I’ve been thinking lately about a certain encounter I had with a student early in my teaching career.
One of my students — we’ll call him Mike — had just submitted a research paper that included language infused with scholarly vocabulary and mellifluous prose. Problem was, Mike had never written like this before. None of my students, in fact, had come close to this level of obviously professional writing. I needed to talk with Mike.
“I have an issue with your paper,” I said.
“What’s the issue?” he asked.
“The issue is you didn’t write the paper.”
“Are you saying I’m not capable of writing this kind of paper?” Mike responded, indignantly.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” I said. “Not many people in any high school can write at this level. In other words, this paper is plagiarized.”
Mike immediately backed off and listened to my offer: Either he rewrite the paper, or he would receive a zero for the assignment, per school policy.
By rights, I could have given Mike a zero on the spot, but I decided he had more to gain, personally and educationally, by completing the project from scratch — by himself.
Mike rewrote the paper and received a passing grade. Lesson learned.
I’ve been thinking about my encounter with long-ago student Mike because of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention, which “almost immediately came under scrutiny when striking similarities were discovered between her speech and one delivered by Michelle Obama at the Democratic convention in 2008.”
Unlike Mike, who ultimately confessed and paid the price, people in Melania Trump’s camp flatly refused to admit any wrongdoing.
“There’s no way that Melania Trump was plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie told CNN. “I just don’t see it.”
Regarding the specific words in question, Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort told CBS News, “They’re a couple of phrases. It’s basically three places in the speech and its fragments of words. She knew what she was doing. And she never cribbed from another speech without acknowledging that she was quoting somebody else.”
So who cares about “a couple of phrases,” right?
At least it’s not like Mike, who plagiarized the majority of his paper. For that matter, it’s also unlike Borney E. Mastarreno, the Glastonbury High School student whose speech at graduation this year was discovered to contain “large sections that mirror a graduation address posted on YouTube given in 2015.” Those guys are the real plagiarizers.
But then again, the dictionary plagiarism calls plagiarism “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.”
Similarly, Turnitin, an “originality-checking” resource used by teachers and students worldwide, places plagiarism in a spectrum that includes “CTRL-C” plagiarism: “Contains significant portions of text from a single source without alterations.”
Seems to me like Melania Trump’s speech, while not a wholesale rip-off, adopted many of Michelle Obama’s “apt phrases,” thereby qualifying it as textbook plagiarism.
And there’s the rub — with apologies to Shakespeare. (See what I did there?) How can mere teachers continue to hold mere students to standards of integrity and originality when plagiarism is sloughed off so casually by our supposed leaders? Have our national standards slipped so low that “copy and paste” now passes for “scholarship and wisdom”?
If Mike’s reading this, I’d be very interested to hear his original thoughts on the topic.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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