Truthiness & Consequences

Chances are that you’ve heard something about First Lady candidate Melania Trump and her oopsie of a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention. It already has a nice Wikipedia entry: Melania Trump speech plagiarism controversy.

There was much discussion in the media about whether it constituted plagiarism or not, whether her speech writer should be fired, or whether she even had a speech writer. An astute piece by Dr. Brittney Cooper, aka Professor Crunk, demonstrates why the response to her speech is a perfect example of white privilege in action.

As a professor, and one who teachers both composition and courses online, I am no stranger to student plagiarism. In fact, a student in one of my courses plagiarized just this week. So, I am familiar with what constitutes plagiarism, and Trump’s speech certainly counts. It was nearly word for word, and in some cases paraphrased, pieces from another source without acknowledgement. It did not seek to reframe the original words, or place them in a different context to highlight something interesting about a topic, nor did she perform the words in a funny or undercutting way. In other words, Trump’s speech was not a remix, a sample,  a satire, or a parody, which are some types of presentations that would not count as plagiarism.

What surprised me the most, however, were academics and teachers discussing how excited they were to bring this real world example of plagiarism to bear on their classes, mainly in the context of showing why it’s wrong to plagiarize, and that there are consequences for doing so. While I could definitely see the value in discussing the speech in a freshman composition course in which we are literally defining plagiarism for students who may not have had exposure to the concept, I do not see how this works as a teachable example of consequences.

What consequences will Melania Trump face? She may feel humiliated, but she is still rich, beautiful, connected, and married to her husband. The speech writer who may have been the source of the lifted material “offered her resignation,” but it was “rejected” by the Trump campaign. So, she still has her job. Nothing seems to stick to The Donald himself, as a few words of plagiarized material in his wife’s speech are hardly the most objectionable thing about him or his campaign. So, ultimately, there have not been and will not be any “consequences” for this act of plagiarism.

So I would caution any educators out there from framing this event as a way to show the potential pitfalls of plagiarism; without any clear examples of consequences, the example of Melania Trump offers no real education on the matter. It’s difficult to help students understand plagiarism and why it’s wrong, believe me; I just don’t think Melania Trump will help students avoid it.

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