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.