Just in time for back-to-school season, Dave Tomar’s rambling, sometimes very funny book The Shadow Scholar expands on his Chronicle Of Higher Education article (written under the pseudonym “Ed Dante”) about his 10 years writing term papers and other classwork for college students who advertised for ghostwriters through various Internet companies. (He knew how to find such companies because a website set up to discourage academic cheating posted a handy list.) At one point, Tomar even wrote love poems for some poor sap whose heart, and wallet, outmatched his vocabulary. He did draw the line at playing Cyrano for a prospective employer who wanted someone to write her profile for a dating site and script her responses to likely romantic candidates.
The article was the most-read, and most commented-on, piece in the history of the Chronicle, and it earned Tomar an invitation to bare his soul to Diane Sawyer. Since Tomar describes himself as a frustrated writer who daydreamed of breaking into print—but from the sound of it, had such a crushing workload of papers for other people that he could scarcely have spent much time on his own stuff—it must have seemed a painful irony when he drew so much attention for one more thing he couldn’t sign with his own name. (As of this moment, there is no Wikipedia entry for Dave Tomar, but there is one for Ed Dante.) Tomar claims to be dismayed at how many Internet commenters and writers at the New York Times and The New Yorker weighed in on his account, seeing enough significance there to coin “hyperbolic phrases like ‘the Ed Dantes of the world’ and ‘in the age of Ed Dante.’”
But in his efforts to pad his story out to book-length, he isn’t above playing the same overstatement game. He invokes George W. Bush and the Iraq War as he insists that his privileged clients, who felt entitled to degrees they didn’t earn, are walking symbols of America’s decline. He even uses the op-ed-friendly phrase “paradigm shift.” He really hates his clients, with good reason: Most of them can barely express themselves well enough to make their instructions clear, let alone do the work themselves, yet they’re fearless when complaining about the quality of Tomar’s writing for them. (One person ordered an admissions essay for Penn State without bothering to mention his field of study.) Tomar shrugs off the abuse while checking the site to see what’s available, loading up on as many deadlines as he can handle, and grinds it all out. The work, and the sense that he’s his own boss, gives him a feeling of satisfaction that he never got from his other post-college jobs, such as manually bottling fluids. He sees himself as a solid professional because he can bullshit to order on any assigned topic, but in spite of his literary pretensions, he doesn’t seem to feel much obligation, even to himself, to actually focus on quality writing: “Thinking back now,” he writes of one essay, “I can’t be sure, but I probably wrote that paper while drinking.”
This is partly a reflection of his open contempt for the educational system itself. Tomar sees his own Rutgers experience as a scheme to set him up with unrealistic expectations, rip him off six ways from Sunday, and shove him out the door after making sure he’ll spend the first several years of his adult life ruinously in debt. “When I applied for a parking pass, I was refused. I spent my first year of school looking for places to hide my car.” The punchline comes three days before graduation, when he’s notified that, because a course he took two years earlier has been shifted in the curriculum so it no longer applies to his major, he’s now three credits short.
Tomar’s rage against the carelessly run financial drain that college has become makes his book—the best parts, anyway—into a cautionary tale worth pressing upon any freshman. The book is also a cautionary tale in ways its author may not have intended: a warning against the habit of thinking of writing as throwing words on the page until the clock runs out, or trying to extend the college experience just because, for all its failings, it’s less scary than growing up and entering the real world. Even though playing at still being in college apparently pays well.