BY GEFEN BAR-ON SANTOR
Guest blogger Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa.
I often feel in competition with the Internet as I search for materials to make my lectures more stimulating—a word many students use to describe what they want. No matter how engaging I try to become, there is still a competition with the electronic devices that some students turn to when the professor “channel” gets boring. Finding a popular video that is also truly useful to learning is therefore a gift. In the coming semester, I will be counting on Melania Trump’s Republican convention speech to keep students focused on understanding and avoiding plagiarism:
Trump’s camp initially defended Melania by saying that rather than copying Michelle’s speech, she simply expressed her genuine thoughts using common phrases which Michelle also happened to use. Conscientious students often worry that they might use other writers’ vocabulary. Is it wrong for Melania to say “your word is your bond” because Michelle also used the same idiom to express trustworthiness? In itself, sharing a choice of words with another writer is not plagiarism. Vigilance about plagiarism must not paralyze writers. It is perfectly acceptable, and often desirable, to employ words and phrases gleaned from other texts, and keeping a journal of such words and phrases is probably the single most effective strategy, aside from reading itself, to develop literacy. Enlightened dialogue would be impossible if we did not build what Elias Aboujaoude calls in Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality an “inner library that we transport with us wherever we go” composed of “the lessons that we absorb from books, the characters that mark us, the mental notes that we take,” materials that usefully “leap out of our brain to give us sustenance” (189-90) when we need them. William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style encourages a relaxed attitude about inter-textual borrowing: “Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating” (70). An earnest writer might utilize others’ words and phrases, but since s/he is writing with a genuinely felt purpose, having done honest research and using a natural but cultivated voice, his or her writing will be authentic. Of course, if students are aware that they are using another author’s words verbatim, that author should be acknowledged. For example, Melania might have said, “like Michelle Obama, I feel that. . . .” Also, an unacknowledged quotation may be an intellectually stimulating allusion. If professors tell their students that plagiarism destroys “the longest-living and truest part” of their careers, they invite them to enjoy the reference to Cassio’s lament about the loss of his reputation (Othello 2.3).
Melania’s use of Michele was no literary allusion. The structural similarities to Michelle’s speech, reproducing the same ideas in the same sequence, betrayed Melania’s plagiarism in a way that the “common phrases” defense could not cover. Students must understand that plagiarism is not just copying another author’s words: using an author’s thinking process is equally wrong. Too many students lift passages from other writers and paraphrase each sentence while maintaining the content and structure of the original text. This form of cheating is much harder to detect than passages copied verbatim (Melania’s plagiarism may have gone unnoticed had she maintained the same sequence of ideas but substantially changed the wording). To encourage empowered writing and critical thinking that eschews structural dependence on a source, we recommend the “put-sources-away technique:” write the first draft after reading your sources but without looking at them and only then, after your own words are on the page, check that you have accurately and thoroughly paraphrased and acknowledged the sources. Had Melania listened attentively to Michelle’s speech but then put it aside and wrote the first draft of her speech without the source at her elbow, she likely would have come up with ways to express her values in her own words.
When Trump’s camp moved beyond denial, they revealed that Melania read to her speech writer on the telephone sentences from Michelle’s speech that were then reproduced. This explanation raises more questions than it answers: didn’t Melania recognize these sentences as plagiarism when the speech draft came back to her? Does she understand what plagiarism is? Does she feel that it is wrong? We ask similar questions at university. While intuition might suggest that students who plagiarise lack a commitment to honest learning, there is also talk of the offenders as victims of circumstance or institutional failure. In the case of international students, cultural relativism is sometimes invoked to suggest that writing an essay is somehow a Western construct whose requirement for independent writing and research may be foreign to students from some other cultures. One commentator pointed out that English is Melania’s fourth language and that perhaps in other languages it is “okay” to plagiarize. However, the idea that it is culturally acceptable to pass off other people’s words as one’s own defies both common sense and the realities of globalized education. Another explanation is that some writers who leave their work to the last moment become too stressed the night before their work is due and opt for the most efficient path to getting some much-needed sleep—copy materials readily available on the Internet. In Melania’s case, it could take about two minutes to eliminate traces of Michelle from her speech, which makes the risk Melania took especially baffling. One of the authors on my shelf comforts honest students frustrated that some of their colleagues get away with plagiarism by saying that people who cheat once will typically be habitually careless about what is expected of them and be dishonest also in situations where the stakes may be higher. Eventually, they get caught and damage their careers. This is precisely Trump’s problem. The passionate twitter who, according to the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, has a short attention span and barely reads books (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all), is in many ways the fulfilment of Aboujaoude’s 2012 prediction about the kind of “leadership” and intellectual discourse that social media and easy access to skimmable information on the Internet might give rise to:
Given how the Internet has shortened our attention spans when it comes to reading and meaningful analysis, and given the psychological 140-keystoke limit we now set for ourselves before declaring “information overload,” it can become easier for demagogues to spread their rhetorical bullets and one-liner propaganda slogans. So that they are not believed, their veiled half-truths require vertical probing, dissection and debate, but one is too distracted for that. One just got tweeted (212-13).
Perhaps Melania was too distracted by Donald’s tweets to notice her own plagiarism—or to care about it. Our students should have more integrity.