The Positive Side of Plagiarism? One More, on Melania’s Speech

The Positive Side of Plagiarism? One More, on Melania’s Speech July 19, 2016

I’m late on the hot-take, but so it goes.

By Marc Nozell, CC 2.0, via Flickr
By Marc Nozell, CC 2.0, via Flickr

I was glad to see this thoughtful reflection on Melania Trump’s obvious plagiarism–and the emotional affect that coming across such an egregious and very public display of plagiarism has on professional teachers.

I’ve taught theology full-time now for a decade. I’ve come across my fair share of plagiarism: some egregious, and some minor. But plagiarism is plagiarism. Typically, when it’s a clear case (whether a paragraph or two is lifted, or entire section or even paper), the responsible professor or teacher feels the compulsion to call attention to it and–in most every case that I could imagine–fail the paper outright (maybe it gets a 0%, maybe it gets 50%, but logic (and often school policies) dictates it should not get anything above an “F.”

Of course, one of the issues with even a minor offense of plagiarism (let’s say, a sentence or two that was clearly lifted without any acknowledgement of the source), is it raises the problem of trust. If one sentence is obviously copied, whose to say whether there aren’t more sentences–or entire paragraphs?

I have to also say that I’m scared to death of unintentionally committing plagiarism myself. This deeply instilled fear resulted from the first doctoral “theological research and writing” seminar I took, which included an extensive discussion about what plagiarism is–and the many ways to commit this sin.

Plagiarism is the unpardonable sin of academia.

The fear results not from the prospect of intentional plagiarism, but unintentional plagiarism. Lets say I read a book a few weeks ago on Topic X, but didn’t take any notes on my reading. Then let’s say a unique idea or phrase from that book finds its way into an article I’m now writing on Topic X? If I forget where that idea came from–and incorrectly–though unintentionally–assume that the idea is mine, I’ve committed plagiarism.

So academics often take copious notes of what we read, especially where an idea might prove to be useful later in our writing.

Obviously academic writing and political speech-writing isn’t exactly the same. Nonetheless, plagiarism is still plagiarism–certainly when it’s obvious and egregious.

I have to admit I was quite impressed watching Melania Trump’s speech last night; particularly with her poise, her inclusive tone, and with the fluidity of the speech’s verbiage. There was a smoothness and a subtle power of expression to it that, probably also stood out in contrast to what we’ve come to expect from her husband.

But when plagiarism happens, even when unintentional, it stains the whole product. An “A” speech suddenly becomes an “F” speech. How do we know what else in that speech to trust?

So I agree with Anthony LeDonne (the author of the aforementioned blog post): there’s no way around “failing” her speech–but that also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some compassion.

Some of the most transformational moments I’ve experienced as an educator have come when dealing with students who have committed plagiarism. Unlike critiquing issues of content or style, raising the specter of plagiarism cuts to the heart of character. And so confronting it, however gently and compassionately, also offers the prospect of dealing with who we are as human beings.

The positive side of any conflict around the commission of plagiarism is there is an opportunity to accept responsibility and to move forward with a renewed commitment to honesty, to responsible process, and intellectual integrity.

However, if the Republican spin doctors are an indication, this will not turn out to be such a occasion–not in the public forum, in any case.


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