In 2010, the pseudonymous "Ed Dante" took us on a voyage through his own professional Inferno: writing papers for all sorts and conditions of college students. At the time, I commented that "[i]t sometimes feels as though academics are being sent off to chase the Holy Grail of assignments--That Which Cannot Be Plagiarized." Few are pure enough to approach the grail in question, which is another way of saying that at a certain point, many begin to wonder about how much can actually be gained from playing a very advanced game of hall monitoring. In any event, Dante's article set off enough of an uproar that forum discussions, blog posts, and the nightly news soon came calling. So, too, did a book contract. Enter The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat, published under the author's real name, Dave Tomar.
Tomar may not be an academic (although he plays one on your computer screen), but his memoir soon runs into exactly the same problem that every academic memoir does: the sad non-resemblance between the author, who spends his days (and nights, and sometimes his poker games) writing, and Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones had, all told, a relatively interesting life, what with the lost ark and Sean Connery for a dad. Academics sit in front of computer screens, read books, go to archives, lecture students, attend meetings, and, when they're feeling especially adventurous, go to conferences. Much of interest may come out of this life; the life, however, is rarely interesting. Many of us thanked the heavens when the brief vogue for academic memoir went the way of all flesh. Tomar, alas, has an academic life, without the archives, lectures, meetings, or conferences. "As soon as I finished one paper, I started another," he tells us. "As soon as I submitted an assignment, I went to the writers' board and picked up another one to take its place" (loc. 2818). Blown up to book length, Tomar's career as serial cheater turns into a blur of miscellaneous papers and the occasional doctoral dissertation, occasionally punctuated by the outside world (the romance that hangs fire for a decade) and/or drugs and alcohol.
In the memoir's overall narrative arc, Tomar progresses from glum and alienated student at Rutgers to glum and alienated paper mill employee (after having been a glum and alienated high school student, who "thought of Gandhi and chose passive resistance as the chief mode of my rebellion" against the regime [loc. 3037]), before finally hitting an epiphany while generating a doctoral candidate's entire run of papers, up to and including the dissertation. By working through the candidate's "research" on trauma, Tomar not only begins to understand his fear of heights, but also finds himself starting "to make peace with my more encompassing anger and sense of displacement" (loc. 3476). It is after this project that Tomar eventually decides to "graduate," at age thirty, from a life of shapeshifting authorship into the adult world--and, hence, to write the article that set off the fireworks in the first place.
But this pilgrim's progress (with a very long stay in the Slough of Despond) is not all that interesting, any more than my own life is all that interesting. "[S]elf-indulgent and meandering" are, I fear, reasonable adjectives to apply here. Nor do Tomar's reflections on How We Got Here add much that is new: college debt, skyrocketing; students, entitled; athletics programs, overfunded; unemployment (and underemployment) for college graduates, high. Matters are not notably helped by the disjunction between Tomar's vague leftism, which primarily resides in snark against George W. Bush (who "always reminded me of one of my customers, the kind who paid for their assignment and handed it in without bothering to read it" [loc. 316]), and his simultaneously unoriginal and unexamined mother-blaming. Seriously: "My customers--years in this business reveal--have been made half-dead by the suffocating proximity of their mothers" (loc. 1685). (I'd like to read this as Swiftian satire, except there's nothing in the chapter to support that position.) As Blaine Greteman observes, "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." Readers will probably be more intrigued by Tomar's secondhand account of a pseudonymous friend's administrative work at pseudonymous for-profit universities (which supply "some of my best clients" [loc. 2048]), supported by anecdotes from an interview with one Claudia Shapiro. Here we have incompetent faculty and unqualified students, glued to each other by pure fraud (e.g., refusing to drop students who have chosen not to return, thereby sticking them with hundreds or thousands of dollars in bills). For-profits appear here as the capitalist vultures of academia, "part of a market so saturated with product that it has lost all quality control" [loc. 2201]). (By the end of the chapter, the reader no doubt feels either that the end of the world is at hand or that winter is coming, whichever seems worse.)
Tomar's brave new world for faculty would involve turning them into Internet traffic cops of a sort. "Teach us how to use Facebook responsibly," he begs, "how to differentiate between sharing and stealing, how to engage openly in a discussion about the blurring of lines between these two acts. Don't tell us not to use Wikipedia [...] Show us how to read it, how to verify its claims, how to spot and debunk its errors, even how to correct it and contribute to its improvement" (loc. 1473). He is especially irate about faculty who dare demand that students use non-Internet sources, even though outside of the STEM fields, there's still relatively little significant scholarship available on the 'net that hasn't already been published in paper format. Not no significant scholarship, but relatively little. (Books? Remember those? Those things that are often extremely expensive on Kindle and available in only "preview" or "snippet view" on GoogleBooks? Which are available to libraries in electronic format only from selected publishers? One could go on.) Enough has been written about Wikipedia and its problematic relationship to "truth," crowd-sourced or otherwise, that this cheerleading (with or without an acknowledgment of errata) gives the reader considerable pause. Tomar offers us a hazy outline of the problems facing contemporary faculty and students, but a life of churning out one paper after another doesn't seem to have equipped him to reflect on potential solutions.