Salt Lake Community College’s student code of conduct says plagiarism is “representing the ideas … or writing of another person as one’s own work, even though some wording … or arrangement of ideas have been altered.” Indiana University’s website indicates “a sequence of 7 or more words from another source …(failing) to provide the … citation crediting the author(s) …” is plagiarism. This includes clever paraphrasing.
Melania Trump’s now infamous speech is not only a disgrace for Trump’s campaign, but more egregiously, it’s damaging to our education system in which even 7 percent plagiarism is unacceptable. One questionable passage includes 23 consecutive, exact words.
What message does this send to students? When Joe Biden was accused of plagiarism in the 1980s, he said it was “ludicrous” to expect politicians to give credit to everything they say. Donald Trump called it “sampling.” Melania claimed she wrote it “with as little help as possible.” The staffer who now has taken responsibility claims it was an “innocent” mistake. Trump adviser Sam Clovis calls it “an unfortunate oversight.” Another Trump associate dismisses the charges because 93 percent of it isn’t similar. Another politico once disparagingly rattled off numbers about “the other 47 percent” and he lost an election. Numbers count, but the message is intellectual “integrity” is subjective.
Michelle Obama’s childhood narrative about “integrity, compassion and intelligence reflected …” coincidentally reappears in the exact same context in Melania’s narrative but followed by “reflects” — changing past tense to present doesn’t make it less intellectually dishonest. Michellle’s “the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams” became ”limit to your achievement is the strength of your dreams.” Still plagiarism. Michelle’s “that you treat people with dignity and respect” became “that you treat people with respect.” Respect means giving credit where it’s due. Michelle’s “the next generation” became Melania’s “the many generations to come." The staffer, who apparently barely helped Melania, concluded her mea culpa letter by saying “no harm” intended.
The Trump camp’s real mistake is in not taking responsibility before, during or after for the “confusion” as the staffer called it. Donald Trump should have investigated this himself and acknowledged the accusations, instead of dismissing them until the staffer spoke up days later.
As summer semester nears the end, I wonder how many of my students will now think it’s OK to take creative license with their final writing assignment. Should I expect “admiration” for my “understanding and handling of the situation if I overlook just 7 percent plagiarism? Dishonesty is not admirable in students, and teachers or presidential candidates who tolerate it — or are willing to excuse it — are just as culpable. I’m no expert, but after 20 years teaching ESL and a master’s degree, I can only say, if it talks like a duck and looks like a duck, it’s a duck.
Teresa Stillo Ramirez, proud daughter of Italian immigrants, has been an ESL adjunct instructor at Salt Lake Community College for almost 20 years. Originally from Philadelpha, she has been a resident of Utah for 23 years.