Wednesday, July 20, 2016

An English Teacher's View of the Trump Plagiarism Issue

I have just retired from a nearly four-decade career teaching English. When I started, back in the 70’s, I was barely older than the students in my senior classes, so of course I was a stickler for the rules just to get them to take me seriously.

One of the requirements to pass English 4 was a research paper, and English 4 was required for graduation. This provided some leverage as I taught my students about the many different ways one can plagiarize. I remember creating overhead projection demonstrations on those flimsy plastic sheets that you drew on with marker; in the end I had a multiple page prototype PowerPoint presentation on how to avoid plagiarism…in about ten colors. It took two full days to go over the lesson; I wanted everyone to know I took it very seriously so that they would, too. I was a 22-year-old teacher who should be watched out for, dammit.















But I was nice to them. I assigned a fun research topic: mythology. And I explained that it was something I’d taken classes on and knew quite a bit about. I even mentioned some good books they might use. Weeks later, over Christmas break, I had dozens of research papers with me to grade. Somewhere in the middle of the stack, I read one I had read before. I even knew which one it was. I compared the two just to be certain, but yes: they were exactly the same. (Turned out they both copied it from the same source!) In the end, I caught thirteen cases of whole or partial plagiarism: thirteen seniors who did not graduate with their class that June.

And that was that: suddenly I had gained the reputation of someone who catches cheaters. Over the years, I caught many more, most of whom were just stupid enough or full of enough hubris (or both) to think they could get away with it. Or maybe they were just desperate enough that they felt they had to try. Every case ended the same way, though, even if it wasn’t a paper that caused automatic failure: a zero for the work. Over the years, I added a discussion with parents, and then a more difficult topic if they wished to redo it, among other things, but the bottom line was always that initial zero. And it never mattered whether the paper was copied in whole or in part. They all knew that any plagiarism is still plagiarism.

A facebook friend dug up a wonderful old song by Tom Lehrer in which he discusses plagiarism in academia called “Lobachevsky”:


This is the most basic lesson any writer learns: don’t copy other writers’ work without giving credit. So how the heck has the Trump campaign managed to screw it up twice in the first two days of the RNC?

First, of course, came the celebrated Melania misfire, in which she stole a significant portion of her speech from Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. Such things, in the world of politics, are not unknown. President Obama himself took lines from a 2006 Deval Patrick speech in 2008. When the situation was discovered, though, he apologized to Patrick, who accepted it. Compare this to the Trumps, who came up with at least seven or eight separate excuses (including My Little Pony) to deflect blame, even though Melania’s first reaction was to clarify that she had, indeed, written the speech. (It turns out that what she had done was rewrite the speech, but let’s not nitpick.) As of this writing, (late Tuesday night), they still have not even admitted there was any plagiarism. Their surrogate lapdog Chris Christie went so far as to attempt to redefine what plagiarism means, claiming that since the speech was only 7% someone else’s words, it was fine.

No. It wasn’t. Plagiarism is any unattributed content. It's kind of like pregnancy: you can't plagiarize just a little because even a little is plagiarism.

Which brings me to our next guest, Donald Trump, Jr. As The Daily Show noted in its Twitter account late Tuesday night, he took a couple of key lines directly from a conservative magazine. The author of the article he used, F.H. Buckley, tweeted later that Trump had permission to use the lines, and that’s a good thing. But perhaps it’s beside the point.

Trump was delivering a speech in the immediate aftermath of Melania’s debacle the previous night. You’d think that the one thing that the campaign would make absolutely certain would be that nothing with even the appearance of plagiarism occurred again after that. Yet it happened. And, once again, it happened within the family. If Trump had permission to use the lines, all he had to do was attribute them within the speech and all would have been fine. Instead, he delivered them as if they were his own, which is the textbook definition of plagiarism. And thus, permission or not, he managed to embroil his family and his father’s campaign for the second straight night in a plagiarism issue.

No wonder Trump prefers to speak off the cuff. Can’t plagiarize someone if you’re making crap up as you go along.

But here’s the ultimate thing:

I had my last case of plagiarism late last winter. A girl was under the gun and copied an essay from the internet. I explained to her (as I’d done so often before) that she was probably lucky in the long run that I had caught her. Anyone who gets away with this stuff is likely to try it again. In high school, it’s a zero and maybe a chance to do it over. But in most colleges, it’s a violation of academic honesty that can get you expelled. And this is my point: we hold college students to this very high standard. Why should we not hold someone aspiring to be President to the same one? Trump himself has not (yet) plagiarized anything, but the response of his team has been extremely discouraging. As Trevor Noah wondered tonight, what can we expect of this group when they actually have real power if this is how they act over something like this? Trump has been pushing envelopes since he declared for President over a year ago, seeing just how much he can get away with. The lesson he has learned is that he apparently can get away with anything. Remember this?



He truly believes there is nothing he can do that is too far. And why shouldn't he? It has proven true so far. And here is just one more example of standards he is willing to break down because it is expedient to him to do so. 

It’s always been clear that Trump is a petty tyrant. This convention is making that more and more obvious by the day.




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