Sunday, June 8, 2014

Another school principal borrows from DFW’s commencement speech

Another high-school principal has been caught with his hand in the David Foster Wallace cookie jar. Principal Matt Sanger of Garden Spot High School, New Holland, Pennsylvania, gave a commencement address lifted, almost in its entirety, from David Foster Wallace’s now-celebrated 2005 Kenyon College commencement address.

Says Principal Sanger, “The inspiration came from his speech. I found it to be very moving and inspirational.” And: “Looking back on it, in hindsight, I should have probably cited [Wallace] in my speech.”

Well, no. The inspiration didn’t come from Wallace’s speech. The speech came from Wallace’s speech. And there could be no plausible way for a speaker to acknowledge that. I like, by the way, “Looking back, in hindsight.” Was it that difficult to figure out beforehand, in advance?


Sanger stressed that he didn’t simply copy and paste portions of the original in an attempt to pass off the work as his own. He said he retyped the speech word-by-word, changing a few phrases and references along the way to reflect the local audience.
Given the ease with which one can find a transcript of Wallace’s speech, I’m skeptical about the retyping claim. It sounds like special pleading: I didn’t buy the SparkNotes! I only borrowed them from my roommate! Retyping or not, Sanger was doing what (I am told) education majors are often encouraged to do. It’s called “rewording.” What it amounts to: finding some source material, tinkering here and there, and presenting the result as your own. No attribution needed!

Principal Sanger’s choice to plagiarize from DFW raises an obvious question: is it likely that this is the first time he’s borrowed without attribution? He might have a long history of “rewording.” His choice to borrow from Wallace suggests an extraordinary cluelessness about contemporary American culture: did he assume no one in his audience would recognize his source?

Garden Spot High School’s Dishonesty Policy includes this item in its list of don’ts: “Submitting material (written or designed by someone else) without giving the author/artist name and/or source (e.g. plagiarizing or submitting work created by internet sources, family, friends, or tutors.)” Someone needs to call Principal Sanger’s parents. But seriously: what penalty is appropriate for a principal who does what Sanger did? The comments from administrative types quoted in the local paper suggest that there’ll be no consequences. Everyone uses “books and other things for background,” says one; everyone screws up, says another.


5:00 p.m.: This article mentions that Sanger was a student at the College of William and Mary, a school known for its Honor Code. [Jaw drops, hits floor.]


7:39 p.m.: As LancasterOnline reports, Principal Sanger is defending himself on Garden Spot High School’s website:
In preparing for commencement, I developed three versions of the speech (see attached). The first version is what I consider to be the “full version”, which includes in-text citations and a works cited page. The second version is what I consider to be the “tech” version, which includes PowerPoint transition reminders for our tech crew. The third version is what I consider to be the “on-stage” version, which is free of citations and PowerPoint transition reminders. I scanned the latter version for Lancaster Newspapers late Friday afternoon just before 4 PM. This was a mistake on my part because I should have shared the full version with the appropriate citations.
Here is a passage from Sanger’s commencement address, with citations:

TeamONE? That’s the name of the YouTube user who posted excerpts from Wallace’s address. Sanger’s Works Cited page also has an entry for an online transcript of Wallace’s address. Kind of puzzling, that, as Sanger earlier said that he retyped the speech word by word. Why do so if you have a transcript?

Here is the corresponding passage from Wallace’s address, as given in the transcript Sanger cites:

Whether Sanger’s “‘full version’” was in existence before 4:00 p.m. Friday matters little. What matters more is that the passage from it (which is representative of the whole) fails utterly as an example of appropriate attribution. It follows its original word for word, or nearly so. Yet Sanger manages to miss the point: it’s not “moral stories” that Wallace is interested in but “banal platitudes,” the stuff he learned in recovery, the world of “Easy does it” and “One day at a time.”

This sorry story reminds me of something I’ve heard on Cops : when addressing a suspect, the police will often say, “You have one chance to tell me the truth.” I think Principal Sanger has missed his chance.


June 9, 11:42 a.m.: Principal Sanger’s explanation has disappeared from Garden Spot High School’s website.


8:12 p.m.: LancasterOnline reports that Sanger has been suspended for ten days without pay.


June 13: WITF reports that the school district will now use software to check “major speeches” for plagiarism. My 2¢: Plagiarism is an ethical failure. Technology is not the answer.

Related reading
All OCA DFW posts (Pinboard)
All OCA plagiarism posts (Pinboard)
Principal borrows from DFW’s commencement speech (A 2011 incident)

comments: 8

Diane Schirf said...

I don't see how citing something as long as a speech without attribution counts as a "screwup" (an ooopsie). A screwup might be missing citing one source in an otherwise cited paper (got distracted before putting the footnote down and obviously not intended). This is too deliberate. And, yeah, the "retyping" is desperate.

Geo-B said...

Tell that to "Pierre Menard, author of David Foster Wallace's Commencement Speech."

Michael Leddy said...

Diane, I am glad we are of one mind about it.

George, are you saying that Garden Spot’s French teacher wrote the speech?

Geo-B said...

I will quote a former English professor who became a United States senator (and who shall remain nameless), "We should keep the Panama Canal. After all, we stole it fair and square."

Sean said...

"Well, no. The inspiration didn’t come from Wallace’s speech. The speech came from Wallace’s speech."


Slightly related: I wonder if VDP has ever done a commencement speech.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, he has, at the Bosque School.

Diane Schirf said...

Two things:

I don't remember being warned about plagiarizing, or even knowing what plagiarism was.

Technology is always the answer. It makes up for so many moral failings.

(That second may have been snark.)

Michael Leddy said...

Same here: I can’t recall an undergrad or grad class in which it was mentioned. It was just something not to do. Now syllabi will typically have elaborate statements about academic misconduct and penalties.