Dynamist Blog

More on Twitchell and Plagiarism

UT rhetoric professor Clay Spinuzzi offers a good take:

Sometimes when I talk about plagiarism to my students, I tell them: If professors catch you plagiarizing, we don't just think it's a character issue. We take it as an indicator that perhaps you're just not college material. There are several honorable and skilled professions out there that do not involve referencing and modifying others' intellectual work; if you have the urge to plagiarize, consider keeping your integrity and switching to one of those professions instead. Perhaps I should make that speech a standard part of my grad classes too.

It's unfortunate that newspaper accounts of such scandals rely so much on "objective" parallel passages rather than getting at the true disservice to the reader. When James Twitchell fails to cite sources for his statistics, leading readers to assume he is the source, he deprives those readers of further information on the subject, including when the stats were gathered and how. He also slights readers when he offers an unsourced summary of another scholar's idea without telling readers where to find the original, and far more thorough, development of that idea. Then there's changing facts to make them inaccurate...

As an offense against other scholars and writers, plagiarism is a sign of bad character. But, more important for the public sphere, it's a sign that you don't care about your readers.

Reader Bradley Dilger*, who teaches composition and new media at Western Illinois and got his undergrad and graduate degrees at Florida, defends his fellow Florida students.

I'm dismayed that you indict the credibility of Florida students based on the actions of one professor. Like many students, I never worked with Twitchell while at Florida. And like most, if not all who taught at Florida, I always held my students to the highest standards of academic courtesy and professionalism. When I had to throw the book at students because of their lax citation or outright cut-and-pasting, the department stood behind me 100%.

I didn't mean to impugn Florida students but, to the contrary, to suggest that the university probably holds them to a higher standard than Twitchell has demonstrated in his own work. I might add, that I hired and count as a friend a very fine and original writer who is a University of Florida grad.

UPDATE: According to another article by Jack Stripling, Twitchell talks tough on students' plagiarism but is really a softy.

At UF, students who violated the Honor Code between 2005 and 2007 primarily received grade penalties. Such penalties include being forced to redo an assignment, taking a zero on the assignment or receiving a failing grade in the course. Of 466 cases, four ended in expulsion and 10 in suspension.
In Twitchell's 2008 syllabus, the English professor describes a blunt policy on academic dishonesty.
"If you cheat, you'll get an F, not just for the paper, but for the course," the syllabus states.
Despite Twitchell's zero-tolerance stance in his syllabus, he says he's actually more understanding in his class.
"In 30+ years of teaching, I have never failed a student for cheating," Twitchell wrote in an e-mail. "If I think the paper is not the student's, I ask the student to think it over and pass it in again."
So what if a student plagiarized to the extent that Twitchell has admitted to doing? He says he'd maintain his do-over policy: "This has never happened to me, but if I (had) a graduate student pass in a book-length dissertation (the length of my books) and I thought they had plagiarized the same percent and type that I did, I would have done the same thing, tell them to go back and check it and make changes if necessary."

UPDATE: Grant McCracken is not happy.

*Link updated to reflect his move to Purdue.

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