I make it very clear on the first day of class: If a student uses more than four words in a row written by someone else, those words need to be cited. That goes for essays, online responses, PowerPoint presentations, group presentations, and, yes, even a speech.
The rule is simple, but I struggle with the proper punishment. Obviously there’s a question of proportion. An entire essay copied wholesale receives an automatic F, which might cost a student the class if it’s a midterm or a final. But in my four years of experience teaching undergraduates at James Madison University, that’s only happened once. More often, my plagiarism software detects a few sentences lifted from some online source, or I notice an unusual word choice and Google the phrase where it occurs, which turns up the original author.
This kind of cheating is incredibly easy to avoid. Like my students, Melania Trump and her speechwriters were welcome to use phrases and sentences from a speech by Michelle Obama, provided they were preceded with proper attribution, something like, "As Michelle Obama expressed in 2008…"
Without attribution, the use becomes plagiarism, and there isn’t a professor in this country who would allow it. I say "this country," however, because one of the difficulties with punishing plagiarism is widely acknowledged cultural disparities regarding the nature and severity of the offense. When I taught in China, students were surprised by my strict rules against copying. Now, back in the United States, a disproportionate number of plagiarism violations in my classes (though far from all) are committed by international students.
As an educator, I have to balance fairness and empathy. I can’t apply different standards to different students, but I don’t want my standards to discriminate against those whose error is cultural, not ethical. Over the years, I’ve developed an approach that deals with these two concerns, and if Melania Trump — or, more accurately, her group — had been in my class, there’s no question that her speech at the Republican National Convention on Monday night would have received an F.
Here’s how it works when I discover a student has plagiarized. First, I bring the student to my office and ask if there’s anything they want to tell me. Is it possible they didn’t attribute a direct quote? Did they use key ideas from other sources and fail to cite them? Usually there’s an awkward silence followed by a mumbled confession. Excuses are common — college means new, higher standards, which can create unexpected pressure.
Sometimes students will ask me why plagiarism is such a big deal in the first place — but even if they don’t, it’s at this point that I explain why the rules are the way they are. Historically plagiarism hasn’t always been a big deal, and in some cultures it still isn’t considered a serious ethical violation. But in the modern West, and especially the United States, copying without attribution goes against our societal values and our economic principles, and it is these values and principles that rules against plagiarism are meant to safeguard.
When I grade students’ writing, I am also grading the work they put into mastering concepts, researching, generating original ideas, and revising. In my classes and in this culture as a whole, it is a fundamental principle that products cannot be evaluated without knowing who produced them and how. We want to know who wrote the hilarious joke, the brilliant observation, the pithy tweet. We want to know where something was made and under what circumstances.
These questions are crucial because they help us know how to allocate our trust and admiration. One of the central American myths, for better or for worse, is that of the self-made man — and so when we look at a real estate empire, listen to a speech, or read an essay, our reaction is determined, in large part, by who had a hand in it. Should we invest in the next building, listen to the next speech? Should I give this student a good grade? Well, that all depends on whether they really wrote the essay.
I think higher education — and our culture in general — benefits from the emphasis on the producer’s transparency. Students, individual students, deserve to be rewarded for virtues like industriousness and creativity, upon which many of this country’s great successes are predicated. For this reason, I explain to my students, it’s crucial to observe the implicit pact that they make when turning in a paper: that the work is their own, and therefore that it reveals something important about who they are as thinkers and as human beings.
Got it? Good. Now rewrite your paper.
In my entire career as a professor, this approach has only failed to work twice. The first time was with a student who simply denied having copied anything, even when confronted directly with the evidence. There was no question of cross-cultural confusion. It was a baldfaced lie, born of shoddy character and an inability to admit he’d done wrong. I failed him.
The second time, my student denied the importance of avoiding plagiarism. She insisted that I was blowing her offense out of proportion — after all, it was only a few sentences from a website. She told me all her classmates did the same thing. She came up with excuse after excuse, all of which blamed the vices of the system that was punishing her, instead of acknowledging her own. I failed her, too.
The Trump campaign and those who stand behind Melania Trump’s speech are guilty of both these responses. They have denied any wrongdoing, shifted the blame to Hillary Clinton, and claimed accusations of plagiarism imply that "Michelle Obama invented the English language." They have evidenced lack of character and an inability to grasp one of the core values that makes America great. They invented what will, from now on, be known as the "My Little Pony" defense.
In other words: They cheated, they got caught, and now they’ve been called to office hours with the American people. If it were my office, I know what grade I’d give them.
Alan Levinovitz is an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the author of The Gluten Lie and writes regularly on the intersection of religion, philosophy, and science. Follow him @alanlevinovitz.