Impostor wastes scholars’ time—for what purpose? (opinion)

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I had spent one day in COVID-19 isolation when an email from an esteemed mentor and colleague I have known for years floated in. He numbers among the leading authorities in my academic specialty. “I am traveling so I won’t be able to do this interview. Would you want me to recommend you to do it?” he wrote. “See below. Trust you are well.”

The interview invitation came from Matt Wolf, “a reviewer of Arts and Theatre at the Guardian U.K.” The website for the newspaper identifies Wolf as “London theatre critic of the International New York Times and theatre editor at theartsdesk.com.” Wolf wanted to interview my colleague about Lynn Nottage, the only woman ever to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama and one of the finest dramatists working.

Although I was not feeling well at the moment, my symptoms were mild enough that a prospective interview about Nottage piqued my interest. I immediately forwarded the email to my wife, who was working downstairs, and queried, “Any reason I shouldn’t?” “None at all,” she replied.

Over the next three days, I fielded and responded to a series of questions, including, “What generated your interest in Nottage and what are the thematic preoccupations of Nottage’s plays?” Another question asked me to explain the title of Nottage’s play Ruined: “What is the meaning of being ruined?” Wolf requested and I sent an abbreviated CV. Wolf was invariably polite. He even wrote, “I really liked the way you answered my question” and promised he would “edit your answers and send you a draft before any publication.”

A truism among English professors, going back at least to when I entered the profession in the 1980s, holds that journalists are notorious slackers with respect to grammar, punctuation, italicization and pretty much everything about writing my professors taught me to hold dear. They do not even honor the Oxford comma! Perhaps my training subconsciously led me to regard Wolf’s writing errors as a matter of extremely informal style from a journalist divided from me, as Churchill or Oscar Wilde or some wit purportedly asserted, by a common language.

A few days later, my wife and I were having coffee and nearing the end of what had become a shared period of isolation when she asked about the Guardian interview. I told her I had responded to all the questions and had refined my own thinking about Nottage while I did so. In January 2021, I actually interviewed Nottage via Zoom for a volume, The Theatre of Paula Vogel: Influences, Pedagogy and Practice, forthcoming from Bloomsbury’s Methuen Drama’s Critical Companions series. More than once, I nearly mentioned to my London editor Wolf’s request and my participation.

Gazing into her laptop, my wife told me about Matt Wolf’s career and importance. Then, her tone changed. She asked for Wolf’s email address, which I did not recall. Then, she began reading aloud from an iMediaEthics article more than 10 years old: “Someone has been falsely using the name and ‘persona’ of a Guardian freelance journalist to waste academics’ time.” After she shared a few more sentences, I did not need to go look up “Wolf’s” address—at a Gmail account—to realize I had been catfished.

At this point, you may wonder who would go to the trouble of impersonating an influential critic in as comparatively esoteric a field as postmodern literature and solicit nothing more than critical opinions. “Wolf,” identity and sex unknown, has not asked for a penny from me or any favor other than answers to questions, the likes of which I would probably give anyone who asked. I enjoy speaking about Nottage and want her to receive attention from both scholars and the public. Why would anyone want or need to use subterfuge and assume a fake identity?

While I do not know for sure, it seems the most likely answer to the first question is that my answers may have been used as grist for companies that sell custom essays and other course materials to students. Despite the ready availability of TurnItIn and other plagiarism-prevention software, nothing prevents students from using paper mills for their essays or other written materials. Even doctoral dissertations sometimes, sadly, have ghostwriters, and some of our colleagues cheated their way through their terminal degrees, which they purchased rather than earned.

If The Guardian was already aware of “Matt Wolf” the poser in 2012, when they published a note from the reader’s editor about this “unusual identity thief,” then why were my mentor and I so gullible? Had word not gotten around? Clearly, it had not. Maybe if I were a literary theorist rather than a drama scholar, I would have been aware of a recent article in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis featuring interviews several Lacan scholars gave to “Matt Wolf.” Their answers, for a fee, may have become available to undergraduate or graduate students studying literary theory, linguistics or any other field that addresses Lacan.

Now that I am aware of the con, I am doing what little I can about it. I have reached out to the actual Matt Wolf to make him aware his imitator is catfishing again. I will also post to social media, where I have colleagues among my friends and followers, and I will send emails to officers in professional organizations including the College English Association and the American Association of University Professors. These will have limited effect, of course, just as was likely true of a 2019 Facebook post by a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment seeking to warn others of the hoax

More than anything else, I can hope this piece finds as large an audience as possible. That audience will include people who think me (like dozens of professors before me) a complete fool. “I would never fall for an email from a Gmail account,” they will think. To them I can only say I hope they never have to find out.

I feel sorry for any students who might pay for my answers to “Matt Wolf’s” questions. For them, “Matt Wolf” would be a dishonest intermediary who nevertheless will have delivered authentic quotations. Maybe Nottage will find a new reader or two. A fellow can hope.

Again, “Wolf” has taken nothing from me other than a bit of my time and a small bite out of my pride. Even the CV items I provided are information I am happy for folks to read.

At one point, I very nearly thanked my catfish for prompting me to think more fully about why I admire Lynn Nottage, and I would have offered to speak about other topics where I have what I perhaps immodestly call expertise. A thank-you may still be in order, but it will come for making me aware of yet another internet fraud.

Sometimes, a catfish wears a Wolf’s clothing—or at least his persona.

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