Confessions of a Professional College Cheater
IT WILL COME as news to no one who reads Dave Tomar’s new book that college kids cheat as enthusiastically and ritually as they tailgate and copulate, especially since Harvard recently announced that nearly half of the 279 students in a single “Introduction to Congress” class are under investigation for academic dishonesty. In the ethically challenged haze of freshman dormitory life I did it myself, writing an occasional paper for an attractive or underperforming friend, and it never really occurred to me that this was wrong until I became a college professor and sat outraged on the other side of the desk, interrogating a barely literate student who had suddenly blossomed into an eloquent critic of Milton’s Paradise Lost. And after reading The Shadow Scholar I’m eyeing my current crop of students with an entirely new level of suspicion.
Tomar’s book grew out of an article, penned under the name “Ed Dante” in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November 2010, that became the most widely read piece in the Chronicle’s history. The article, and now the book, document the astounding scale and sophistication of cheating in today’s wired world, which the author knows well: he worked for ten years at highly organized Internet companies, writing term papers, class projects, and even a dissertation. In the wickedest of ironies, he found his employers through a website that aims to prevent cheating by exposing the worst offenders. At this website, an interested reader will find links to two hundred such companies, all accepting Paypal, MasterCard, and Visa, and all eager to make your college experience utterly painless. One site (customwritings.com) provides statistics, including (at press time) a 97 percent satisfaction rate and 1,373,890 pages written. I don’t now how much to trust a company that relies on its customers’ willingness to lie, but if those numbers are true, then this firm alone has produced over 170,000 of the 7-to-10-page papers usually assigned in introductory level classes. Many sites promise that their writers hold at least an M.A. or a Ph.D., and nearly all of them guarantee that the customer’s essay will cruise through the plagiarism-detection software that most American universities have purchased, at a tremendous cost, as the silver bullet in their anti-cheating arsenal.
As Tomar describes the process, the writers for his former employer log in to the company’s website and select an assignment from an online bulletin board. Students provide the topic and the deadline, and specific guidelines from their instructor, and the desired citation style. Some students even ship required course texts to their hired hand: Tomar claims this practice larded his shelves with thousands of dollars worth of books on constitutional history, literature, business, and psychology. But that was one of the few perks. Like a high-tech whipping boy, Tomar says he took on so much work that he ruined his health and his relationships, all so that the pampered and unprepared could enjoy a painless college experience. The cheery photos of carefree students on the professional cheating websites bear this out. As in the promotional materials distributed by the universities themselves, everyone is always smiling.