The Shadow Knows

“The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business.

You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?’

“I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

“I told her no problem.”

In a tell-all for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ed Dante indeed, tells all about his adventures as a shadow scholar – writing for college students.

In an exposé clearly directed at teachers, Dante (not his real name) says, “I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.”

While the majority of the ethics scandals that draw media scrutiny are political, business or celebrity, most run below the radar. What attracted me to this story was not only Dante’s knowledge but brazen candor in participating in clear fraud.

“I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy.”

He talks about his “accomplishments” as if they were degrees framed on a wall, somewhere in his mind.

“I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration… [and] ethics. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.”

His story begins like an episode of 60 Minutes, then quickly morphs into an installment of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire where rationalization is just another business skill. And just likeBoardwalk’s “Nucky” Thompson, Dante welcomes us into his literary vestibule of Hell.

“I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against…”

Apparently, Dante’s inferno, or “business,” is hotter than ever. On any given occasion, the “doctor” is working on as many as 20 different patient-assignments.

“You would be amazed,” Dante tells us while taking us on a tour of Anger – the 5th circle of Hell, “I have seen the word ‘desperate’ misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn’t write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren’t getting it.”

“Granted, as a writer, I could earn more,” he says; “certainly there are ways to earn less. But I never struggle to find work. And as my peers trudge through thankless office jobs that seem more intolerable with every passing month of our sustained recession, I am on pace for my best year yet. I will make roughly $66,000 this year. Not a king’s ransom, but higher than what many actual educators are paid,” Dante adds, as he skips right on to Gluttony and Greed.

“I had written a short research proposal for her a few weeks before, suggesting a project that connected a surge of unethical business practices to the patterns of trade liberalization. The proposal was approved, and now I had six days to complete the assignment. This was not quite a rush order, which we get top dollar to write. This assignment would be priced at a standard $2,000, half of which goes in my pocket.”

And just like his Boardwalk counterpart, Dante not only knows his skill-set but his core market.

“Let’s be honest: The successful among us are not always the best and the brightest, and certainly not the most ethical. My favorite customers are those with an unlimited supply of money… part of my job is to be whatever my clients want me to be. I say yes when I am asked if I have a Ph.D. in sociology. I say yes when I am asked if I have professional training in industrial-organizational psychology. I say yes when asked if I have ever designed a perpetual-motion-powered time machine and documented my efforts in a peer-reviewed journal.”

Traveling deeper, Dante takes us to the darker circles of Fraudand Treachery.

“I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow. I have been commissioned to write many a passionate condemnation of America’s moral decay as exemplified by abortion, gay marriage, or the teaching of evolution. All in all, we may presume that clerical authorities see these as a greater threat than the plagiarism committed by the future frocked.”

But our literary liar, is too caught up in his drug of choice, the rationalization, to excuse his conduct.

“Say what you want about me, but I am not the reason your students cheat.

“You know what’s never happened? I’ve never had a client complain that he’d been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken.

“The 75-page paper on business ethics ultimately expanded into a 160-page graduate thesis, every word of which was written by me… As with so many other topics I tackle, the connection between unethical business practices and trade liberalization became a subtext to my everyday life.”

Re-reading his confessional, I wonder… is it Dante or “Nucky” speaking?

“We all need to decide how much sin we can live with,” Thompson tells an innocent.

And Dante? “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid to write about somebody helping a loved one battle cancer. I’ve written essays that could be adapted into Meryl Streep movies.”

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