Book Review: The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living by Helping College Students Cheat, by Dave Tomar/Ed Dante

My feelings about this book, as presented to you by the venerable Kevin McCallister:

Okay, okay, that was snippy, but this book brings out the worst in me.

Dave Tomar is a producer of “study guides,” papers written to the exact specifications of the students who pay him. Those students then hand in Tomar’s papers as their own work. Tomar, who found attending Rutgers to be a tumultuous experience (and ultimately, a waste), starts in this line of work as a student himself; upon graduation, he continues it by working for several different “paper mills” that have perfected the paper-buying system by moving it online. The Shadow Scholar is his account of his time at Rutgers and post-graduation as an essay-writer-for-hire, interspersed with facts and statistics about the U.S. education system, Generation Y, and business practices. (And yes, this is the same Tomar who, as Ed Dante, wrote this article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

My main issue was this: so much of the book smacks of justification of Tomar’s job. While I appreciate knowing the motivation behind a memoirist’s decisions, to go on angrily and at length about how you were forced into an unethical career due to campus parking tickets, poor professors, and a terrible job market is not pleasant reading. Because college failed Tomar, he decided that helping to widen the cracks of a broken system wasn’t a big deal. (Tomar likening himself to a neglected child, lashing out against the abuse of college, was a particularly offensive bit of metaphor. Really, dude?)

The contrasts between The Shadow Scholar and Always Running, a memoir of growing up as part of a Chicano gang and of truly lacking access, autonomy and choice, could not have been sharper for me. Sure, I have student loan debt, but my brothers never cut my tongue with a razor blade when I lost a fight. Everything’s relative.

I am a bleeding-heart liberal through and through, and so I technically agree with much of what Tomar writes. It is shameful that in the U.S., higher education is a privilege and not a right, that students graduate so deep in debt they will be paying it off for the rest of their lives, that support systems for low-income students are either shaky or nonexistent.

That’s why it kills me to admit that I found myself blaming him.

Basically, I began to feel that it wasn’t the system that was the problem every single time–it was Tomar. He comes off as abrasive, juvenile (I cringed at his jokes about…everything) and arrogant. It was hard for me to feel sympathetic for someone who feels no remorse at all for his work aiding people in cheating, and in fact, at various points characterizes this work as the shining result of globalization and free-market capitalism, and himself as far superior to the clients whom he considers morons.

I’m not naive; there are severe issues ingrained in our educational system, not least of which is the pressure on high school students to plunge themselves deeply into debt to pay for college. And the current obsession with getting into “good” colleges that manifests itself as parents competing to get their toddlers into the best preschools is ridiculous.

But college is venerated for a reason. It can help uplift students out of generational poverty. It’s the first step in helping young women have more options available to them. It introduces sheltered teenagers to new cultures, new people, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. It’s a formative experience for millions of people.

So in praising self-education and education using internet resources–one of his hobby-horses–Tomar completely ignores the benefits of experiential learning, or learning by doing. As an environmental educator and volunteer, that immediately struck me as a weakness of his arguments in favor of purely online education. Experiencing nature–to use one example–can help students learn to explore, use critical thinking, and understand interconnectivity. It’s been linked to decreases in obesity and in ADHD behaviors, and to better standardized test scores. You can’t really get those same results by plunking students down in front of computers and letting them google “nature.”

I am willing to concede, though, that his interpretation of events is probably truthful. I only have my own experiences with my undergraduate and graduate institutions to pull from, and while I did experience a few typical mix-ups, by and large the administrators at my school were helpful, friendly, and responsive.

The Shadow Scholar is interesting, if only to get a glimpse of what the world of college cheating looks like. I certainly learned a fair bit about the process of buying a paper from someone, and that’s what drew me to request the book in the first place. I did feel for Tomar at some points, when the frat-boyish facade was dropped, but overall, I couldn’t help feeling disenchanted.

I received this book free for review from the publisher, Bloomsbury USA, through NetGalley. The Shadow Scholar will be released September 18, 2012.

Bookwanderer Rating: Two out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “I have made my living off of a disaffected, in secure, and dependent generation with no sense of itself, its obligations, and the obligations ahead of it.”


3 Responses to “Book Review: The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living by Helping College Students Cheat, by Dave Tomar/Ed Dante”

  1. 1 nomadreader September 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    I am so glad to hear your thoughts on this one! I read (and was fascinated by) the original article in The Chronicle when it came out. I even required my first year seminar students to read it. I was certainly intrigued by the book, particularly as a librarian who is curious about his claims on how he did sufficient research, but I was skeptical. After reading your thoughts, I think it’s clear this one isn’t for me. I do still think there’s value in hearing his story, but I’m not sure I need that many pages of it.

  2. 2 Anya October 2, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    This was a really interesting review! I’m a first year PhD student, so the whole higher education thing is very near and dear to my heart. I think this book would annoy me too much, but it is a really interesting (and perhaps important for a potential future professor?) thing to know about.

    • 3 tarynwanderer October 3, 2012 at 8:42 am

      Glad you liked the review, Anya! I agree–I think it’s very important for educators to be aware of this new way of cheating. I know there are programs you can run students’ essays through to check for plagiarism, but there’s no real way to check for students paying for newly-written papers! I will say, though, having graded my share of papers, that I think many educators would notice a huge and sudden change in the quality of an individual student’s writing. Still, it’s tough!

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