A Great Day for Plagiarism

In 2000, when the presidential election was contested and suddenly “what is the electoral college?” was the question of the day, my dad quipped: “It’s a great time for history teachers.” Disaster tended to make my dad perky—it lined up with his assessment of the human condition and society—and it had a bracing effect on him. He was often pessimistic or downright fatalistic—but he could also be funny.
My dad did not live to see this year’s presidential race, but I’m sure he would have been rude and amusing on the subject. I can hear him say, “Hey, it’s a great day for ENGLISH teachers.” And it is.
What is plagiarism? Well class, I’m so glad you asked that question. Plagiarism is basically shoplifting—it is theft. It is when you steal someone’s words. And here is the great thing—if you admit you did it and ATTRIBUTE it in correct MLA-style you will get full credit. If not, you will fail, or be expelled. Is this clear? The choice is yours.
I’ve seen some pretty extreme case of plagiarism (I’m changing details to protect the guilty.) We don’t think of creative writing as prone to it—after all, don’t writers want to express THEMSELVES? Then why pass off a sonnet by Keats as your own (and how dumb do I look?). Or, when I note that the story was written by Ray Bradbury and not you, burst out “My girlfriend SWORE she wrote it when she gave it to me…” without quite realizing that this isn’t a good defense either.
Cheating is cheating is cheating, as Gertrude Stein would say. Note that I attributed that! And how, you want to know, is homage or influence or a bit of “borrowing” (like Mr. Shakespeare from Herodotus) different than plagiarism? Good questions, class. Please look up common domain. Now write a poem that uses a line (attributed) from Pablo Neruda. After that, re-tell a classic fairy tale for modern times. Keep thinking about this. Stop trying to distract me by getting me off topic—which is easy because you know I like to talk.
If you get it right, maybe you can make a living as a speech writer.

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