Baker Academic

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump, Plagiarism, and the Teacher's Dilemma

I love my job. There is so much to love about my job. But every job has hazards and my least favorite is my regular encounter with student plagiarism. In my experience students steal ideas without crediting the original source of these ideas all of the time. I guess that most of the time they come by this theft honestly. By this I mean that most students try their best to use commonsense and thus repeat something written by a scholar of a previous generation. There is nothing new under the sun, after all. Technically this is plagiarism by the standards of most universities and seminaries. Very few professors, however, want to spend their time on such matters.

The real trouble is when a student consciously repeats from a source without quotations or citation. In other words, they attempt to pass off the copy-and-paste job as something they authored. When this happens the teacher sighs, curses, laments the downfall of western civilization (audibly to whoever* happens to be in the room at the time), and begins the process of documenting the problem. This process usually results in the failure of the student and an enormous headache for the teacher. The teacher's dilemma involves suppressing her/his exhaustion, negotiating compassion vs. fairness, and copious amounts of cheap pinot noir. In my case, I inevitably decide that the greater good is to support the integrity of the class, the institution, and higher learning (whatever is left of it). So it becomes a matter of demonstrating compassion for the student within the process of failing the student.

What follows is anecdotal and speaks only from my experience and the experience of other commiserating colleagues.

There tends to be a pattern in the type of student who plagiarizes in reckless and obvious ways. This student tends to be (1) overwhelmed in class and/or life and (2) out of their element culturally or professionally.

This student may be a second-career person who is overwhelmed by the work required of a graduate student. This person may be from a different part of the world and has been pressured by numerous cultural differences. They may feel backed into a corner, confused, and frightened. They may have a feeling of being in a no-win situation.

So I am not surprised in the least that Melania Trump finds herself in this situation. As you have no doubt heard by now, Melania Trump has obviously and recklessly plagiarized from a speech given previously by Michelle Obama. At the risk of appearing holier-than-thou (although readers of this blog tend to be scoundrels so it doesn't take much to appear this way -- I'm looking at you Danny Yencich) I feel no sense of schadenfreude about her plight. I don't doubt that she is responsible for her actions; she is also a victim of circumstance.

Mrs. Trump claims to have written the speech herself with very little help from a speechwriter. This seems difficult to believe. It is part of the social contract that we maintain with public figures that we pretend that they write their own public statements while knowing better. In other words, this is the sort of deception that we all agree to, making it something more like a game of winks and nods. So when we hear Hulk Hogan, Adrien Peterson, or Melania Trump speak with legal/political aplomb, we shrug our shoulders and attribute it to a wordsmith even when they claim otherwise.

But let's also remember that Mrs. Trump's husband has created a "brand" with tremendous, amazing, and huge political currency. He has the best words. She thus finds herself in an impossible situation as a proprietor and prisoner of this brand. This brand boasts being off-script and eschews politically correct language. This is the Trump brand and it is built on a big orange face saying things that a professional wordsmith would never say. And apparently it works. At least 30% of Americans (perhaps more?) like being shocked and enjoy laughing nervously at outrageous statements even when they are baldly false. With this in mind, was Melania Trump given an impossible task? Did she, as she says, choose to write her own speech like her husband does?

Regardless of how we answer this question, let's consider the most likely scenario: Melania Trump never in her wildest dreams imagined that she'd be measured against First-Lady standards. Whatever dubious reasons she had for marrying Donald, she didn't sign up for this sort of dystopian absurdity. Who could have imagined things unfolding the way they have?

My guess is that Melania Trump found herself overwhelmed and out of her element culturally and professionally. So what grade do we give her? I see no way around failing her. She must take responsibility and we must uphold the integrity of the political system (whatever is left of it). But doesn't she also deserve our compassion? It is difficult to imagine a worse no-win situation.

*The relative pronoun takes its case from its use in the relative clause. Tip of the hat to James Ernest.


  1. I share your sentiments that this was an instance of 'obvious' and reckless plagiarism on the part of Ms. Trump (or rather Ms. Trump and her speech-writers regardless of which held more authority over the final product of the speech) and that, more broadly, plagiarism oftentimes is an unfortunate effect of certain cultural and personal circumstances.

    I would also add that *not* plagiarizing is a learned skill for many. I here speak anecdotally as well. I can recall the difficulty of trying to produce some of my first "long" essays in grade-school, only to find that it was extremely difficult to learn to be self-reflective enough to produce some modicum of originality while connecting bits of research without merely "copying and pasting."

    So, with respect to Ms. Trump, *even if* she did indeed spend weeks writing her speech "with as little help as possible," your two points of compassion and yet firmness are fitting. Ms. Trump herself is not trained (to my knowledge) to avoid these type of mistakes (even if they seem commonsensical to someone like myself), but the help she did receive and the people who reviewed her speech certainly are and could have found these parallels.

    1. Nathan, great point about writing sans plagiarism is a learned skill for many. This point might indeed make it into my first-day-of-class lectures. thanks!

    2. As long as you cite me, that sounds great ;)

      I enjoy reading the blog, keep up the great work!

    3. Nathan, sorry, I am not following. This isn't a case where Ms. Trump's speech was unoriginal, or where it borrowed ideas from others. This is a case where considerable portions of Ms. Obama's speech from 2008 were copied verbatim, and passed on to Ms. Trump's audience as her original and personal expression. And I'm sorry, but this is theft.

      I don't get it at all, that it's a learned skill to learn to write without copying sentences from someone else's writing, and passing them on as your own. I remember what happened in grade school if I copied someone else's work during a test, or for a take-home assignment. If I got caught, I got an "F." It took us about five seconds to learn this lesson.

    4. Thanks for your response Larry and for the opportunity to (hopefully) clarify some my suggestions.

      First, I would agree with you that this particular case with Ms. Trump's speech is unequivocally and blatantly plagiaristic in nature. I am in no dispute with you there and I don't think my original comment said otherwise (point me out if I'm wrong though), only that, I think it's fair to apply a certain measure of compassion alongside, but not necessarily equal to (especially in this case), the measure of firmness we also apply in calling her out on this theft (and again, it is indeed theft). Compassion and conveying the gravity of such actions need not be mutually exclusive, NOR should a modicum of compassion indicate that I am an advocate for Ms. Trump and think her actions are therefore a bit more excusable. That is certainly not the case (and I do recognize that you didn't suggest that I made this assertion either).

      And, I should add that my conclusion here, as suggested in my original comment, is contingent upon falsifiable assumptions: namely, that Ms. Trump has considerable less practice at constructing written/oral expressions and that writing sans plagiarism (to use Anthony's expression) is indeed a learned skill, which leads us to your next point of objection--Is learning to write without copying sentences a learned skill?

      Your last sentence implies that it is, even if it only took you/your classmates "five seconds to learn this lesson." 5 seconds to learn something is still a learned quality (though perhaps not a skill if it only takes 5 seconds). But, further, let me ask you this: had your teachers not once taught you to cite your sources, would you have done so anyways at that age?

      My experience with my classmates was completely different than yours evidently. I resonate with your experience personally- it took me one assignment in writing to learn this lesson (even though it was difficult that very first time). *Some* of my classmates, however, took way longer to cultivate this skill, in part because they were not naturally gifted in academics and because they did not completely understand the consequences of their actions, despite receiving lower marks. Ones initial reaction in constructing oral/written works, is not *necessarily* to give credit to their sources UNLESS such a practice is inculcated firmly and repetitively from the start, because, let's face it, many students are terrible at listening and don't understand, again, the gravity of their actions.

      Perhaps where the confusion surfaces is in the extent to which we can connect Ms. Trump's actions with the analogy that I used. But, I would caution, my analogy was meant to excite the imagination into contemplating ways that plagiarism occurs: there are certainly different types/degrees of plagiarism, and *sometimes*, these are the result of a lack of skill/practice. Other times, they are the result of laziness or sneakiness, or combinations of all or some of the above. Regardless, writing sans plagiarism takes varying amounts of practice depending on the individual, and because of that, I stand by my classifications that it is indeed *a skill for many.* But, this is a point drawn out of my own experience, which, of course, has differed from yours, and so you may not find this convincing, so we may have to ultimately, and respectfully, agree-to-disagree.

  2. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Speaking autobiographically, I was an undergraduate philosophy major (1960's). I'm not sure where the esoteric interests came from, but I was raised in a home where the advantages of an advanced education in terms of vocabulary development were not present. I recall that the word "value," and similar terms, were for some time totally foreign to me, as the professors used them in lectures. I recall my initial attempts at writing papers where the professor sat me down and called my attention to possible plagiarism. The term plagiarism was, of course foreign to me. It took me a long time to become self-expressive in a way that wasn't merely repeating an unacknowledged source. I wouldn't call my plagiaristic tendencies learned, but the result of reflexive immaturity.

    1. Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

      Regarding my 7/20 9:14 AM post. A final sentence is obviously needed. "But I would say, agreeing with Nathan and Anthony, that I had to learn to write without plagiarizing."

      It also occurred to me that professors/teachers could measure the required skills, vocabulary and otherwise, of the individual students at the beginning of a given course, thus providing insight into subsequent performance characteristics.

  3. More serious was the plagiarism by British officials of a student thesis.

    "Much of the period leading up to March 2003 was spent remaining in contact with the Iraqi opposition, providing material for and commenting (sometimes) on drafts of the No10 briefs (including forwarding the text of Ibrahim al-Marashi's Iraq's Security & Intelligence Network: A Guide & Analysis which ended up being cited extensively, without acknowledgement, in one of the No 10 papers);"

    DECLASSIFIED Briefing from Robert Wilson, FCO Research Analyst Dated November 2009.
    (see Chilcot report)

    Not only was Marashi's paper plagiarised, but it was altered in some sections to strengthen the argument for a pre-emptive war.

    I am not aware of any action taken against officials involved in this plagiarism even though it had major consequences.

  4. From Dr G

    In a sense, all professors plagiarize legally. The vast bulk of what they say, is borrowed from dozens if not hundreds of others. They only escape charges of theft, by citing these countless borrowings. But finally, it seems to me,they can't escape charges of massive conformism.

    The more sources you cite, the more conforming you are thereby proven to be.

    That's one reason I went to grad school and got my doctorate. But chose not to be a professor: to get into more creative and original work.

  5. I often wonder where the line is drawn between homage and plagarism for oral discourse. For example the Gettysburg Address' "Four score..." was repeated by JFK in his July '63 address before his assassination. Similarly MLK's 'I have a Dream' speech references several different hymns and other orations. But in both of these examples they are clear homages, the referent isn't necessary because it is well known by the audience, the collective memory fills in the citation.

    Perhaps it is more abhorrent in the Trump discourse because the quotation is from a person whose position is antithetical to the new discourse?