Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Adam Wheeler, Conceptual Artist

Why can't prosecutors understand that indicted "Harvard Faker" Adam Wheeler is in reality a conceptual artist of the highest caliber? Ignorant accusations painting Wheeler as a simple fraudster who conned his way into Harvard malign his genius burlesque on the follies of elite academe.

For evidence of Wheeler's true purpose, one need look no further than the pastiche e-mail sent to his fellow transfer students upon their arrival at Harvard:

My own, brief, assessment of my character is that I am sententious, crypto-tendentious, slightly pedantic with a streak of contrarianism, a fascination with any pedagogical approach to Shakespeare, and a decent sense of humor . . . . [I view sports as] . . . a neighborhood faux-pas of epic proportions. . . . [At MIT], I was, to put it poorly, suckled upon the teat of disdain. That being said (fortified by a reflexive snort), I was inspired thereby to apply to Harvard, where the humanities, in short, are not, simpliciter, a source of opprobrium.
Who except a newly-arrived transfer student, overwhelmed at her good fortune to be accepted at a school where people actually talk like that, would not recognize this as the tongue-in-cheek drivel of a satirist impostor?

A con man seeking a Harvard degree might have started as Wheeler did, posing as a frustrated MIT comp lit major seeking a transfer up Mass Ave. But from there on, the paradigm fits Wheeler's oeuvre not a bit. In a virtuoso display of commitment to character, Wheeler immersed himself in the rôle of a comically incompetent hustler, planting a series of over-the-top "blunders" in service of two conceptual theses:

1. The ego validation of a wunderkind-at-my-institution is so intoxicating that elite scholars will swallow the most outrageous fabrications in support of that narrative;

2. The scholarly output of elite academe is for the most part complete bullshit.

Where a con man would have upgraded his pedigree to include some regional prep school outside the usual Harvard orbit, Wheeler brazenly selected Phillips Andover, where the college counselors are on Harvard Admissions' speed-dial. A con man would have forged not-quite-perfect SAT reports and transcripts; Wheeler awarded himself a perfect 1600 and straight As. The latter detail was particularly well-selected: MIT freshmen do not receive letter grades in their first semester.

Like Wheeler, a con man might have forged references from MIT professors--but a con man would have signed them with the names of actual MIT faculty. Wheeler signed the names of professors at Bowdoin College, the school that suspended him in 2007 for academic dishonesty. A con man claiming to attend MIT would have shown up to be interviewed in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Wheeler requested a local interview at Bowdoin. When the interviewer inquired what an MIT freshman was doing in Brunswick, Maine during the academic year, Wheeler explained that he was assisting a Bowdoin professor with a book.

Once into Harvard, an institution from which one can easily graduate without once coming under adult scrutiny, a con man would spend the next three years laying low. If not quite up to the academic task, he would plagiarize or otherwise cheat to the least extent necessary to achieve passing marks. Another Wall Street analyst would be minted, with no one the wiser.

Wheeler's project required a different approach. As the climax of his performance, Wheeler applied for a Rhodes Scholarship, the most prestigious in the English-speaking world. True to form, Wheeler forged recommendations from Harvard professors, forged a Harvard transcript showing perfect grades, and--a master stroke--submitted a resume largely cribbed from chaired professor James R. Russell.

If the resume in Wheeler's Rhodes application is anything like the one he submitted for an internship at The New Republic, it boasts of Wheeler's mastery of French, Old English, Classical Armenian, and Old Persian. It also details his six invited lectures, including "From Parthia to Robin Hood: The Armenian Version of the Epic of the Blind Man’s Son (Köroghlu)" and "The Body in the Garden: The Metapoetics of Husbandry from More to Marvell." The resume promises two forthcoming books, including Mappings, Unmappings, and Remappings, abstracted as follows:

Critical work that has attempted to explain the experience of geographical and textual space in modern writing has focused predominantly on the map as an analytical tool of orientation that makes formal writing structures legible. My dissertation, however, articulates a positive and generative potential in the experience of getting lost. Disorientation, then, allows us to come to terms with the difficulty of modernist literature from the ground level--to view these works not as an abstraction seen from the "God’s eye" perspective that is implicit in most maps, nor a teleological outcome of the Enlightenment seen from retrospect. By restoring the experience of disorientation, I argue that getting lost becomes a radical discourse that reflects back to us how we orient ourselves--what we pay attention to as we move through physical space and how we construe meaning as we move through a text from page to page.
This is obviously complete nonsense. But no less obvious is Wheeler's artistic message in submitting it: it is exactly the sort of nonsense liable to garner a scholarship from a fawning Rhodes committee.

As was no doubt Wheeler's design, the Rhodes application proved a bridge too far. The inevitable investigation revealed not only his antics in gaining admission to Harvard, but a plagiarized Junior thesis for which Wheeler had been awarded the Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarship. Rather than face disciplinary proceedings, Wheeler withdrew from Harvard.

But in an audacious epilogue, Wheeler began his transfer routine anew, applying to both Yale and Brown. In a letter of recommendation from Harvard's McLean Hospital, Wheeler praised his work in an internship for which he had in fact been rejected after submitting a falsified application. To his principal letter of recommendation, Wheeler signed the name of the very Harvard dean who had confronted Wheeler with his Rhodes fabrications.

Alas, my profession is one of philistines, and instead of lionizing Wheeler's artistic contributions, the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office charged him with four counts of larceny, eight counts of identity fraud, seven counts of falsifying an endorsement or approval, and one count of "pretending to hold a degree."

I call on Massachusetts' esteemed judiciary to put an end to this assault on the First Amendment. Free Adam Wheeler!


  1. If anyone should be accused of conceptual artistry, it is you, H.P., for the masterful skewering of self-fulfilling pretentiousness that is higher education.

    Which reminds me of a joke: at a grocery store in the Boston/Cambridge area, a young man pushed his highly overloaded cart into the '15 items or Less' lane and began unloading onto the conveyor belt. The manager allowed the obvious faux pas to the consternation of the elderly woman next in line who repeatedly motioned to the sign above the check out lane. Upon the young man's departure, the manager turned to the upset lady and said, "He's either from Harvard and can't count, or M.I.T. and can't read."


  2. I recognize that you wrote this post three years ago and the blog is now defunct, but I can't help but comment! Also, I don't want to sound like Mr Spock--I get D.B.'s assessment of the piece as "the masterful skewering of self-fulfilling pretentiousness that is higher education." HOWEVER! as a modernist, it behooves me to point out that the abstract for Mappings, Unmappings, and Remappings is not "complete nonsense" but a very sound summary of critical modernism. Wheeler stole it from Ondrea E Ackerman's diss abstract. (Ackerman got her PhD from Columbia U and is now tenure track at Oklahoma SU, which is a great landing in these brutal times.) Credentials aside, to a modernist's eyes as opposed to a lawyer's (albeit it a Harvard educated, actor-turned lawyer), the piece is smoothly-written prose well-situated within current thinking about literary modernism but still interesting. It engages with the "difficulty" of modernist texts that so turn off readers today by arguing that the the intentional confusion that many experience as elitist is actually humanitarian--in contrast to Enlightenment thinking that sees knowledge as a commodity, modernism in Ackerman's view sees institutional knowledge as providing very little help in navigating the madhouse that is authentic life. I look forward to the book being published!


(You can comment here, or on the Holy Prepuce! Facebook page.)