Melania Trump Is Innocent of Plagiarism (Sort of, not really)
Did I hear something happened at the RNC?
Plagiarism is in the air, which makes me think about my experiences with students, detecting, responding to, and punishing the act.
The initial postmodern, post-truth defenses from Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort - common words, common ideas, etc… - were absurd on their face because of the concurrences between the two passages. Even the slight variations are hallmarks of copying, as the beginning plagiarist often feels that those alterations are sufficient to claim originality.
Now that the Trump campaign has issued a statement admitting to the copying, Manafort and others’ defenses are exposed as “spin,” also known as lies when we’re talking about something other than politics.
But, as the kids say, whatevs. That Melania Trump cribbed a chunk of her convention speech from the current First Lady is the least consequential event of the entire convention. The fact of it is trivial. If the act itself has any import whatsoever, it’s in what it may indicate about the nature of the Trump campaign apparatus, and how they respond to such events.
In my experience working with students, plagiarism is a symptom, rather than the disease itself, and the underlying causes are myriad.
Another word for this cause is “ignorance,” but I’ve found inexperience to be more accurate. Sometimes, students will plagiarize intentionally without knowing they’re plagiarizing because they’re not aware of the rules and guidelines that govern source use. Inexperience seems the likely cause of the copying in Melania Trump’s speech as she worked on the text with an assistant not experienced in such high profile speech writing. The explanation from the assistant, Meredith McIver, seems entirely plausible to me. While Melania Trump knew that she’d been inspired by Michelle Obama’s 2008 address, she had every reason to expect that the paid communication professionals would keep her from crossing a line with the text itself. When Mrs. Trump said she didn't believe she plagiarized, I believe her, because I've seen a similar scenario play out with students many times.
With students (and otherwise), I think it’s important to recognize that this is not in any way an act of malice or even deceit. I also believe that inexperience (and ignorance) can be easily remedied with careful instruction.
The best way I’ve found to prevent this type of plagiarism is to build student understanding of citation and sources from the ground up. Rather than giving them a bunch of rules, I ask them to consider sourcing from a theoretical perspective? What is the rhetorical purpose of sourcing? How much and what kind of information does the audience need to engage with your sources?
After the theory, we get into the specifics using their own works in progress. When they “need” a source to do some work in their argument, they have to consider audience and purpose. Once they work through these problems, I can give them the tools to work the sources into their message, usually by asking them to look for examples in the world of how sources are used.
When students who understand the differences between proper sources and plagiarizing cross over the line to the dark side, it is quite often because they believe to be in over their heads – overwork, fear of the assignment, real-life complications – and in a moment of bad judgment that seeks to relieve some of the pressure they’re feeling, they take a shortcut.
This is incredibly easy to catch, as the same pressures that keep the student from completing the assignment prevent them from covering their tracks in any real way. In a course (like mine) that requires several drafts and a demonstrable process prior to the final version, a student showing up on the due date with a completed assignment is also a red flag.
Thanks to those required drafts and topics that draw on their own perspectives, the risk of a student even attempting to put one over in this fashion has dropped to essentially zero. It’s been many years since I even had a suspected plagiarism case.
I also explicitly talk about how, if they find themselves tempted to cut corners, the student should contact me and we’ll make some sort of arrangement before they do something that may cause significant harm to their academic standing.
Straight up dishonesty/persistent pathological cheater
Of the thousands of students I’ve interacted with in my career, I’ve only had one I’d put in this category. This particular person viewed school as a game to be won, and if cheating was the shortest path to a completed assignment and decent grade, so be it.
I would like to chalk this particular person up to a defective character, and I think this is likely part of the story, but this student had also been warped by a culture that had rewarded this behavior. The kid was bright, charming, a great classroom contributor, and more than capable of doing the work, but if cheating was faster or easier, cheating it was.
Even though the student received zeroes on three assignments and faced an honor board hearing with potentially greater consequences, they were present in every class all semester, and even shook my hand at the end on the last day. I figured they felt it was a game, the two of us combatants. Perhaps I’d won this battle, but there’d be another with a different instructor in the future.
I’ve also experienced three different types of reactions from students when they’re confronted with being found out.
The “inexperienced” tend to say something like “I’ve always done it this way,” or, “I thought that was okay.” Depending on their particular mental makeup, they’re either unperturbed or extremely perturbed, to the point of being abjectly apologetic.
Either way, the plagiarism is dealt with pretty handily by exemplifying the appropriate use of sources. No harm, no foul.
For the “panic” plagiarizers, the response is almost always, “I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway.” Often, there are tears, as the emotion is undammed. They’re often quite accepting of whatever consequences result.
For my single outlier pathological cheater, the first two times it happened, the student tried to argue that it wasn’t actually plagiarism. As I was the judge for this particular sin and the evidence was overwhelming, the argument was unsuccessful. The second time I might’ve gotten a little hot in a, “What the hell are you thinking?” way. In each case, the student accepted the zeroes without admitting guilt.
The third time, the student didn’t bother protesting. The student never got angry, never cried, never complained, didn’t try to go over my head.
I was utterly perplexed by this attitude, still am to some degree.
Though, the initial response of the Trump campaign to the Melania Speech kerfuffle helped me understand this student from my past at least a little better.
This student was attempting to construct a world where the “rules” of school – hard work, persistence, etc… - didn’t apply, an attempt to bend the system to this person’s particular set of strengths. The student testified that they’d had some success along the way, that school was indeed gameable.
In my particular class, that effort was doomed because I held all the power, and unlike high school, I had no external pressure to keep the student moving through the system. It was easy to enforce my own rules.
In politics, though, it appears that the old rules can be remade.
I guess we’ll find out to what degree.
 I prefer this method to what I used to do – teaching the nuts and bolts of MLA formatting – because 95% of my students will never use MLA formatting outside of my class, but all of them will have occasion to consider the relationship between themselves and their outside sources.
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