The Shadow Scholar: How I Made A Living Helping College Kids Cheat by Dave Tomar is a book that anyone concerned with the U.S. educational system should read. I found the book to be a serious when the topic called for it, but humor is used throughout so it is not dry at all.
The book starts by noting that Tomar revealed his work as a paper writer under the pseudonym Ed Dante in 2010 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. From here the reader gets a glimpse into the author’s disillusionment with higher education and his entrance into the paper writing business in 2001 while in his undergraduate senior year.
Tomar’s critique of the college/university experience is quite candid and concerns a number of points. The first criticism has to do with the cost of attending a four year institution. On page 91 we learn that the author’s 98 year old great grandfather left him a trust fund which would only pay for a year and a half of tuition and housing thereby forcing Tomar to take on loans. The author comments, “It’s a shame to think that the legacy of a man’s long and remarkable life could be funneled into eighteen months of low-grade, high-fiber dining hall food and Yankee Stadium-size lecture halls.”
A second criticism has to do with the fact that Tomar sees a clear problem with the modern university’s set of priorities. Mainly the concern is that athletic departments get great financing, but the educational side of the university is forced to take budget hits. On page 30 Tomar notes that university professors in a history department had to surrender their desk phones, shrink their doctoral program, face the risk of being personally billed for making photocopies, and were asked to pay out of their own pockets to access electronic academic journals. However, while all this was happening Tomar’s alma mater is cited as being at the top in terms of providing financial assistance to athletics.
A third criticism deals with the poor service students receive at the hands of academic bureaucracy. In particular much animosity is directed toward Tomar’s experience with the Parking and Transportation department at his alma mater. On page 28 he states, “The people who worked there were a special breed. Among heartless bureaucratic soldiers these were the Green Berets. They were taught to have rhinoceros skin, to breathe hate cloaked in onions.” I also like his quote on page 29, “To be sure, the school prioritized Parking and Trans above education, as though the reason we were there was to defy all laws of physics by parking matter where no space existed.”
Combined with his disillusionment with academia and his need to get out of the cleaning supply company where he worked at right out of school, Tomar found the paper writing business initially attractive. However, as the reader will discover that profession had its drawbacks too. Many issues came up in this line of work that I did not expect. There were customers who got angry at Tomar’s finished product, because they forgot to clearly communicate all the instructions to him and consequently got something that did not fulfill the instructor’s requirements (which never reached Tomar). Dealing with anxiety ridden or disgruntled customers tended to be a constant for Tomar. On page 111 he states, “I dedicated half my emotional energy on any given day just to breathing out the impulse to tell every customer exactly what I was thinking.” When customers nagged Tomar he deliberately tried less hard and claimed that he could write a five page paper in thirty minutes if he didn’t mind producing a piece of donkey excrement (page 97).
There were also parents who would actually interact with Tomar on behalf of their children so that their children would be assured of a great finished paper. On page 100 the author notes, “My customers- years in this business reveal- have been made half brain-dead by the suffocating proximity of their mothers. Credit cards are the new umbilical cord, and they allow childhood dependencies to stretch grotesquely into college and beyond.”
There was also the constant drive to keep on taking more and more assignment (especially around finals time) which eventually lead to Tomar’s burnout. On page 96 he describes what the final exam season was like, “By the end of Thanksgiving, cheating in school is as pervasive as Charlie Brown specials, Salvation Army Bells, and songs about finding love on Christmas Eve. The students come to us in droves with their end of semester work, willing to pay a premium for a holiday season uninterrupted by school-related tedium. This is when I turn it on full blast. I am a robot. I am a machine. I am a cybernetic organism sent from the future to help John Conner ace his Environmental Design elective.”
Despite all the humorous anecdotes the severity of what was happening in the book hit me when the author noted that a PhD student (who was heavily reliant on Tomar to complete practically his entire PhD work) would in fact be committing fraud by using the entitle of Dr. in front of his name.
Libraries tend not to come out well in the book. The author used the Coastal Carolina University’s Kimbel Library website on cheating prevention to find a paper mill company he could apply to for a job. So the library website on cheating was used in the author’s own words as his own personal Monster.com. In one scene in the book Tomar journeys to his local library to get a book to assist him with a paper, but the librarians can’t find it so he finds the book online. In general when professors asked that papers be written with traditional print sources instead of electronic sources Tomar found that he was stymied. He tended to disdain professors that did not accept online resources or wanted non-electronic sources for papers. Without the Internet the author claimed that he could not do research.
There are many topics that one will find in this book ranging from the problems of the modern university to parental influence of college age children to research in modern academy to the obvious issues of cheating. I encourage people to read the book and to keep the discussion of these important issues going.