How One English Professor Plans to Turn Melania Trump Into a Teachable Moment

July 20, 2016

Claire Bangser
Terri Coleman, an adjunct professor of English at Dillard U.: "Melania Trump’s plagiarism, if that had happened in my classroom, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. We wouldn’t go to student services. You’d come to my office, you’d do a rewrite."
The Republican National Convention is doing more than just informing voters. It’s educating them on the perils of plagiarism.

On Monday night, Melania Trump, the wife of the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, delivered a speech that appeared to plagiarize parts of a speech Michelle Obama gave at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Some academics saw this as an opportunity to debate different definitions of plagiarism. One adjunct professor of English plans to put Ms. Trump in her syllabus for the fall semester.

Terri Coleman, a professor at Dillard University, a historically black institution in New Orleans, says she will use Ms. Trump’s speech as an example to teach her students about plagiarism. She spoke to The Chronicle on Tuesday about how she plans to turn the speech into a teachable moment. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. On Twitter you said that you were planning to use Melania Trump’s speech to teach students. How so?

A. I teach at an HBCU, all black students. Most of my students are from New Orleans, so any way that I can make the boring [expletive] of writing even remotely accessible to them, I will do it. I do a lot memes and listicles, and my marginal notes are a lot of times in hashtag form.

What I’m thinking with plagiarism is we always have a big thing in our discussion of academic integrity. Throughout the semester, when we’re looking to do research papers and include sources, we talk about the different ways you can take information from someone else and [make] citations.

Usually what I’ve done with that is talk about three different ways to do it, and we’ll take a quote and be like, "OK, how do we cite it if we take an exact quote in quotation marks? How do we cite it if we are just using the idea? How do we reference it if we’re talking about it?"

For Melania, I think she’ll be fun, because I also follow a lot of my former students on Twitter, and they’re already in on the joke. So I know it will land with my student population, but I’m just going to play that section of the speech, play that section of Michelle Obama’s speech, give them transcripts, and talk about, "Look, I know she didn’t say the exact same thing, but, real talk, we know she stole these ideas. This is not cool."

And that sets me up for the rest of the semester, instead having to have an actual conversation when my students — and I know they will — plagiarize random stuff when they are writing response papers. I can just circle it and say #MelaniaTrumpQuotes instead of actually having to explain [expletive] again.

Q. How do you deal with plagiarism in your classroom?

A. I give a lot of grace for plagiarism, especially with my freshman students, and my, um, well, my university still calls it remedial English — they really shouldn’t. You know, the ones that aren’t ready for English 101 so they’re in 100.

If I’d have seen the transcript for the [Melania Trump] speech for one of my students, that would have been a red flag for me to give grace, but also for me to have a conversation about the ethics of it and come to my office and be like, "Here’s what you did. Here’s the things that look exactly like what you have on paper. I can see how you used that as a model, and it bled into your work, but you need to revise to either say, ‘Just like Michelle Obama said, my story is similar to Michelle Obama’s,’ or to write anew without anything in front of you so you only have your own ideas."

But I wouldn’t give a grade for that. You would get a zero until you revised that.

Because Melania Trump would be an English as a Second Language student, I would give extra grace there because, as I’ve experienced, ESL students, they are more likely to use models. It makes sense. It’s not their first language, and genre-wise they are much more likely to be working in genres they don’t know, so they’re doing double work. They are learning a new language, and they’re learning a new genre, so I would totally give grace and allow for revision.

Q. Many academics have said it’s difficult to get students, especially undergraduates, to grasp the concept of plagiarism. Why do you think it’s so tough for academics to nail down a formula to explain it to students?

A. I think it’s really hard because starting in K-12 we talk about plagiarism in the formula: You did something, you got caught, you got punished.

But in actuality what we’re doing when we’re doing academic work is we’re having a conversation. We’re talking to the field, we’re talking to the past, other current scholars and people are talking about the same thing and engaging with the same ideas: Of course we are stealing from each other. Of course we are building on each other. That’s the whole point of the field.

Scholars and academics, we have a much more nuanced understanding of that, and we’re empowered by those conversations. I want to do literary criticism. I want to have those conversations.

For students, they don’t want to read the [expletive] I’m making them read. They don’t want to have those conversations anyways. They end up so much more likely to do that little plagiarism because they are just trying to get something on the page.

And then with the kind of plagiarism that’s like, you took a thesaurus and changed six words, what happens there is we set them up to do that because we just said, "Don’t get caught." We haven’t said, "Participate ethically in a conversation. Have something interesting to say. Participate in a conversation you care about. Give a [expletive]." We just said, "Don’t let me find you."

What they’re doing is the equivalent of, when you live in your mom and dad’s house and they say clean your room and you just shove [expletive] in the closet or under the bed. Your room’s not any cleaner. You’re still going to have roaches, but your mom’s not going to catch you. We set them up to do that, and we can’t get mad when they do it. I say [that], even though I get mad when they do it.

Q. So how are you setting them up to do the opposite?

A. For me, and I teach freshman composition, it’s trying to unteach the systematic five-paragraph essay, the thoughtless writing, the "just put 500 words on the page and get it done." So I’m trying to shift them from "Oh, I have to write something" to "Oh, I’m participating in a conversation and I have something I want to say." If I can get them on the team of "I want to have thoughtful conversations," then it automatically fixes the other stuff. I try to shift them into a different goal.

Q. Presidential elections tend to bring up conversations about plagiarism. What do you hope your students learn from that?

A. I think the major piece that comes across to students, regardless of what their major or their eventual field is, is to get your house in order before you go to the big stage.

Melania Trump’s plagiarism, if that had happened in my classroom, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. We wouldn’t go to student services. You’d come to my office, you’d do a rewrite. But this isn’t freshman comp. This is the Republican National Convention.

To me, the bigger red flag of this whole thing is actual money went into this, there were meetings, there was a team of speechwriters involved in some way, shape, or form. They’re experts, not Melania Trump, but experts in this field did this and missed it.

The lesson for students is that this is the same reason that you don’t write your paper the night before and then hand it in, because if you aren’t paying attention, if your cards aren’t in order, and then you send your work off to other people’s eyes, you look stupid because you haven’t done your due diligence.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.