The plagiarism maelstorm that has enveloped Toronto District School Board Director of Education Chris Spence didn’t come as a surprise to me.
Not because I had an inkling about the man at the centre of the ever-growing case, mind you. It’s been a few decades since I benefitted from the professional staff of the TDSB system. Simply put, plagiarism seems rampant across many disciplines, as at times uncovered here over the last half-decade or so (see prior posts “Why is “cut and paste” ever allowed in the newsroom?” Oct 22-12 and “Plagiarism. Imitation. Sloppiness. Sadly, nothing new.” Sept 25-12). Nothing should surprise us when someone in a position of power and authority rips-off the written work of someone else.
Once caught, Mr. Spence quickly moved into damage control with no less skill than you’d find at Hill & Knowlton, marshalling what is now the standard excuse when a plagiarist is caught:
I wrote that op-ed and – in no less than five different instances – I did not give proper credit for the work of others. I did not attribute their work. I did research and wrote down notes and came back at it the next day, and wrote down the notes.
I can provide excuses for how and why this happened – that I was rushed, that I was sloppy, that I was careless – but that’s all they would be: excuses. There is no excuse for what I did. In the position I am honoured to occupy, in the wonderful job I do every single day, I of all people should have known that.
The “I wrote down notes from other people’s work, put it down, and then came back to my notes later and forgot what was my work and what came from my research of the work of others” is almost the exact same excuse The Globe and Mail’s Peggy Wente used when she was caught last year doing the same thing; which was probably not the first time this particular excuse was rolled out, either.
Plagiarists are so lazy they can’t even come up with their own explanations.
According to the TDSB Chair Chris Bolton (H/T The Star), this is something to learn from:
“I think Chris has been quite candid about the mistake and is very concerned that everyone understand that he sees this as an honest mistake, but something that needs to be corrected,” said Bolton.
“As in all learning situations, we see this as a learning experience and we support him totally in his bid to make it right.”
Given the financial waste and general mismanagement at TDSB, I guess we should be grateful that Mr. Spence is cutting corners on his writing escapades, if that provides him with more time in his day to give the Province of Ontario some rational reason to not take the entire organization over.
What I’ve learned so far is that the definition of “an honest mistake” is in flux. Apparently, the Chair of the School Board was moved enough by Mr. Spence’s damage control activities that he was prepared to quote Spence describing this all as an “honest mistake”. Although if you parse his words, Mr. Bolton is not actually throwing himself on the train tracks to save his staffer. He’s just saying that Mr. Spence is “very concerned” that “everyone understand” this was “an honest mistake”. Yes, Mr. Chair, but do you think it was an “honest mistake”?
If a high school student breaks the TDSB’s Code of Conduct — perhaps he/she gets caught looking over at the test paper of the person in the next row — and professes that it was an “honest mistake”, I hope the administration cuts him/her the same amount of slack.
By extension, would passing a bank teller a note that you want $5,000 “and nobody gets hurt” count as an honest error in judgment, as opposed to a dishonest and illegal action unde the Criminal Code, if you desperately needed the money to pay for your sick child’s physio bills? But I’ll leave it to the Vice-Principals of TDSB to deal with the irony that’s sure to come their way in spades.
My take on Mr. Spence is that this wasn’t a function of sloppy writing techniques. In this day and age, you do your first draft in Microsoft Word (or whatever those Apple people use). Much of your research is done live, online. Of the 2,000 or so blogs I’ve written since 2006, I’ve reviewed thousands of source documents and publications, and it would be rare when one or more weren’t cited in each and every blog over the years. It is hard to tackle a topic without doing some primary research, which invariably leads to a quote or a fact coming from another publication.
But that’s not really what Mr. Spence plagiarised. He stole the experiences and inner motivations of others, not just some facts or opinions. To write a first-person narrative and use the thoughts and feelings of others is very, very unusual. It cannot simply be a function of disorganized note taking.
It’s that you found the written words of others to be more beautiful than your own, and you couldn’t but enter a parallel universe and print them as yours. I can sympatize. I wish I wrote like my Dad, Maureen Dowd, Dalton Camp or Christie Blatchford, and perhaps there are days when it would be far easier to write a blog using paragraphs they’ve already written. But that would be theft. Not like robbing a bank with a gun theft, but it sure wouldn’t be an honest mistake. Any more than getting drunk, driving my car up Jane Street and gently knocking a cyclist off their bike would be an honest mistake.
And by the nature of Mr. Spence’s crime, it is hard to believe this is merely the first time. Given the amount of writing that he does, and the nature of this particular theft, I told my Dad yesterday that it’s impossible that Spence hadn’t made this “honest mistake” many times before. As the National Post is starting to discover, someone who plagiarises the feelings of others isn’t a virgin in the world of word theft.
In the background of the 1990 EMF song “Unbelievable”, there’s a repeating chorus line: “What the fuck was that?” I’m sure some students at Humberside Collegiate are thinking the same thing today.
(disclosure: this post, like all blogs, is an Opinion Piece)