Recently, Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention was criticized for “plagiarizing” Michelle Obama’s 2008 address. What can learn from this political example? Is there more going on that just similar words?
Plagiarism is a literacy practice: Composition scholar Kathryn Valentine argues that plagiarism isn’t found only with words on the page, it is something that people do with words in a social context. This example of plagiarism isn’t only about Melania Trump’s speech sitting side-by-side with Michelle Obama’s speech. It also involves the speechwriters, the contexts of the political races, the audience members and readers, as well as the speakers themselves. How important is context here? Consider: Would it be different if the speech were given on America’s Got Talent? What if Bill Clinton had used the same language in discussing Hillary?
Plagiarism isn’t just similarity: The term plagiarism encompasses many different practices. Composition scholars often talk about non-attribution of sources (problems with citations), patchwriting (piecing together fragments of other writers—often the way in which we learn how to compose in new genres of writing), and cheating (intentionally offering up another’s writing as one’s own) as three of the most common practices. Copying words from one text without attribution is the most common and easiest to identify. Look at how the case was reported: side-by-side comparisons of the speech. Was this a case of merely failing to acknowledge the source? Was it a case of trying to get away with something by misleading the audience? Was it an example of a novice speech writer (Trump) relying too closely on a model text? It seems that there are elements of all three in this moment.
Authorship depends on the situation: There have been a lot of contradictory statements about whom we can consider the author of the speech. Was it all Trump? Was it her speechwriter? Michelle Obama? It is interesting to note that the standards for authorship are very different for political speeches and academic essays. Almost every public speaker has professionals who will help shape the message and words of a speech. Similarly, when students write essays, they get assistance from peers in workshops, from writing center consultants, and from their instructors. We are never completely isolated from others when we write (or speak)
Citations are tricky: Before Donald Trump gave his convention speech, his campaign staff claimed that the speech would be wholly original without any traces of borrowed phrases. To prevent accusations, the campaign released a transcript of the speech with over 280 footnotes. At least one of the cited authors claimed that the speech inaccurately represented her work. While not plagiarism, using sources responsibly is at the heart of the citation practices. Citations are not just for attribution. Writers include citations in order for readers to see the pathway of their thinking.
This case brings to light all of the complications and moving parts involved in writing when we see it as a social activity. As a result, we see that writing (and politics) is never simple, even when the evidence is in black and white.
Dr. Steven Engel is Marygrove College Assistant Professor of English. His research interests include writing pedagogy with an expertise in the area of plagiarism. Dr. Engel received his PhD from the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melania Trump Photo: Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA (20160208-DSC08088) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons