Book Review: The Shadow Scholar

Paying a professional to write an essay is probably one of the safest ways for a student to cheat, assuming the paid-for essay is not itself plagiarized. The premise of Shadow Scholar is that plenty of students are willing to pay for this kind of service and Tomar was happy to provide it—culminating in a great episode where he functions as a surrogate PhD student.

Although Shadow Scholar is very funny in places, Tomar’s tone is dominated by anger, cynicism, and contempt. He heaps scorn on entitled students who have plenty of money, little talent, and no scruples. At the same time, he makes it sound as if only a fool would spend time writing an essay that a professor will never see and a TA will at most skim. The students and faculty are not his only targets: institutionalized education and the declining American economy are also to blame. He adds:

I always had this Holden Caulfield-ish suspicion that everything was bullshit. I basically figured that the world is filled with frauds, and many of them are so worried about being figured out that they’ll never stop to scrutinize you. I realized I could fake my way through anything.

If this is his starting point, it’s not too surprising Tomar ended up spending years of his life writing crappy essays (the book leaves little doubt that most of his work was crap—written on little sleep and even less research, and under the influence of plenty of alcohol and pot).

The most uncomfortable thing about Shadow Scholar is the way Tomar latches onto everything that is wrong with the education system and wallows in it. The cold and uncaring world makes him a victim, providing all of the justification he could want, while also appealing to a strongly developed sense of self-loathing. He uses the same kind of unimpressive rhetoric that drug dealers in movies always spout: “Hey, it’s just supply and demand, baby!”

Tomar knows the world could be a better place. He would be happy for students and teachers and administrators to genuinely care about things rather than being opportunistic and calculating. However, he doesn’t seem to have expected anything better from himself, and it’s sad that a funny and obviously talented young man would spend years in a soul-deadening, low-paying career. It’s like nobody told Tomar, and it never occurred to him, that you have to fight tooth and nail to make a place for yourself in the world where you can be happy.

Being bright does not save Tomar from missing some additional obvious facts. For example, he says “No wonder academia hates Wikipedia so much.” Look, I know a lot of professors and nobody hates Wikipedia. In fact, the only problem we have with it is that so many students fail to use it—and a host of other good sources of information—when we give them problems to solve. In the next sentence Tomar states that “Collective knowledge is a threat to those whose jobs are based on singular knowledge.” This approaches the largest amount of ignorance about academia that could possibly be crammed into a short sentence. We are not attempting to keep a monopoly on facts: that would be completely at odds with the culture of research and publication. It’s hard to imagine such a monopoly having existed at any time since the middle ages. The crucial resource in the ivory tower is not information but high-quality critical thought. Professors often have little time for this due to various demands of the job. Additionally, a great deal of our time and energy is spent trying to teach students how to think critically about various aspects of the world. The lack of time and energy and interest in this kind of thought among students is the most frustrating thing about being a professor. Tomar has, it seems, completely missed the point. This is rather appropriate given the subject of the book.

In the end I’m not sure what we can learn from Shadow Scholar. It spends too much space on repetetive autobiographical material. The existence of paper-writing mills is certainly no surprise to anyone who thought to search the web for them during the last 10 years. The implications of this industry—that is, customers exist and university instructors have no real way to combat this kind of cheating—are similarly obvious. The book is entertaining and clearly writing it was cathartic for Tomar; perhaps that’s enough.

Final exam question: How long did it take Tomar to write this book? I’m guessing a solid three weeks.

7 Replies to “Book Review: The Shadow Scholar”

  1. “. . . and university instructors have no real way to combat this kind of cheating”

    Not quite true, but the response is *very* time consuming. When a writing assignment is due, the instructor needs to replace class time with meeting with every student, and discussing their paper with them. The less advance notice they have of this, the harder it will be for them to fake knowing its contents as well as if they wrote it.

    A lighterweight alternative is to lead a discussion section where students exchange their papers, read, and discuss them, with the instructor looking for who’s engaged and who isn’t, and possibly with the students rating each other’s participation. Less certainty, but it could still provide enough deterrence for all but the most disconnected students.

  2. Hi Phil, I agree, and probably should have said “no way to combat this kind of cheating that is consistent with the way classes are currently run.”

    My opinion is that that real solution to cheating and many other problems with institutionalized education is smaller class size.

  3. “Look, I know a lot of professors and nobody hates Wikipedia.”

    I think I might at least get fed up with reading Wikipedia plagiarized essays if I was in a different department. Wikipedia is a friend to CS professors, but I suspect it’s a source of annoyance in the humanities fairly often. Not a qualitative change from encyclopedias, except that they didn’t support copy-and-paste.

    Though presumably finding wiki-plagiarism is easily automated. I assume unlike my English major days, you turn in essays electronically now. Right? Right?

  4. Hey Alex, I have no idea about the state of the art in essay management, but I would imagine that many institutions subscribe to those cheating detection services that would catch something really stupid like copying Wikipedia.

    By the way Tomar says those services are easy to fool by substituting words with synonyms.

    But his point was that we hate Wikipedia because it busts our monopoly on information. This sounds like the kind of thing stoners talk about around 1am. It does not indicate that the person saying it has thought very hard, or very well, about how things must work.

  5. Right. I’m sure most professors probably like wikipedia. We’re heavy information consumers, so why on earth wouldn’t we? Also provides a labor-light way for good students to get questions that don’t require expertise answered. I was just on a tangent, his claim is pretty silly. Any professors who hate wikipedia are likely to be folks like Philip Roth with a grudge over the contents of one article, which people also had with 1911 Brittanica.

  6. We read an article in ethics class by a paper mill author, so I’ll assume that the book is probably the same thing but in 200 pages instead of 5. I suspect that the main purpose of this tract (for lack of better terminology) is to try to portray himself as a helpless victim of modern society and elicit sympathy for it–it’s not his fault he’s stuck in this kind of career, it’s the fault of the rest of us for being apathetic fools who let people get away with it.

    His comment about Wikipedia also strikes me as the kind of comment that jaded, cynical people make: everyone whom I dislike (as a class, be it professors, capitalists, etc.) is opportunistic, money-grubbing, and hopelessly in power, and this obviously follows from that premise, so I am obviously correct. And all evidence to the contrary must be discarded as being the rare outlier or other various forms of special pleading.

    In terms of what can be done about cheating, I tend to vote for the apathetic view. I suspect that the quality of most cheaters isn’t A-work but rather B-work (at best: I’ve seen cheaters that would have failed the assignment anyways, although I never tried to hard to find them), so they’ll end up with pedigrees that aren’t flattering to begin with and would probably end up screwing themselves over in job interviews later on anyways. It’s far more valuable to devote time, IMHO, to those who are struggling but care enough about the class to ask for help.

  7. Hi Joshua, “same thing in 200 instead of 5” is definitely the case.

    Most of the time when a nice article in The Atlantic or whatever is expanded into a book, this is the case, but I never learn.

    I think I agree with your views on cheating: it almost always results in shoddy work since anyone who could take the time to do it right would have been better off just doing the assignment.

    I only occasionally go crazy and really try hard to catch the cheaters. When I do this, the motivation is more to provide a level playing field for the non-cheaters than it is to punish the cheaters.

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