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.