September 7, 2012

About two years ago, the New Republic received an internship application from a perfect-sounding kid named Adam Wheeler. His résumé said he had a 4.0 GPA at Harvard College; had written six books; had proficiency in four languages, including classical Armenian and Old Persian; and had received a string of prestigious lecture invitations, prizes and fellowships. Around the same time, Wheeler put in transfer applications to Yale, Stanford and Brown. It turned out that his essay was plagiarized, his transcripts were photoshopped, and his College Board reports were falsified.

The Harvard University Police Department busted him; ultimately he faced 20 counts of fraud. He did not get his internship, but his résumé earned him recognition of a less-appealing kind when it was posted online, linked to and deconstructed by news organizations including NPR, the New York Times and the media gossip site Gawker.

The startling revelations about Wheeler’s exploits accumulate so quickly in Julie Zauzmer’s ripping “Conning Harvard” that at times this meticulously reported nonfiction narrative reads like a potboiler. The protagonist is certainly audacious. Wheeler slapped his name on the work of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and submitted it to a student contest at Bowdoin College, where he began his studies. He fabricated transcripts from Andover and MIT and claimed to have earned perfect scores on 16 Advanced Placement exams.

It may be that the author was drawn to the subject because she saw something of herself in the uber-talented whiz kid that Wheeler portrayed himself to be. Zauzmer is a Harvard senior, and she covered this story for the Crimson, the campus newspaper, when the news first broke.

Her book’s timing couldn’t be better; cheating at Harvard is back in the news as the university investigates an incident involving about 125 current and former students accused of collaborating on a take-home exam this spring. The dean of undergraduate education has called the episode “unprecedented in its scope and magnitude.”


"The Shadow Scholar: How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat" by Dave Tomar (Bloomsbury USA)

As the facts emerge, however, it is unclear what the scandal signifies — or even whether it is a scandal. Apparently, consulting with teaching fellows and discussing test questions were considered by many to be acceptable practices, at least in this particular class. And regardless of whether there was a blatant violation of the written rules, as Farhad Manjoo asks in a recent Slate article, should the discussion of ideas among students really be considered an offense?

It’s always tempting to see Harvard’s failures as indicative of some larger American ill, but sometimes a cheating scandal is just a cheating scandal. Wheeler’s behavior was egregious, but it does not suggest larger or corrosive social trends. While Zauzmer wisely refrains from attempting to analyze Wheeler — a job better left to therapists, or perhaps novelists — his actions were so extreme as to indicate some underlying pathology, and in fact mental health treatment was stipulated as part of his sentence.

Dave Tomar, the author of “The Shadow Scholar,” tells an equally stunning tale of academic fraud, in this case his own. He describes his long career in the employ of various online paper mills, where he wrote cheat papers on subjects ranging from the brazen corruption of the Bulgarian government to the failure of Disneyland Paris to excite the discerning French. When he first wrote about his career as a professional cheater under a pseudonym for the Chronicle of Higher Education, it became one of the most widely read articles in the publication’s history.

If Zauzmer’s book reads like a thriller, Tomar’s is a screenplay for a Judd Apatow movie starring Zach Galifianakis. A grimy, bitter, debt-ridden Rutgers graduate, “one loudmouthed jerk with a gigantic chip on his shoulder” who smokes a lot of dope, talks about farting and wears the same thing every day, Tomar pays off his student loans — and in a ready-made Hollywood ending, eventually buys his girlfriend an engagement ring — using the proceeds from writing other people’s college papers.

“As it turned out, helping students cheat on papers was the only available job for which my college had prepared me,” he claims in one of many moments of amusing, if not always attractive, self-pity.

The most entertaining parts of the book are the exchanges with his barely literate clients: “Hello Dear writer. Could you do me a faver to meet my essay’s topic and finish it before 7pm tonight. It is the deadline for me!!!!!!!!!!” When aspects of this particular exchange become confusing, Tomar realizes it is because he is corresponding with the student and the student’s mother, who is complicit in her child’s cheating.

Tomar’s insider descriptions of how the paper mills operate are illuminating; the one he primarily works for is a surprisingly good employer. “The company never bounced a check to me, and it never paid me late. I always got paid exactly what I’d earned. . . . If I was on the right side of a dispute with a customer, the company went to bat on my behalf.”

This is more than Tomar can say for his legitimate but demoralizing day job at an industrial cleaning supply company, where he is forced to lie when assailed by angry creditors.

Also revelatory are the predatory practices of some for-profit colleges. Tomar describes an alarming tactic known as “guerrilla registration,” by which academic advisers enroll students in classes they never take, without their consent, and even after they have sought to withdraw. “In any given month,” Tomar reports, “the admissions manager might find himself five reenrolled students away from meeting his recruitment quota. Therefore, ten of those fifteen students would be granted their withdrawal. The other five withdrawal requests would be ignored. . . . They would accrue fines for failure to attend classes and accumulate debt for the classes from which they had attempted to withdraw. On the bright side, the admissions manager would meet his recruitment quota.”

Between these two books and the flurry of headlines sparked by the recent Harvard scandal, it’s tempting to endorse theses about how modern technology, increased pressure on the college admissions process and a shrinking job market may have unleashed an epidemic of cheating. Tomar pins the culture of cheating he inhabits on the Internet and Gen Y culture. He cites a Pew Research Center study that concluded, “Unlike the Silent Generation, Boomers and Gen X . . . Gen Y is the only generational cohort that doesn’t cite ‘work ethnic’ as a defining characteristic.” Yet such sweeping generalizations ignore the fact that cheating has always gone on; in the pre-Internet days, paper mills used to advertise in the backs of magazines.

Zauzmer’s book, too, offers what feel like boilerplate statistics on cheating. Perhaps they were tacked on to lend the book some gravitas, which it does not need. “As many as 14 percent of essays are plagiarized,” she writes in her introduction, “50 percent of transcripts are faked, and 90 percent of recommendation letters are forged among some groups of college applicants.” These are alarming numbers, but the author doesn’t make clear their context or their meaning.

Even if the connection between cheating and some broader corruption in higher education is tenuous, these two books make excellent sidebar reading. They are best understood not as harbingers of a trend but as anomalies, traffic accidents of human behavior, shocking and compelling enough to justify rubbernecking.

bookworld@washpost.com

Susan Coll is the author of four novels, including “Acceptance,” a comedy about the college admissions process.

CONNING HARVARD

Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League

By Julie Zauzmer with
additional reporting by Xi Yu

Lyons. 230 pp. $21.95

THE SHADOW SCHOLAR

How I Made a Living Helping
College Kids Cheat

By Dave Tomar

Bloomsbury. 251 pp. $25