Rand Paul in Plagiarism Detention?

So, I’ve heard all about the Rand Paul case this past two months or so.  And, by now, it’s very old news.  But, I’m an academic, not a political blogger, so I hope you’ll forgive me for being slow to join the conversation, taking time to sip my tea, grade final student papers, and mull over ideas rather than jump on the bandwagon.

Speaking of student papers, I’ve had no plagiarism this semester, which is a pleasant surprise.  I had a few quirks in the beginning of the semester where I had to lay down the law and give big fat warning grades, but when it came to the final project, at least this semester, they got it right.

That’s not true every semester.  Most years I do have to fail a few on the final project who don’t get it, won’t get it, or try to get away with it.

In the Rand Paul case, I’ve been struck by how many articles have made the comparison to writing for the academic audience.  Particularly in comments sections of these articles, so many of the commenters remark on how this sort of action would “fail” him in any reputable academic environment.  A few articles, like this one in USA Today, and this in Huffington post, make these comparisons explicit by saying that, were Paul in a college classroom, he would have certainly been censured.  This is presumably to clear up the matter of whether or not Paul actually did something wrong, as Paul at first denied the accusation in a response to Buzzfeed, by saying that he had mentioned the title of the movie he was talking about.  The problem, however, was that he hadn’t cited his secondary source, Wikipedia, from which he plagiarized sentence-long strings verbatim.

I’ve had this problem in the classroom, of explaining the importance of citing secondary sources.  Some of my students who come into my composition class are used to using Wikipedia and other online sources as a sort of “free” bank of text to make essays that resemble word jumbles more so than academic scholarship.

But, of course, I’m a composition teacher—teaching students how to compose sentences, summarize ideas, and succinctly describe things like the plots of movies is part of my objective for the course.  Struggling with the restriction to use one’s own language rather than copying, I believe, also requires more effort of expression and ultimately more pride in the outcome than copying.  The writing process that involves coming to an ultimate original product teaches critical thinking as well as how to write.

My issue with comparing what Paul did with what students do when they get the process wrong, is that Paul isn’t in an academic environment.  His goals and the needs of his audience are completely different.  Paul isn’t writing to demonstrate his competency or knowledge of a subject.  He isn’t struggling to express himself.  He isn’t trying to please teacher.

Paul, responding to these critiques, used this difference in audience in an attempt to exonerate himself, saying “I think the spoken word shouldn’t be held to the same sort of standard that you have if you’re giving a scientific paper. I’ve written scientific papers. I know how to footnote things…”

In other words, speeches aren’t held to the same standards as academic work.  And indeed they aren’t.  A major problem with accusing Paul of plagiarism is that Paul doesn’t normally write his speeches himself, nor do most politicians.  Most people readily accept that if Obama goes on stage to deliver a speech, what he says is the product of a research team and a speechwriter.  A politician or celebrity who “writes” a book usually hires a ghostwriter.  This is an accepted fact in other fields, such as law, where clerks do much of the writing for judges.

In fact, when responding to plagiarism accusations, particularly the later accusations after he admitted to “sloppy” work if not wrongdoing, Paul notably switches his pronoun from “I” when he to “we” in his interview with the New York Times:

“What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers,” he said. “We’re going to try to put out footnotes.” He said that “we have made mistakes,” but that they had “never been intentional.”

In his use of “we,” Paul shifts the blame from himself to his staff, implying that it could have been a slip up that someone else made.  And, in it probability, it was.  But, here’s my real point:

Who is responsible for the words of a politician?

We credit politicians with the minutest shades of meaning in their speeches, drill them on what they mean *exactly* by a word or phrase.  And, it is appropriate that we should.  Words have real power.  Life and death can hinge on the words of a lawmaker (and that’s what a politician is, right?).  How many international agreements have hinged on a word: an unintended phrase, an offense, a careless offer, a misunderstanding. Paul, in disowning his speech, may have done the smart move to temporarily soften the plagiarism blow, but he didn’t do justice to the responsibility he has to own his words, even when they may not have been written by him.  If there’s one thing people trust politician to do, it’s to speak for us–to own words, to mean them.  I accept the fact that sometimes speechwriters have roles to play, and that relying on one person to do all the fact-checking that’s involved in the process is unrealistic.  However, I expect that my lawmakers can stand behind the words they utter, and, even if careless, accept responsibility.

In my composition class, I talk quite a bit about ethos, the rhetorical device of establishing character.  The sources we rely on have a bearing on how we are perceived by our audience.  We can look like professionals when we are scrupulously prepared and cite to-the-minute research from credible sources.   We can look like jokes when we rely on sloppy misinformation.

Rather than mistakenly place speeches in the domain of academics, where it is inevitable that this comparison will be attacked every which way, we should look at the way in which Paul does or does not own his words.  I’m not saying that plagiarism doesn’t exist in politics–it does–but I think by pretending that plagiarism is only an academic distinction, we are missing much larger issues.  Rather than to bring in academics to say what brand of plagiarism it is or how badly Paul would fail English Comp,  we should ask, what would have happened had he not plagiarized?  Would we have accepted his line-for-line block quote of a Wikipedia article as befitting a senator?

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