Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Line that Melania Cut

I find myself troubled by the Melania Trump debacle at the Republican National Convention Monday night. Her speech shamelessly lifted large segments of a speech given by First Lady Michelle Obama at a preceding Democratic National Convention without any attribution. NPR played the two speeches together. They were essentially identical for a couple of minutes in length. 

While party loyalists have suggested this was neither intentional nor serious, this  behavior is consistent with her prior communications on Twitter in which Melania used a quote by Marva Collins (“Trust yourself, think for yourself, act for yourself, speak for yourself. Be yourself!”) without attribution. In one of life's great ironies, the Collins quote ends with the warning “Imitation is suicide.” 

Little wonder poor Melania cut that line.

Finding the Learning Opportunity 

As a teacher, my concern is never that a student has found a great quote to illustrate his or her point. That’s actually the mark of a good student. What troubles me is when students fail to give attribution for the statement they’ve found. 

While I love Maya Angelou, I will never be nearly as lyrical as that absolute master of the English language. If I use her words, I need to note that they are hers, not mine. To do otherwise would perpetrate a fraud on my reader or listener and simultaneously fail to afford the author her due respect.

The other problem students manifest regarding quoted materials is the tendency to string together other people’s words to make their argument rather than illustrating their own original argument with a strategic use of quotes. In addition to failing to offer attribution for her source, Melania engaged in this sophomoric behavior as well.

Of course there are good examples of such behavior everywhere. From fundamentalist preachers who string cite bible verses as if they were self-explanatory and self-interpreting to the cutting and pasting of material from internet sites and posting it elsewhere on the internet without comment, unauthorized use of the intellectual property of others as a means of avoiding the hard work of creating one's own is common place everywhere we look.

Ted Swanson at the National Religious Liberties Conference: 
“Yes, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. Yes, Romans chapter 1 verse 32 the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death. His words not mine!

The troubling aspect of such behaviors is that they serve as a rather tacit admission that one either has nothing of value to say, they are too cowardly to take responsibility for their own ideas or they are simply too lazy to formulate, articulate and support their own arguments. It is, at a basic level, a self-indictment of dishonesty, cowardice, laziness or sheer vapidity.

However, Melania Trump is not just any undergraduate student. For a potential First Lady to engage in such dishonest behavior is disturbing. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a highly literate First Lady like Jacqueline Kennedy or a devoted librarian like Laura Bush doing something like this. Such behavior sets a very poor example for the nation’s students. And it minimizes the value of academic integrity.

Were Melania in my course, I’d have called her into my office for a discussion. I always give students in such situations an opportunity to be heard before taking action. Depending upon her response, I’d have considered making her rewrite the speech giving attribution, turning it into a learning opportunity. Alternatively, I would have failed her for the assignment and possibly the course and refered her to the academic honesty course as a requirement for graduation.

Truth be told, I think Melania is in way over her head. To begin with, she is not college educatedanother fact about which she has been dishonest. She speaks English as a second language, always a challenge. 

At a very basic level, Melania, Trump’s third wife and former soft porn model, is being used by the Donald in much the way he has used virtually everyone in his life. She is not First Lady material. She is a means to Donald’s ends. And should she fail to satisfy his demands upon her, I have no doubt that, just as he did with the first two Trump-ettes, he will gladly scream at her “You’re fired!”

In the words of a turn of the 20th CE popular song, “She’s more to be pitied than censured.” 

But does the public care?

But this behavior does exemplify the enormous superficiality that has marked the Trump candidacy generally. The ghost writer for Trump’s book The Art of the Deal recently revealed that Trump is incapable of following a serious discussion to any kind of logical conclusion, has probably not read a book in 50 years and willingly took credit for a book he not only did not write even as he was unaware of all of its content. Tony Schwartz expresses deep regret for his role in getting the book to market and says if we were to do it all over again, he’d entitle the book The Sociopath.

There is a brazenness in verbatim theft of other people’s speeches and blatant deceit about one’s academic career. It suggests a belief that either the audience will not catch this sleight of hand or, alternatively, that we will not care. The latter is more troubling because it reflects a belief that the American public is itself rather vapid, a belief that terrifies me in its potential truthfulness.

The Republican National Convention has thus far been a parade of washed up actors, professional wrestlers and fundamentalist preachers. It has also reflected a studious avoidance of the RNC dais of any leader seen by the American public as thoughtful. All of this suggests that Trump is betting that the American people are willing to settle for a reality television presidency and four years of mindless entertainment.

Truth be told, I wake up in cold sweats at night considering the possibility that he just might be right.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


1 comment:

Omniryx said...

I think you're pretty much on target, Harry. When I began college teaching in 1972, overt plagiarism was rare. I and most of my colleagues--with the full support of the administration--were merciless in response. Plagiarizing a paper generally resulted in failing the course. No do-overs; no plagiarism safe driver school.

I used to believe that this was primarily a problem with undergraduates. With the exception of my first couple of years, I taught master's and PhD students almost exclusively. I chaired 36 master's committees and served on 24 more. I served on a dozen PhD committees, of which I chaired six. Of all those, I had one case in 1984 (at least one case that we caught; graduate committees are pretty careful readers) in which a master's student lifted whole pages out of an earlier doctoral dissertation. The committee voted unanimously to reject the thesis and recommended that she be dropped from the program. The dean concurred and the student was expelled, though the Assistant Vice President for Student Satisfaction and Retention (I swear before God, that really was his title) berated me for 20 minutes on the phone for being "hard hearted" and "sending a terrible message to the other students." Indeed.

Sadly, by the time I retired from university teaching in 2014, plagiarism was so common that this strict response would likely have resulted in the loss of 10%-15% of the students. The usual penalty had become a rewrite with a reduction of ten points on the assignment grade.

Now, in fairness to students--especially undergrads--secondary education in public schools has been so degraded that a good number of students come to college never having been taught the rules for source attribution. Such may well have been the case with Melania Trump. Three days ago, I doubt she knew plagiarism from paraphimosis. She certainly learned the hard way.

Theft of the words of others has been so trivialized that people scarcely give it a thought until it occurs in a venue such that it offers free political capital to the opposition. I can imagine your typical Trump supporter saying to his wife, as he chambers a shell in his assault rifle, "Aw hell, Maudine, its just them dam' liberals pickin' on that purty lady."

To abandon that mean-spirited stereotype, my point is that few Trump advocates likely considered criticism of Ms. Trump to be anything more than politics-as-usual. Certainly the Trump campaign responded in that manner. First Paul Manafort blamed the incident on Hillary. Then, when that didn't fly, he resorted to the time-honored sweep-it-under-the-carpet strategy: "It's time to move on."

God help this nation if The Donald is elected.