and moved on. And why did the character witness ascribe so much significance to having watched the accused student write the paper?
After reading Dave Tomar’s The Shadow Scholar, I now know: the student didn’t even type the paper and may not have even been aware the books were in the library. The paper had been purchased.
Many of you are out there going “DUH!!!” — but this possibility had never occurred to me.
Tomar was one of perhaps thousands of people laboring in paper mills and on Craig’s List, writing student papers, otherwise known as “study guides,” for ten dollars a page. He wrote about this experience as “Ed Dante” in the CHE two years ago (guess why he chose this pseudonym?) which presumably allowed him to get a book contract and be recognized as the professional writer he always wanted to be.
If you want to read a real review of the book, go to Dan Berrett’s piece here. I mostly agree with Berrett’s assessment that The Shadow Scholar delivers several highly mixed, and sometimes contradictory, messages. Like the athlete doping with a substance that is not yet banned, Tomar seems unclear whether, or if, he did anything wrong. His critique of higher education is similarly muddy, except for his polemic about the evolution of universities into massive money mills, an assessment with which I think many faculty would agree. I thought his diatribe about parking tickets, and the millions of dollars that they generate for universities, was outstanding, but probably did not need to be revived as a theme later in the book.
In many ways, the book reads as I imagine many of the papers written for clients in cars, at parties and during stimulant- fueled all nighters did. Chunks of intense research about the high price of higher education are layered into personal accounts of large universities’ indifference to students (he graduated from Rutgers, where he began his career writing for an athlete who wanted to transfer.) Critical perspectives on the failure of education to engage bright but disaffected students (useful but repetitive) are mixed with passages that anyone who wants to know what it means to live and work in a freelance economy should read.
Like a paper written in an all-nighter, the book begins with one focus and ends with another, although the book is loosely tied together as a progress narrative about Tomar’s path to becoming a writer. The first chapters are about how much he hated, hated, hated Rutgers and everything about it. He admits that he chose the course of study, and the classes, that permitted the greatest degree of alienation short of dropping out of school altogether. Simultaneously, he is angry that he was never in a small class, never had a teacher who cared about him (pin this to the fact that he has massive contempt for nearly everyone in the teaching profession at all levels), and couldn’t get a decent job to pay back his loans.
The middle chapters, where he goes from a toxic job selling chemicals to a toxic job writing college papers for hire, are initially engaging and evoke what it might feel like to live in an emotional ashtray. Some of the prose is outstanding: you can practically smell his BO and bong water; my hands started to cramp spontaneously when he described the physical pain of typing for fifteen to 36 hours at a stretch.
You also experience the spectacular, and scary, ups and downs of Tomar’s routines. The book made me feel bipolar as I was reading it, and I did wonder whether there is an explanation for all of this that was left out so that the critique of higher education could be more prominent. The final chapters are about Tomar’s transformation to marriage, adult life and commitment to writing his own work. The turning point seems to have a free heritage trip to Israel; it seems to me not insignificant that he was not stoned for the three weeks of the trip. Subsequently, as he completed every bit of course work for a doctoral student in psychology, he finally realized that he had become an educated and lovable person, as well as a man with a lot of emotional problems that he had to deal with before he could move forward. Ta-da!
Tomar’s self presentation is a classically libertarian one: do not become dependent on anyone, or anybody; do not expect anything from anybody; institutions are evil; and making it on your own is the only route to real achievement. Despite periodic doubts, he never really believes that he is doing anything wrong. All he does is supply the product; what his clients choose to do with it is their business. Everyone cheats, right?
Except, in fact, Tomar has contempt for cheaters, particularly his clients, but also Enron, banks that shill student loans, people who write parking tickets a minute before the meter runs out, for-profit schools that fleece students behind their backs and non-profit schools that fleece students in front of their faces. Central to his contempt for education is that almost all teachers suck in nearly every way imaginable. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to believe anyone really needs teachers: the best education is DYI. To this he adds another lesson: stay stoned all the time, and do not ever connect your depression, isolation, anxiety and alienation to the drug use that is also my choice, dude!
It’s a very strange book, simultaneously illuminating but reflective only in disconnected bursts. When Tomar has an insight, or questions his own values, he is almost guaranteed to contradict himself later on in the book. This inability to decide who the criminals and who the victims are may actually be in the nature of what he did. While schools can make rules about plagiarism, and people can be fired and imprisoned for fraud, there are no laws against buying papers and under the law, Tomar committed no fraud.
And yet, what kind of authority is this guy and how seriously should we take his accusations? While Tomar’s perch in the education system provides a singular perspective, his work was also structured in such a way as to shield him from any knowledge of what happened to the students to whom he sold papers. Were they caught? Were they uncovered as they wandered into the world with no knowledge or skills to speak of? Margaret Soltan reports on one or two of these frauds every week who are caught at high levels, but many of the small fish probably don’t make the news. Tomar also assumes that his clients were all wealthy people who had it made in the shade from birth, but you really don’t need that much disposable income to put papers on a credit card (that you signed up for at the student center with no credit or income check) at $10 a page.
I think this book was designed to get in the face of people like me and you, but in the fashion of that kid who is always badgering you in class because he knows no other way to get your attention. As someone once said to me about Jane Gallop’s Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (Duke, 1997), The Shadow Scholar like a traffic accident. You can’t not look at it.
Although I think Tomar would rigorously deny this, it’s also a sad book. Over and over, although he provides liberal evidence to the contrary and occasionally admits that he was a mess in his twenties, he argues that it is not he who is a fraud, it is a client; it’s not he who was a pathetic, drug-fueled wreck, it is a client; it is not he who wasted opportunities in college and graduated knowing nothing, it is a client.
News you can use? The Shadow Scholar does reveal that several strategies that many of us use to prevent the purchase of papers are utterly pointless in the face of students who are determined to cheat. Have them turn in the work in multiple stages? A paper mill will be happy to oblige. Change your topics and prompts every year? No problem — probably someone across the country is using a similar prompt and the paper can be sold twice. Turnitin.com? Phooey. Take one of those papers, run it through the Thesaurus tool in Word, and presto! Turnitin will not recognize it.
In other words, the only work you can be absolutely sure your students are doing is the work they do in front of you. This means that the best strategy to ensure that they write their own papers is to have them turn them in and immediately give them a pop quiz on their own work.
If fits in anyThe Shadow Scholar suits any genre, it would be muckraking. Although it isn’t a great book, it is a very persuasive argument for making paper mills illegal and taking a hard look at how students are being churned through all of higher ed, not just the for-profit edufactories. Given that, as it turns out, you can buy things like heroin, steroids and wives on the Internet, it wouldn’t put these people out of business entirely.
But it would be a start.