David A. Tomar achieved overnight renown with his article “The Shadow Scholar” (Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 2010). Writing under the pseudonym Ed Dante (which has its own Wikipedia entry!), Tomar gave an insider’s view, in persuasive and witty detail, of the workings of the college term-paper-for-hire industry. His exposé of massive fraud on America’s college campuses became a sensation—the piece became the most-accessed article in the history of the CHE.
During 2011, Tomar was invited onto several television interview programs to discuss “The Shadow Scholar” and his 10 years as an academic ghostwriter. The next year, he followed up his success with a book-length memoir: The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat (Bloomsbury USA, 2012), and began working the other side of the fence as a consultant for Turnitin.com.
Tomar is now a staff writer for TheBestSchools.org. We have just published two new and important articles by him on academic fraud, which complement this interview:
David A. Tomar Interview
You include a lot of personal information in your memoir, The Shadow Scholar. But for the benefit of our readers who may not—yet!—have read the book, could you please tell us a little bit about your upbringing?
When and where were you born? What is your family’s ethnic, social, religious background? Where did you attend high school? And so forth.
David A. Tomar:
I come from the special little ethnic enclave of box-shaped row homes, decrepit strip malls, and accident-prone intersections known as Northeast Philly. I was born in 1980, the second of three children to a middle-middle class family well on its way to lower-upper-middle class. My father was a pharmacist and my mother was a teacher. In fact, she was my first teacher.
My family background is complicated. “Tomar” is of Portuguese origin. It looks like my ancestors were among those Sephardic Jews expelled from that country by the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century.
But then there seems to have been a long detour via the Pale of Settlement—somewhere in what is now Ukraine or Russia, which historians now refer to as the “Bloodlands.” At any rate, my forefathers got out while the getting was good, and arrived here in the late 1800s, most likely at the Washington Avenue Immigration Station on the Delaware River in Philadelphia—about 100 yards from where I live today.
I grew up a block away from the Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center (OCJCC), which was our school, our synagogue, and our voting booth. My mother taught there. My sisters and I attended.
We didn’t have much money in those first few years but our neighborhood was a safe place. We knew everybody on our block. My aunt and uncle even lived directly next door. Late at night, we’d wake my cousin up by shouting at her window across the 14-inch alleyway that separated our bedrooms. We’d talk, laugh, and throw stuff at each other between houses until our respective parents came in and chased us back to our beds.
It was the early ‘80s, but it had the insulated and almost romantic vibe that you might expect of a Jewish immigrant ‘hood in 1930s Brooklyn. Then, in the mid-80s, everybody left for higher ground. All the Jews went to the ‘burbs, ourselves included. In 1986, my family picked up and left the city for the greener grass of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. For the record, a massive concentration toxic fertilizers accounts for that greener quality.
It was in this wealthy mega-burb that I came of age, made lifelong friends, and attended high school. I believe the old OCJCC is now a church.
In your book, you indicate that you always wanted to be a writer. Looking back, can you identify the moment when you realized you would be a writer? What were the main influences on you growing up that led to that moment?
In The Shadow Scholar, you describe yourself as a mediocre student in high school, and yet you also describe a case where your written work was singled out and placed above that of your high school peers. Fill in the details here and describe any other instances during your high school days where your writing was recognized.
David A. Tomar:
I’m pretty sure I figured it out in Junior High. In fact, by the time I was a freshman in high school, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would write for a living. It wasn’t even like it was what I wanted to do at the time. I just kind of knew it was what I had.
If you’re seven feet tall, you know there’s a good chance you’ll be playing basketball for a living. From a young age, I simply knew how to write and had a strong sense that it was the skill I should probably bank on. Incidentally, I’m deeply deeply terrible at basketball, so I had that profession ruled out pretty early as well.
Incidentally, when I realized I was going to write for a living was probably about the same time that I realized I hated school. This was the beginning of my mediocrity as a student and the start of my emotional disengagement from formal academics. I found that puberty was turning me into a surly little kid and the boring, creativity-stifling atmosphere of junior high meshed poorly with my adolescent personality.
Grades, in particular, suddenly struck me as meaningless and even a little offensive. I’m not entirely sure why I arrived at this conclusion so young but I suppose I told myself that being a good writer had nothing to do with grades. So I stopped caring about grades. I was a mediocre student by choice, just capable enough to get Bs and Cs without ever cracking a book, paying attention in class, or studying for an exam.
I made a decision to be a bad student. I wasn’t trying to spite anybody. I just resented that I had to wake up early, that I had to shut up and sit still, that school made learning feel like such a painful, unending bore. I just didn’t understand why school had to suck so much. It was like they were going out of their way to make learning feel unpleasant. So I checked out of everything…everything but English.
I had an amazing English teacher in eighth grade who, like so many amazing teachers, was most distinguished by how much his approach contrasted with the dull monotony of the rest of the school day. His entire class revolved around writing. Today, they’d beat it out of him with rolled up standardized testing packets. But 20 years ago, he encouraged us to write without restraint. He was less interested in format and function than in content, creativity, and personal connection. Suddenly, I had the freedom to express my frustration, my doubt, my anger…all the personal things that you are taught to repress during your formal education.
Anytime you wrote something you were really proud of, you could volunteer to read it aloud to the class. This was the first time I realized that you could use writing to make people laugh. I was a nerd, but I was also a bit of a class clown. Getting laughs was a pretty great way to offset my nerdish leanings. Once I learned that I could use writing to do that, I was hooked.
In high school, both my feelings of alienation from formal education and my dependency on writing grew stronger. I excelled in English class, I was regularly featured in our school’s literary publication, Demogorgon, and I actually delivered the senior address at my graduation in spite of my middling class rank, my bad attitude, and the fact that I hand-wrote it on loose-leaf paper during lunch.
I certainly was not the individual most qualified to speak on behalf of our student body. But my speech was written for laughs, and you can’t argue with a good laugh. Well, you can, but nobody likes a killjoy.
You are a graduate of Rutgers University. You make it clear that your own college experience was—to put it mildly—unhappy. Given your career goals at the time, why did you feel the need for a college degree? What did you think that Rutgers, in particular, had to offer you as a budding writer?
Now, with the distance of time, what valuable lessons, if any, did your Rutgers experience give you?
David A. Tomar:
College. Every bit as disappointing as high school, but at a rate of $30K a year.
Why did I go to college? Well, as certain as I was that I was going to be a writer, I was also an 18-year-old kid from an upper-middle class suburb. From this cultural context, you can’t not go to college. In other words, it’s just what you do next if you want to be anything more than a men’s room attendant. No offense to men’s room attendants, but if you went to college for it, then you got ripped off.
I was raised on the premise that you graduate from high school and go to college. I was also in Advanced Placement classes in a highly competitive high school. It would have been nothing less than a great embarrassment to not go on to the next level of education, and not just for my parents. There’s a certain feeling of socially constructed shame for kids from wealthy suburbs who don’t go to college.
Besides, I actually thought college would be a great educational experience—before I got there.
As a budding writer, the thing that most appealed to me about Rutgers was how much less it cost than Brandeis. I applied to a few other schools, but I sort of knew all along that I was just going through the motions. Rutgers was really the only school I could afford.
It’s impossible for me to say that going to a different school would have significantly changed my outlook. But I do know that Rutgers took all the things I hated about high school and made them ten times worse: the emphasis on grading over learning; limited opportunities for personal expression; students absent-mindedly scribbling notes without critical reflection.
Rutgers simply fell way short of my admittedly naive ideas about college. I suppose I just had this image of college—probably informed by my infatuation with the music of the 1960s, the protest era, and the counterculture in general—as a place where minds and movements come together to change the world. I can’t help but smirk at my own innocence. When I got to college, I figured out pretty quickly that we weren’t there to change the world. We were there to prepare for occupation of the various cubicles and offices that make up the world as it already is.
In retrospect, I may not have been suited for college. My writing career might have been better served simply by travel. If I had fully understood the implications of student loans, and just how rarely I’d ever have actually called upon my college degree for credibility 15 years on, I might not have gone to college.
That said, I have no regrets. I’m a happy man today. There’s no way of knowing where a different path might have led me…maybe to somewhere with alligators.
Instead, I went where I did and the path from Rutgers led me right into professional cheating. The lesson I learned best at Rutgers—based on what it cost to go there, what its educational philosophy instills, what the campus culture is like—is this: It’s capitalism, baby! We live in a free-market economy and if you don’t use what you have to get ahead, you’re going to fall behind.
Rutgers exposed me to a desperation, both in myself and in my fellow students, that ultimately encouraged me to become an academic mercenary.
At Rutgers, you started doing other students’ homework assignments for hire. Give us a brief tour of how this started, how this led you to spending 10 years of your life ghostwriting for other students, and how it ultimately ended.
David A. Tomar:
My homework-for-hire career started out innocently enough. I met the stereotype of a broke-ass college dirtbag pretty well. I ate quickie-mart garbage for dinner, mooched booze off of my roommates, and accumulated parking tickets like they were Star Wars collectibles (in that I never opened them and they became more and more expensive the longer I did nothing with them). That the five campuses of Rutgers New Brunswick envelope the hood did not particularly help. At one point, my off-campus house was robbed. At another point, somebody stole my Buick (which did take off some of the heat from the parking department, but still…).
Add to this my disappointing academic experiences and, by my junior year, I was not overflowing with school spirit, nor did I harbor any further illusions about the kind of place I was paying to go. When a friend offered me a few dollars to write her political science paper, it was a no-brainer.
At the time, I was writing music reviews for the college newspaper and political humor for a multi-campus publication that an old friend of mine had started. These were enjoyable enough as outlets for my creativity, but they didn’t do much to improve my financial situation. The first time I helped somebody cheat was also my first writing commission.
And also my next several dozen commissions. My friend introduced me to a buddy of hers in a fraternity. He loved the idea of paying for homework and when it worked out well for him, he recommended me to his brothers. Suddenly, they had my number on file and I was doing a ton of work.
As it turns out, Rutgers was the perfect place to set up a personal enterprise like this. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to think of another product outside of drug-dealing that sells itself better on campus.
By senior year, I was carrying a courseload three times the size of my own. Incidentally, I was a Communications major, which required virtually no attention, effort, or insight. I just had to show up for the exams and shade in the right dots. That made it easy to focus on my new career.
As word of my work spread, I would receive calls from strangers who were interested in my services. One day, a girl in my class overheard me taking an order over the phone and handed me an email address. She told me that her boyfriend made a ton of money writing papers through an online website.
One week later, I started working for the paper mill. A few months later, I graduated from college. School was over and I was never going back. But my courseload was heavier than ever. It might seem a strange move for a guy who hates school so much. But once you took away the grades, the teachers, the expense, the careerism, the travesty of having a communal bathroom during your freshman year—once you boiled it down to doing research and writing alone in a room, it actually felt like learning.
It did not hurt that I was getting paid to do it.
All the same, I wasn’t yet prolific or confident enough to think I could do it full time. Moreover, I still saw myself as a legitimate writer and I was, therefore, always on the hunt for legitimate writing work. I sent clippings to newspapers, short stories to literary magazines, résumés to companies in need of copyeditors, and desperation-reeking emails to anybody I knew with a hook-up.
But it was the summer after graduation and I was living back at home—a condition that both I and my parents considered pretty intolerable. I had gotten used to being on my own and they had become accustomed to the peace and quiet that entailed. So without any opportunities to justify my college degree, I took a 9-to-5 on a warehouse floor.
I won’t go into detail about the job other than to say it was not intrinsically satisfying, it was not well-paying, and it was not a job that a man needs to spend four years in college to do well. It did, however, get me out of my parents’ house and into the city. There’s almost no job I wouldn’t have done for that.
I continued to write papers during my two years there. Not only did I need the extra loot, but it was necessary if I was going to hold on to this idea of being a writer. My day-job was pride-swallowing, mind-suffocating, pscyhe-destroying, and an hour-long commute. Paper-writing was actually a refuge, my happy place, the place where I still had a brain with value. At work, my brain got in the way more than it helped.
I reached my breaking point with the day-job and called it quits in about the spring of 2004. It was “Finals” season in the paper-writing biz. I was seeing more work and better pay all the time.
Frankly, it was way better per hour than what I was getting paid for bottling fluids in a warehouse. I also actually enjoyed it. When I saw that I could make a living doing this and nothing else, I decided to go for it.
Self-employment was as much a motive at this point as was my ambition to be a writer.
What was the turning point—the moment of realization—that you were done, that this chapter of your life ghostwriting for others was over?
When you decided to stop ghostwriting, did you go cold turkey, or was it more gradual? What opportunities for writing opened for you after your ghostwriting career?
David A. Tomar:
After four years of writing papers part-time, the next six years would be among the most intellectually intensive of my life. Morning, noon, night, and overnight, I was absorbed by academic pursuit. The more I challenged myself to do, the more money I made. So I took on as much as I could in as many different subjects and disciplines as I could.
It was awesome and horrible at the same time. I was deeply sleep deprived, often under the influence, and regularly burdened by too many deadlines to reasonably satisfy in the time allotted. I suffered burnout semi-annually and was terminated a few times in the early going. But of course, there are always other paper mills and other job opportunities. (Shhhh. Trade secret: paper-writing companies don’t ask for references or do background checks.)
As time wore on, I got better about managing my schedule and my responsibilities. I also continued to get faster and more prolific, increasingly capable of breaking through previous ceilings of speed, efficiency, and productivity. It really is like working at a ‘mill.’ Your reflexes, muscle memory, and experience make you sharper, faster, better.
Of course, the more efficient I got, the more I felt like a hack. This was what I was doing with my life? This was how I was spending my ability? I was taking orders (and criticism, mind you) from semi-illiterate cheaters who were not always impressed with the quality of my “writting.”
Regardless of my ethical equivocation on the subject, I couldn’t fool myself into thinking I was making the most of my life. There was never any single moment of revelation where I knew I had to move on. It was more of a gradual acceptance that the time was coming when I would have to find my way out.
That’s not an easy thing to do, though. I was making enough to get by, but I hadn’t exactly squirreled away a paper mill fortune. I was living paycheck to paycheck and, like anybody else with any other kind of job, I couldn’t just leave it because I didn’t like it anymore.
Unlike other jobs, I had come to realize, mine was kind of a mystery to people. Of course, people ask you what you do all the time. Well, when they asked me, I said, “I help students cheat.”
Depending on the person, this could be met with amusement, anger or, in the vast majority of cases, piqued curiosity.
It occurred to me that perhaps the only way to leave the business was to out myself, as it were. I couldn’t fix what I had done, but I could reform myself. I’m not a religious man, but a confession seemed in order, hence “The Shadow Scholar.”
It’s funny. I assumed that my ability to retire ghostwriting would be gradual by necessity. I had a few modest freelance writing gigs lined up and my expectation was that I’d just have to absorb a financial setback while I accumulated clients. Either way, I figured I would gradually phase out of ghostwriting. But when my article came out in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the reaction was like nothing I could have conceived.
It led to my book deal with Bloomsbury, which helped to free me from ghostwriting almost immediately. More importantly, it gave me the break I needed to transition into legitimate freelance work. Since my public retirement from ghostwriting, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to blog for the Huffington Post, to publish work in the New York Times, and to spend time on my own music journalism.
I’ve also found that the skills I honed as a ghostwriter are remarkably well-suited to grant-writing, the development of internal corporate materials, and the creation of marketing content. And thanks to my ghostwriting experience, I still make it a habit to juggling a billion deadlines at a time.
There are many passages in your book that are side-splittingly funny. For those of us of a certain age, The Shadow Scholar is reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers as filtered through the brain of Hunter S. Thompson! But we suspect you had other literary models closer to your own generation in mind. Would you care to share?
David A. Tomar:
Well first of all, wow. Thank you for saying so. I’d probably turn into a babbling moron if I spent an hour with either of them, so the comparison is, needless to say, very flattering.
It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Thompson falls into the mix for me. After all, we liked some of the same drugs. As for Cohen, it is actually a musical contemporary of his who had the most profound impact on my writing. Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s records—those that followed his infamous electrification at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival—had a lot of influence on my approach to word choice and lyrical flow. Records like Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde showed me how words can be twisted, turned, or tuned up.
Another non-literary influence on my development—probably the key influence—was The Simpsons. I was nine years old when this cartoon came on the air and I watched it from day one. The Simpsons taught me two important lessons. First, use every opportunity for a laugh. A wasted opportunity is just plain lazy. Second, irreverence should be your default setting.
As for The Shadow Scholar itself, there are a few novels that were most definitely present in my mind as I wrote. Charles Bukowski’s Post Office helped give me the confidence to be as bleak, angry, and ugly as I felt I needed to be to get my story across. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 informed my underlying assumption that our modern world is an absurd place and if you wish to understand it, you need only follow the money.
One of the most troubling aspects of the systemic dysfunction of American academia that you describe so caustically is the undischargeable debt burden that you and so many other young college graduates find themselves strapped with. This phenomenon is being decried by some economists as an unsustainable “bubble” that may lead to a new nationwide financial crisis.
All of which is apt to raise the question in the reader’s mind: “What were they thinking?” Can you explain to us what it felt like to face the prospect of assuming such a financial burden? Did you fully understand at the time what you were getting yourself into?
David A. Tomar:
The truth is, I didn’t understand the implications. My parents co-signed for one of my loans, the implications of which I really, really didn’t understand. At 17–18 years of age, I couldn’t honestly plan what I was going to be doing in the next five minutes, let alone the next five years. So I had little appreciation for what it meant that my pathetic post-graduate income would be tied to my parents’ credit rating, to say nothing of my own.
Still, even if you had explained it to me at the time, I would have told you that I was planning on having a super-awesome, high-paying writing gig right out of college. No way I’d be working in a warehouse, delinquent on my student loans, and sneaking into concerts through the service entrance because that’s the only way I could afford a good time. Except that’s exactly what happened.
The thing that I find most troubling about the student loan debt burden is that it is underwritten by the promise of opportunity. But that opportunity is very theoretical. Well, my student loan felt theoretical while I was getting the free pass to the dining hall and unwittingly paying the football coach’s salary. But it became very real in the months immediately after I graduated. Opportunities remained theoretical.
Today, not only is the population of allegedly college-worthy students bigger than ever, so too is the diluted quality of our university system. Every college makes the same promise that your investment will be rewarded with a great job and, if I’m reading the brochures correctly, a sufficiently multi-ethnic campus experience. Of course, not every college is great. Some just plain suck.
But higher education is now a consumer economy, which means that there is a broad spectrum of price-points and a high variance in terms of quality control. This also means that students today, more than ever, are investing in college and, at the same time, contributing to an over-saturation of degrees in the job market.
Those who really want to differentiate themselves feel that they need to go to graduate school. In other words, tack another $100–$200K onto whatever debt you already have.
I can’t even complain about my debt. It was tough to deal with right out of school, but I graduated in 2002. When it comes to the crazy inflation in the cost of colleges, that’s like 100 years ago. So basically, colleges are getting more expensive all the time and college degrees are worth less all the time.
Perhaps students whose best path is an alternate one would do well to consider this equation before making an investment that they won’t see back for maybe decades, if ever.
As thoroughly acquainted as you are with our educational system, what do you think is the most urgent change that is needed? If you were America’s “education czar,” what is the first reform you would pursue? What would be second and third on your list?
David A. Tomar:
Really. How can we allow education to cost so much? I can’t think of a commodity with a higher rate of inflation than a college education.
I’m not saying that colleges shouldn’t be businesses. One of the best things that Rutgers has going for it is its connection to any number of large engineering, pharmaceutical, and food science businesses. This didn’t make it an especially good fit for me, but if you’re into that sort of thing, Rutgers is a great way to go.
So I’m not saying that colleges ought not to function as businesses or in connection with the world of business. But this does not justify the rate of inflation. If given the opportunity to propose reform, I would advocate for regulatory control over the cost of colleges and the rate at which this cost is rising. Colleges should be required to justify increasing costs not just by how the revenue benefits the campus and its students, but by how this increased cost improves the value of degrees and the spectrum of career prospects for said students.
I would also take a step that I consider essential if we are to ever again as a culture be honest with ourselves about who should go to college and who should not. I would repeal No Child Left Behind and everything that it entails.
We don’t call it No Child Left Behind anymore, since that’s a relic from the Bush era. But in reality, the Obama Administration has only maneuvered around some of its restrictions. The basic spirit of that educational package remains intact today. Essentially, this is the spirit of standardized testing, punitive evaluation, and unrealistic expectations.
I always said during my years as a ghostwriter that my college customers were being created in crummy high schools and subpar elementary schools. They were the products of standardized testing, a distraction which allowed them little classroom time to focus on writing, research, or critical thinking. It was also a focus that allowed them to demonstrate proficiency and proceed to the next level of education without actually being proficient enough to handle this next level.
I knew it while it was happening. No Child Left Behind was making my customer base bigger all the time. So yeah, the second thing I would do (obviously if given an absolutely endless well of authority and resource) would be to repeal NCLB and refocus our educational agenda by using metrics that actually mean something.
As long as we’re talking about metrics, the third of my objectives would be to authorize the creation of an independent agency charged with the responsibility of grading every college, university, vocational institution, and for-profit school in the United States on an array of categories. These categories would provide annual detail of every school’s performance, not just in academics and campus life, but in terms of return-on-investment as well.
This would include consideration of the cost incurred by the average student over the course of an education, rather than just the annual cost of tuition. This is important because so many students require more than four years to complete their undergraduate coursework. It might be interesting and useful to look at these patterns per university. We might consider taking action to impose change at universities where the six-, seven-, and eight-year super-senior is a chronic condition.
The report would also detail the average amount of student loan debt carried by graduates both recent and long-term; the relative income of surveyed graduates both recent and long-term; the correlation between tuition and income expectancy; and a wide array of other metrics that might help a student choose the college that is both educationally and financially optimal.
Given the cost of college, every student is essentially playing a guessing game when it comes to making this investment. A mandatory University Report Card System might help to take some of the guesswork out of it.
I’ll admit, these ideas are all predicated on a fantasy scenario in which deeply entrenched political forces and economic powers aren’t essentially impenetrable, which they are…not to be a downer.
Do you think the system is reformable at all? Or is it basically trying to do something—provide an elite education for pretty much everyone—that is inherently impossible? If not reform, then what? Replacement? What would you like to see replace the current system?
Dave A. Tomar:
I’d like to think that higher education is reformable, but I believe that, when push comes to shove, it all starts in kindergarten. We are not committed to education as a society. We’re committed to the military. We’re committed to tax breaks for big businesses. We’re committed to a space program that, to my knowledge, has yet to build a fully operational Deathstar.
So why is it so hard to spend money on desperate urban schools? I do a lot of grant and application writing for support services targeting some of Philly’s poorest neighborhoods. The level of need in these schools, and frankly in the lives that many of these children are leading, is so great and heartbreaking. So what difference would a few bucks make?
Well, I know a lot of teachers in this city: young, enthusiastic, and bright teachers who say wonderful things about their students—students that most of society has written off as hopeless. I’ll tell you something about these teachers. If they want crayons for their students, they go to the store and buy them with their own money. If they want to do a reading program with the kids, they go to the community to ask for donations. If they want to take their kids for a field trip, they don’t.
We pretend everybody should be going to college. Meanwhile, our federal, state, and local governments can’t get it together enough to make sure that the poorest students have books and crayons. I don’t even think it’s about replacing the current system. I think it’s about actually giving it the backing it needs to succeed.
There’s a hilarious moment in The Shadow Scholar when you say: “It got to where no one would play Trivial Pursuit with me anymore.” A great line! But of course, there is more to a college education than amassing out-of-the-way information.
Do you feel that your 10 years as a ghostwriter were really wasted (beyond improving your prowess at Trivial Pursuit, I mean)? Or were you able to profit in other ways from all the college-level work you did? If you had the chance to, say, return to graduate school, knowing what you know now, could you profit from higher education on a deeper level? Or at this point does the very idea of graduate school make you shudder?
David A. Tomar:
Hah! Wow. Yeah, the last thing I would ever do now is go back to school. For me, going to grad school would be like getting paroled from white collar prison, enjoying 10 years of freedom, then signing up for summer camp in Guantanamo Bay.
In all honesty—and not to aggrandize the nature of the work that I was doing—but all those years of researching and writing kept me thinking, kept my mind limber. You can put as little effort as you want into turning out a high-quality paper for your customer, but you can’t do this job without thinking. You have to answer questions. You have to solve problems. You have to be something you are not. That takes concentration.
I’ve had observers point out that I wasted so much time and effort producing academic work without ever receiving the credits or degrees I’ve earned. Honestly, I’m not even kidding, I’ve probably done enough academic work to own 50 degrees. But man, I’d be sitting on top of a debt-mountain bigger than that Staten Island landfill you can see from space.
Hardly seems worth it. Now to be clear, it was probably a huge waste of writing. I gave away so many of my words that I’ll never get back. But at the time, I had way more words to spare than dollars for grad school. So I got to learn everything that a few hundred of my best customers would have learned in school and it didn’t cost me a thing.
I don’t mean to be smug about it. The job sucked a lot of the time. And it has a psychological wear and tear for a writer with any personal pride. But for me, it always beat the hell out of going to school.
You recently wrote a “Best Practices” guide to detection and deterrence of ghostwriting for TheBestSchools.org. It contains a lot of practical suggestions for classroom teachers—ways they can do just that: detect any ghostwritten papers that may be submitted to them and deter students from handing in such papers to them in the future.
Would you mind recapitulating briefly some of the highlights of the guide for our readers who may not have seen it yet? Can you speak especially to the need for teachers to know his or her students (a practical impossibility when lecture courses have hundreds of students).
David A. Tomar:
To summarize a lot in just a few words, it’s really all about making connections: between student and professor; between student and course content; between student and written work.
When I went to Rutgers, I always felt that the nature of its 400-person lecture halls, its textbook-derived lectures, its impersonal testing and grading methods, made it especially vulnerable to cheating.
The early evolution of my job would prove this true. In a school like this, preventing cheating of any kind is a huge uphill climb. The system is, at its core, too impersonal and overpopulated to observe what any one person is doing.
Still, professors who don’t want to be victimized by cheating should be willing to challenge themselves. And I don’t mean that they should become detectives and police officers. I mean, they should work to define the material, the coursework, and the classroom time with enough creativity, originality, and room for growth to make cheating at once less desirable and more difficult to accomplish.
This means creating take home assignments that incorporate in-class experiences; structuring in-class experiences that encourage student engagement; fostering student engagement that discourages academic dishonesty; and ultimately creating a better vantage from which to become acquainted with one’s students and to observe inconsistencies between a student’s voice and the voice reflected in a written assignment.
At the heart of the ‘Best Practices’ guide is the belief that cheating, while influenced by any number of factors, boils down to feelings of either disengagement or desperation. It falls upon the educator to engage the disengaged and identify the desperate before they become cheaters. Give them the encouragement or support they need.
Of course, this isn’t a fantasy world and some people are going to cheat no matter what you do. In light of this, I also offer a bunch of tips on how to design your classwork, assignments, and exams to make it easier to spot a cheater in your midst.
Do you really believe ghostwriting can be curbed to any significant degree? Or, given the realities of human nature, modern technology, and our corrupted academy, is it here to stay? That is, given the way the parts of the system intermesh, is it simply naive for the classroom teacher to believe he or she can put a stop to cheating?
David A. Tomar:
Well, like any vice, you definitely can’t root it out entirely. And the Internet does make it really easy to get away with. But I absolutely think it could be curbed, and substantially at that. I still believe that no matter how you slice it, the main reason for cheating is that too many students find themselves in higher education and yet lack the capabilities to conduct research, compose complete sentences, or use punctuation marks.
If we have any chance at reducing cheating in higher ed, we have to start by spending more time ensuring that the students we pass into college are actually prepared to be there. If we want to live in a society where we think everybody should go to college, so be it. But then let’s actually give them the tools they need to succeed once they get there.
So much classroom time at the elementary, middle, and high school levels is squandered on training for standardized testing. This is time that should be spent learning how to read and write.
The British philosopher Roger Scruton has written: “Culture in all its forms is an invitation to join in the larger society, to leave behind the teenage gang, and to enter a world in which ancestors and their achievements prevail” (Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged [Encounter Books, 2007]; p. 65).
Unfortunately, The Shadow Scholar suggests that American education has abdicated this important cultural role. Thus, in the way that it caters to “the customer” and kowtows to political correctness, the American university today is abandoning its responsibility to the ancestors and their achievements, and is inviting the teenage gang inside the ivy-covered walls. In other words, instead of helping young people to grow up and assume adult responsibilities, universities have become a major prop of the American cult of eternal adolescence—they are now part of the problem, not the solution.
Care to comment?
Dave A. Tomar:
Hmmm. There’s a lot to unpack there.
I actually thought of college (at least until I got there) as having this awesome duality. On one hand, you had this above-noted continuity of culture in both its glorious majesty and gross hegemony. On the other hand (I guess you could say the left hand, and the one that most appealed to me), you had this environment where freedom of thought invited the possibility of innovation and even revolution.
College campuses have most certainly been the site of both.
I guess that my sad realization after just a short time in college was that the business imperatives have essentially eroded this duality, that the unilateral imperative to pay your money, get your grades, score your degree, and talk about it at a bunch of job interviews far overshadows either the imperative of cultural tradition or that of independent thought.
Maybe that explains this idea of eternal adolescence (as well as the parental dependence that is inextricably linked to college culture and student loan debt). Maybe the fact that colleges no longer present you with culture as something to be either accepted or resisted, but merely to be memorized, is a reason that so many students graduate with so much personal uncertainty.
Since college isn’t giving them the space to define themselves, students are defining themselves by the job openings they are striving to fill.
Let me put the following proposition to you. There are two basic problems with the present system of higher education in this country: (1) the business mentality that transforms academic disciplines into profit centers; and (2) a cynical and nihilistic philosophy that repudiates the original goals of higher education itself—to cultivate the minds and souls of the young and to pass on Western civilization to future generations.
First, do you accept this proposition? If not, what do you think would be a better way of characterizing the problems whose absurd and demoralizing consequences you have described so eloquently? What do you think the true purpose of higher education ought to be?
David A. Tomar:
Well, I certainly agree with the first statement. To put it simply, students are consumers first and learners second.
As to the second proposition, I’m not sure if it’s that simple. I don’t think there’s any one force that necessarily wishes to or is willfully attempting to undermine the opportunity for students to cultivate their minds and souls. I think, instead, that we genuinely live in an age where we are inundated by material motives.
I’m not making an existential point here. I like nice stuff as much as the next guy. But the idea that colleges could function today based on their original philosophical ideals is probably antiquated. Way back when, the idea of passing on the finest features of Western Civilization may have informed colleges, but of course, way back when, only people who were already rich went to college. This meant they had the luxury of learning for the sake of learning.
By direct contrast, in the 60s and 70s, when colleges started to really multiply and open up to a wider cross-section of the population, many were still affordable enough that you could justify going for the learning experience alone. But today, college is often so extraordinarily expensive that you have to figure: “a good job damn well better be waiting for me on the other side.”
And of course, that becomes the prime motivation. So, returning to the second part of the educational proposition above, I don’t think there is any philosophy which directly repudiates the original goals of higher education. I honestly think these goals have simply aged out of relevance for the population of students attending colleges today.
Since you disagree with my second proposition, we’ll let that pass. But since you say you agree with my first proposition—that the corporatization of higher education in America represents one of the basic problems we are facing—let’s explore that one in a little more depth.
If whatever ideological impediments there may be could be removed, how might we then reform America’s colleges and universities financially so that they might serve their true mission, while remaining economically viable in today’s world?
David A. Tomar:
Boy, if I knew, I’d be a far wiser man than I am. If forced at gunpoint to take a stab at it, I’d say let’s democratize and publicly fund a wider variety of educational opportunities for high school graduates.
If we walk around espousing the idea that every single kid has a right and should have the desire to go to college, we should at least create the kinds of opportunities that are accessible to students of every level of ability and of varied financial dispositions.
I marvel at how many students choose disreputable for-profit schools over affordable community colleges. I wonder, is it simply because for-profit schools have better advertising and more aggressive recruitment tactics?
Maybe a good start would be to invest as a nation in affordable or even free opportunities for higher learning. For those students who struggle the most, either academically or financially, we need to consider supporting and promoting more suitable alternatives to inadvisable student loans and overwhelming educational pressures. We might start by creating and enhancing high-quality community colleges that produce meaningful four-year programs and degrees.
If a college experience was absolutely free and publicly funded for those most in need, it might give these students a chance to approach college as an educational experience, as opposed to a consumer experience. It could also significantly offset the annual admissions flood in which under-qualified candidates help to trump up prospective enrollment numbers and, consequently, tuition rates.
Of course, all of this presupposes the notion that a public school approach to higher education would not somehow echo the mismanagement that cripples public school at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. If we’re honest about it, this is probably not a safe assumption.
Do you think the phenomena of academic corporatization and the loss of confidence in Western civilization are two different problems, or are they connected? Can one be addressed without addressing the other, or does reform in one area presuppose reform in the other?
David A. Tomar:
To my way of thinking, the basic connection between academic corporatization and Western civilization is this: consumerism permeates every part of our lives.
Remember how, in first years of Internet proliferation during the early ‘90s, they used to call it the Information Age? It is most certainly not that anymore. It is the Commercial Age. There is no separation between our ambition to succeed, our ambition to purchase, and our expectation to be rewarded for our spending. That’s exactly how college works.
Students attend college either to improve their chances of achieving financial success or to live up to the cultural expectations created by preexisting wealth and its attendant class expectations. The idea that we’re there to learn is old-fashioned and unrealistic. I don’t know that anything can change that now, but it doesn’t mean that colleges can’t do a better job of creating learning experiences, as opposed to simply manufacturing opportunities to be graded.
Besides the ease with which technology allows cheating to occur in a dysfunctional academic system, you also point to a significant reason for the proliferation of student paper ghostwriting: the widespread perception that cheating is not even seriously wrong. We are very interested to hear more on this point.
A couple of possible explanations come to mind. One is the increasing infiltration of moral relativism into our society at large—most young people are no longer taught, at home or in school, that some things are simply right or wrong, but rather that they should do what “feels right” to them, what “works” for them, what “floats their boat,” and so forth.
David A. Tomar:
Maybe my perception of this is directly influenced by the moment in history during which I began and sustained my career as a ghostwriter. That is to say that I was helping students cheat just as headlines were breaking every day about Enron, Tyco, Adelphia, Bear Sterns, JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers, and too many other corporate cheaters to even list.
These were highly visible examples of how learning to cheat in school might be a valuable professional tool in the world of business. I think we can all concede that during the 2000s, a lot of wealthy men got away with a lot of America’s money and it ain’t coming back and they ain’t serving time for it.
So if you’re a kid in school, would you rather be on the giving end or the receiving end of a dishonest world? We live in an ends-justify-the-means culture. Kids know that cheating is supposed to be wrong. But they also know that you can get pretty far in life by doing the wrong thing if you do it well enough, ruthlessly enough, and shamelessly enough. It’s not that some guilty parties don’t get their comeuppance. Bernie Maddoff, I’m looking in your direction.
But for the most part, students don’t give a second thought to cheating so long as they know they can get away with it. It helps if you accept your school as a business from which you are buying an extremely expensive piece of paper on a really exhaustive layaway plan.
At the base of it, cheating on a paper is like speeding on the highway. You know you aren’t technically supposed to do it, but it’s a pretty small offense and it definitely gets you where you’re going faster—provided you don’t get caught.
The other explanation that occurs to us is the cynicism that is bound to arise from the inherent contradiction between the new business model of education and the traditional view of scholarship as a quasi-religious “calling.” Students must quickly pick up on the hypocrisy of a system that pays lip service to high ideals, but in fact worships only the bottom line.
What say you?
David A. Tomar:
It’s hard for me to disagree with that. I don’t remember too many of us sitting around and talking about the content of our schoolwork for personal intellectual growth. We had our own stuff to talk about. Education was something between a distraction, an obligation, and a means to an end.
I hate to say it, but I think for most people who won’t themselves become educators, the idea of education as a calling is laughable. If you come from a middle-class background, it’s just something you know you’re supposed to do. What it ultimately comes down to is that in order for education to be a calling, one would have to be intrinsically motivated to do it. Without over-simplifying the varied and potentially complex reasons that kids go to college, I might argue that external motivators like career aspirations, familial pressure, and social convention are the more dominant reasons that we do it.
I think students know when they get there that these high ideals are rhetoric, stuff that looks great in the pamphlet. Students know exactly the reasons why they go to college and they are mostly very concrete or pragmatic in nature. Ideals are a luxury that not every student can afford.
You single out three main groups among your clientele: (1) foreign students weak in English; (2) students who are in over their heads intellectually; and (3) lazy rich kids who simply can’t be bothered to do the work, though they could if they wanted to. This typology raises a couple of different questions about the system.
The last category—lazy rich kids—has always been with us. However, the reason why those unqualified foreign students are there in the first place is that they typically pay full tuition—they are hugely profitable to the institutions they attend. So, this speaks once again to the deep-dyed corruption of ostensibly non-profit institutions that in fact place earning a profit ahead of all other considerations.
Do you agree and would you care to expand on this point?
David A. Tomar:
This is a huge factor. Every single day that I worked as a ghostwriter, I interacted with students from other countries whose severe linguistic obstacles did not prevent them from being accepted into challenging and complex degree programs. I always felt like one of the reasons that it was so easy to make a living as a ghostwriter was because some colleges not only don’t care that it’s happening, they may actually be benefiting from it.
You can probably understand why a university might not object to a service that makes their non-English-peaking, tuition-paying students appear to be qualified for the programs into which they’ve been admitted.
That said, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that we stop admitting these students to our universities. I believe that if you want to welcome these students to your college, you need to do more than just take their money. You need to provide them with the necessary linguistic and cultural support services to succeed. You may also need to reconsider the idea that grading is, by itself, a useful measure of each foreign student’s progress at adapting to a new learning environment and culture. I couldn’t help but feel, as I wrote soon-to-be-graded papers for students who really and truly lacked the tools to produce basic English, that nobody really cared about them.
That’s a lonely proposition for somebody learning the ropes in an unfamiliar country. Of course, an offshoot of that is that, since nobody’s paying attention to this student and his struggles, it makes it pretty easy to get away with cheating. The logic for many of these kids is “if nobody cares that I’m floundering, why should anybody care that I’m cheating?”
Likewise, the reason the unqualified American students are there is because they can get generous, federally subsidized loans, which represent a windfall for the universities. But the political reason why those loans exist in the first place is the near-universal belief that a young person just can’t make it in this country anymore without a bachelor’s degree.
And yet it seems to be a matter of common sense that not everyone is cut out to excel at book-learning, and there is no good reason why they should be. If many of the students for whom you were ghostwriting should not even have been in college, what should they be doing instead? How should our educational system be broadened to accommodate them? Trade schools?
The problems implicit in such questions are so thorny that it is hard to know how even to begin to put things right. Your thoughts?
David A. Tomar:
It’s true, this question is a minefield. I hate to ever make the argument that all kids shouldn’t have access to the same opportunities. But over the last 15 years or so, we’ve outsourced so many of our working-class and vocational jobs to overseas markets where locals work for pennies on the dollar and where employers are unencumbered by labor or environmental laws.
Sooooo, America is not exactly brimming with awesome opportunities for those without a college degree.
That’s the thing about our current situation that I think is most troubling. The fact that college is at all times becoming an increasingly less profitable investment has not erased the fact that a degree is still an advantage in the job market…at least not yet.
I have to admit defeat on this question, mostly because I’d rather advocate for a universe in which we strive to better prepare all students for college than for one in which we accept that many simply can’t hack it. Certainly, there are those whose talents are best employed in the labor or service industries. And high schools need to be more effective at recognizing and stewarding students toward the path that is best for each of them
I’m internally conflicted, though. Where do you draw that line? At what point do our low expectations damage the potential of an ambitious child?
I guess that’s about the most long-winded “I don’t know” in history.
In several places in your book, you hint that today you feel less than proud of the 10 years you spent making a living by “helping college kids cheat.” How do you now feel, looking back on the experience? Are you remorseful? Are you at peace with yourself?
David A. Tomar:
I’ll put it this way—I regret nothing, but I am grateful and even a little bit proud of myself for getting out of it. Writing papers for a living wasn’t easy, but it would have been easy to keep doing it.
But I feel like I’ve done my penance. By writing my article for the Chronicle and assuming Ed Dante’s identity back in 2010, I made myself a poster-boy for student cheating and academic dishonesty. And outside of my very happy life with my loving wife, family, and friends, this ugliness will be my legacy. That’s not a very positive association.
But everything I’ve done with my life and in my profession since then has been positive and it genuinely feels good to say so. In my book, I describe a very angry young man, a kid who was angry enough to feel pretty good about gaming the system. Today, I’m happy, at peace, and far more interested in building things up than tearing them down.
Final thoughts? Anything you would like to share with our readers in closing out this interview?
David A. Tomar:
Well, I guess I would only close by saying that after a few years of being removed from my work as a ghostwriter, I feel a real sense of perspective on my time doing the job.
I have more clarity than ever before about education, the paper mill business, and the time I spent within. More than any other influence, it made me the writer I am today.
When I was younger, I thought that it would be a privilege to write only about the things that interested me, only about the subjects that sparked my imagination—basically, to have the freedom to write whatever I wanted.
My view on this has changed, though.
Today, I consider myself privileged simply to have the freedom to write with principle. Principle was not something I could afford in my youth.
I keep myself busy with too many projects and distractions to list, but whatever I do, I aspire to do it with integrity. From this ultimately comes the freedom to write whatever I want.