Title: The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat
Author: Dave Tomar
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

Something interesting happened when I publicized my decision to become a freelance writer: more than one person told me that I should consider writing papers for university and college students.

I, being the kind of university student, who, you know, actually wrote all my papers myself, was shocked at this suggestion, and dismissed it out of hand. Now I have Dave Tomar to thank for showing me what a world of frustration, indignation, and heartbreak I’ve avoided.

The Shadow Scholar is an in-depth look at what it’s like to be a writer for a paper mill, and what circumstances drove Tomar to, and kept him in, the industry. Student debt. A lacklustre education that left him with few marketable skills. (Incidentally, this book is the second story I’ve come across that makes Rutgers University sound like an absolute shithole.) A bad economy.

It’s also a portrait of desperation, as well as an expos√© of how truly messed-up the modern education system is. However, despite the sense of crusading against corruption that his book exudes, Tomar himself doesn’t come out looking like the best of people. He hates his job and the toll it takes on his body. He has contempt for his clients. He uses drugs to either keep himself alert or to dull the meaninglessness of his existence. He also gets into long digressions about his on-again, off-again relationship with his future wife, which lends an unnecessary whiff of soap-opera drama to the proceedings.

This brings me to the heart of The Shadow Scholar‘s problem: its author. Most people assume that the paper mill business a seedy one, and so it makes sense that Tomar himself is more than a little seedy – who else but a cynical opportunist would take this sort of job on? But a large part of the book’s focus is spent on arguing exactly how and why America’s higher education system needs to change. This in and of itself is a respectable goal, but Tomar tries very hard to make himself out as a tortured, Charles-Bukowski-like figure – in short, exactly the kind of person whom it would be best not to take advice from. Tomar’s paper mill career already turns him into an unsympathetic narrator – he just makes it harder for himself by sounding like a self-absorbed jackass.

Up next: Every House is Haunted, by Ian Rogers