Temple was the first institution to offer a doctorate in African-American studies and has seen heated debates over the discipline's direction. The rejection of the department's choice as chair has set off a new controversy.
In case you missed it, in her remarks Monday night at the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump lifted portions of Michelle Obama’s speech from the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Or at least her speechwriter, who has come forward to take the blame, did so.)
Almost eight years ago, I wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed about plagiarism and politics. I expressed my disappointment that the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, had chosen Joe Biden as his running mate in spite of Biden’s record of plagiarism. It was a different time. I had not heard of Joe Biden’s rival for vice president, Sarah Palin, and I probably overestimated the influence that elected officials have on the behavior of college students.
There are things I regret about that column, and I learned that the Inside Higher Ed commentariat is full of surprises, to put it politely. When I woke up this past Tuesday morning and saw that my news feeds were clogged with stories of another instance of political plagiarism, I went back and looked at what I’d written about Biden eight years ago. What strikes me most of all is that plagiarism is not a particularly useful way to talk about political speeches. Like many academics, I looked at the evidence Jarrett Hill provided and started to wonder what I would do if Trump had handed this in to me and I’d caught the similarity. After a few moments, I realized this question was a waste of my time, because she is not my -- or anyone’s -- student.
Fortunately, there are a variety of ways of thinking about this incident that are more interesting and more useful than pretending Melania Trump is an undergraduate who plagiarized an assignment. In particular, I am grateful to queer friends and colleagues for pointing out on Facebook how weird it is to have the candidate’s family appear and speak at a political convention. It is a tradition that is largely confined to politics.
Imagine if the spouse of a plenary speaker at the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association made remarks introducing his or her partner, for instance. As Alex Corey, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Colorado’s English department, observed in a post, “Maybe we could also talk about the broader acts of copycatting within the official political sphere, like the fact that at every national convention and throughout campaigns and periods of holding office, partners in marriage (most often women due to the political environment) must take the stage to speak as symbols of the candidate's/officeholder's ‘values’ and subtly remind everyone that the most legitimate kind of adulthood -- the most ‘capable’ of representing the public -- is the one that also heads a two-partner family. So maybe heteronormativity is the more pernicious plagiarism on display here?”
Corey mentioned that Jordan Stein’s comments were useful in framing this post. Stein, who teaches in the English department at Fordham University, in turn cited Lauren Berlant’s Queen of America Goes to Washington City as inspiring his thinking on the political family. The family man as a form of plagiarism is an idea that may take some getting used to, but consider the ridicule that attended the bachelor candidate’s Lindsey Graham’s innovative idea that he could have a “rotating first lady.” Plagiarism on college campuses often occurs when a student is under duress. Absent the expectation that spouses perform on behalf of the political career of the person they married, there would be no need for Melania Trump and the Trump campaign to devise a speech, plagiarized or not.
Plagiarism is not the only way to steal. Jason Payton, an assistant professor of English at Sam Houston State University, comments, “Ms. Trump’s speech enacts the ambivalence toward black culture that Eric Lott has argued has conditioned white America’s experience of its whiteness for centuries. Lott notes in Love and Theft that the 19th-century blackface minstrelsy tradition alternated between white “celebration and exploitation” of black culture, or between ‘love and theft.’ The appropriation of black culture to consolidate white identity that Lott identifies within the 19th-century minstrelsy tradition continues to the present day, and this act of historical appropriation forms the horizon against which we should view Ms. Trump’s plagiarism …”
Payton continues, “Ms. Trump affirms the American values of ambition and industriousness, but in failing to credit Ms. Obama for her inspiration, Ms. Trump also constructs a racial fantasy wherein the advocacy for American values can be divorced from the history of critique and resistance by people of color.”
In a similar vein, Crystal Feimster, a faculty member in the department of African studies at Yale University, points out that “white folks have been stealing/ventriloquizing black people's words to their benefit for centuries, so why should Trump be any different? It is white supremacy at its best. I especially love that she cribbed the hard work part and the expression commonly used by black youth that your word is bond …. The fact that we can laugh about it, act astonished that she borrowed Michelle Obama's words or dismiss it as trivial without connecting the dots is part of the problem we face as a nation -- our inability to recognize the way racism and white supremacy function beyond overt racial slurs and violence …”
“‘Blue lives matter’ and ‘all lives matter’ are stolen words used to erase violence against bodies of color,” Feimster adds. “Plagiarism matters, so this matters.”
Race and ethnicity also figure in the aftermath of this event. Kirsten Silva Gruesz, a professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz, describes “the defense of Melania as already so toxically racialized. Good vs. bad immigrant, for instance.” After a litany of racist and misogynist attacks on Ms. Obama by Trump supporters, these same supporters are working to characterize Ms. Trump as the victim of a misunderstanding, even as they erase Ms. Obama’s endorsement of bedrock American values.
Plagiarism is a useful and important concept when people are being evaluated for expressing ideas in their original language -- in college, for instance. There are times, such as in academic writing, where the author’s name indicates that the work is her own, and her sources are cited using an appropriate system of citation. There are other kinds of writing, like the manual for your toaster or the Book of Common Prayer, where there is not this presumption of original expression. Sadly, it’s difficult to expect that Donald Trump’s campaign wanted to give Melania Trump the platform to speak her mind, so even calling Trump a plagiarist gives her a kind of agency that I don't think her husband or his campaign intended for her to have.
Finally, as Jane Coaston, a political reporter at MTV, explains in an article you should go read right now, Trump’s plagiarism was “the least bad thing to take place on a no-good, very bad night.” For professors, one of the most frustrating things about dealing with plagiarism is that it takes time away from teaching other students, and from research. The plagiarism issue is important for thinking about this RNC if and only if it allows us to think about the larger issues that have brought us to this political moment.
Jonathan Beecher Field is associate professor of English at Clemson University.
Let's establish a clear fact from the outset. The speech that Melania Trump delivered this week at the Republican National Convention would easily have been flagged for plagiarism in any college-level speech or writing class.
Meredith McIver, a speechwriter for the Trump campaign, has since come forward to accept blame for the plagiarized sections. But whoever wrote the words in question, the speech was, in short, plagiarized. Period.
Despite Trump campaign protests to the contrary, the speech contains more than mere generic vocabulary that both Melania Trump and Michelle Obama (or their speechwriters) drew upon. Trump's speech bore similarities to Obama’s in not only vocabulary but also in subject matter and syntax, making the possibility of a coincidence a mathematical fiction.
Oddly enough, many teachers such as myself will in time come to appreciate Trump's speech because it contains, in a relatively short space, several types of plagiarism and may serve as a model for future study. Most people know that when you copy someone else's words directly, it's plagiarism, and, yes, contrary to the protestations of her husband's political apparatus and their many defenders across social media, Trump's speech contained direct word-for-word plagiarism.
But there's more. Trump's speech contains what is sometimes called mosaic plagiarism, where the vocabulary might be altered with synonyms but the structure of the original is maintained. That's really the most egregious error in the Trump speech. To limit the plagiarism to mere shared vocabulary drastically misses the point and shows a simplistic understanding of plagiarism. As the Modern Language Association handbook makes clear, "using another person’s ideas, information or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft." Melania Trump's speech contained textbook plagiarism. Further debate on that point is moot.
Oddly enough, Trump defenders such as the attack-dog-in-chief Chris Christie proudly declared 93 percent of the speech was original, which of course is a tacit admission than 7 percent of the speech was indeed plagiarized and a tactic that the great orator and propane enthusiast Hank Hill would describe as playing "lawyer ball."
Still, Christie's faux defense demands that we ask, what percentage of intellectual theft is actually permissible? If 7 percent is acceptable, why not 10 percent? Or 20 percent? Where do we draw the line?
Let's grant that 93 percent of the speech was original. There's also a matter of context. It's not as if Melania Trump delivered this speech at local school board meeting or in her sophomore speech class. Along with making a case for her husband as a viable presidential candidate, it was her first significant attempt to sell herself to the country as first lady, which was the same exact context as Michelle Obama's speech. That makes the instance even more significant.
To be sure, Melania Trump's speech and its “only” 7 percent plagiarism would be enough to earn it poor grades from more colleges and universities than we have room to list. And since education is a significant political talking point, hopefully we can all agree that this is a pretty big deal.
Indeed, I once taught at a community college -- an open-enrollment institution -- where it was standard policy for students to fail an entire course if they were caught plagiarizing a single sentence! If a student wanted to be shown any mercy, at a bare minimum, they had to admit to their error. Reminding a professor that other students had plagiarized in the past did nothing to remove the student's guilt. From Texas to New Jersey, such policies are not uncommon.
Only 7 percent? More like, “Yikes! Seven percent!”
As someone who has taught college-level English in a variety of environments -- on-site and online, at community colleges and major research universities-- I can say without hesitation that the speech delivered by Melania Trump would have, at the very least, earned at least a zero on any assignment and possibly, depending upon the writer’s response to the offense, an F in the course.
But this is “just” politics, right?
It is a sad reality that, in 15 years, I have not had a single semester - and that includes summers and short semesters -- where I have not failed at least one student for plagiarism. Not one. From day one, I try to impress upon students the dangers of intellectual theft and repeatedly warn that, yes, I will catch them (and I don't need Turnitin.com or other resources to do so, though they have made the process much easier) and that they will pay a steep price. But there are always students who believe that they can, perhaps, pull the Jedi mind trick on me, hoping I won't notice their plagiarism.
Unfortunately, due to number of instances I've had to address, I've become somewhat of an expert on plagiarism. I see it all the time. Fortunately, most of my students grasp its importance and are willing to listen to my repeated entreaties to avoid it. But there's always that one student who just doesn't seem to care, who thinks the potential payoff is greater than the potential punishment.
Of course, I've heard every excuse imaginable. “I didn't know it was plagiarism.” “It was an accident.” “It was only a few sentences.” “It was my speechwriter.” I even had a student try to convince me that it wasn't his fault because his mom had helped him write the paper, and yet another who repeatedly argued that his computer had been hacked and that his paper had been modified without his consent or knowledge.
Excuses abound. Rarely, a student will admit that they simply cheated and ask for mercy or lenience. In those scarce instances when a student displays a genuine desire to both admit and learn from his or her error, I’m inclined to work with the student. Often, the student displays genuine remorse and doesn’t commit the same error again. But such instances are rare. Usually, they dig in their heels and proclaim their innocence, despite damning evidence to the contrary.
Interestingly, despite the Trump campaign's longstanding reputation for “straight talk” and the avoidance of politics as usual, the campaign's spin doctors were in full damage control mode the day after the speech, with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort going so far as to say that the speech simply was not plagiarized.
So why does yet another political plagiarism scandal matter? And let’s be clear: other examples abound, from Republicans and Democrats alike.
It matters because ideas matter. The words that express these ideas matter. That’s why this scandal is important and shouldn’t be trivialized -- although, of course, with our 24-7 news cycle, it will soon be just a memory.
Writing well ain't easy. Knowing when to use a colloquial verb choice, for example, takes time, practice and experience. To steal another's words, to engage in intellectual theft, without proper attribution, is a disservice to those of us who live by the power of the written and spoken word.
Perhaps in this instance, it matters all the more because of the example it sets for students and other future orators. To deliver a plagiarized speech is bad enough, but celebrating the value of hard work and family values insults those principles that the speech ostensibly claims to cherish, regardless of its author(s). By downplaying the importance of an act of plagiarism, those responsible disrespect the very people whom the speech itself claims to hold in such high regard.
Just some “straight talk” from someone who teaches in the trenches.
R. Scott Rasnic is a professor of English at Cedar Valley College.