Melania Trump and the Problem of Patchwriting

By now, you’ve probably already heard the news that Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention may have plagiarized portions of a speech given by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

A few competing narratives are floating around. One, that Melania Trump did write the speech herself, as she told Matt Lauer in an interview taped before she gave it, and is too dumb and immoral to know that you aren’t supposed to just lift passages from someone else’s speech like that (and that if you do, you are likely to be caught almost immediately). Two, that Melania Trump did not write the speech herself, but speechwriters working for her were either terrifically bad at their jobs or plagiarized on purpose to embarrass Trump. A third variation is that Melania herself, or her hypothetical ghostwriters, intentionally plagiarized in a more complicated scheme to draw media attention to the plagiarism, and then spin that media attention into another “the media is attacking us because it is terrible and hates America” narrative.

I have another theory.

Most of us, and indeed even most teachers who teach writing, still think of plagiarism in binary: either you plagiarized, or you didn’t. There isn’t much in the way of middle ground.

That’s not an accurate model of the real world, though, and it ignores the complex nature of plagiarism itself, and the complex problem that writers face when they are moving into a new discourse or genre. What writers do when writing in an unfamiliar discourse or genre (especially when trying to work with challenging source texts) looks like plagiarism, but isn’t quite.

Scholar Rebecca Moore Howard coined the term “patchwriting” to describe this phenomenon (and I highly recommend her book to anyone dealing with this issue in the classroom.) It’s very common in student writing when you know what to look for, and if you punish all of your students for it as if it were intentional plagiarism, you’re going to be dealing out a lot of punishment for an intellectual “crime” the students are committing unintentionally. Patchwriting, Howard argues, is what happens when a student is in the midst of the learning process, and isn’t comfortable enough in the new milieu to write confidently in their own voice, with their own words.

So in the case of Melania Trump, I think it’s possible that she genuinely thought that she wrote her own speech, as she claimed. I think she looked up, or was given, previous speeches by first ladies, and used those to get a sense of the genre, because it was a type of writing unfamiliar to her. I think she did what many students do, and failed to realized that she was not putting these ideas in her own words, because she, as a novice in the genre, could not imagine how to do so.

Now, Melania Trump is not an 18-year-old writing an academic paper using scholarly sources for the first time. She has resources that my students do not. And given the purpose, audience, and genre for which she was writing, I think she had a responsibility to use those resources — advisors, experienced speechwriters — in a way that she clearly did not. But if what she did was patchwriting, as opposed to intentional plagiarism, I think it is important to recognize it as such. For one thing, it disrupts the narratives I described above, all of which I find repugnant in their own special ways for dehumanizing Melania and/or robbing her of agency: the narrative which treats Melania as a stupid and avaricious intentional plagiarist, the narrative which treats her as too incompetent to even attempt writing her own speech and a liar for saying that she did, and the narrative which positions her as a patsy in someone else’s scheme.

Maybe I’m naive or overly generous, but despite the fact that I’m the furthest thing from a fan, I think it’s quite possible that Melania Trump is a human woman who, like most of us, doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. I think it’s possible she read or heard Michelle Obama’s speech, and altered it to her own situation, earnestly thinking all the while that she was putting it in her own words, not realizing that she was not conversant enough in the genre to truly do so. Given her husband’s propensities to do the same, it doesn’t strike me as impossible that she overestimated her own abilities.

Of course, all the other narratives are possible as well. If Melania Trump intentionally and knowingly plagiarized, shame on her. If she didn’t write the speech at all, shame on her for lying, and shame on whoever did write it. But if we’re going to have conversations about plagiarism in this country, let’s leave a little room for nuance. Let’s leave a little room for learning, and rather than leaping to condemn a novice — especially when that novice is a student — let’s honestly acknowledge that mastery takes time. In short, let’s leave room for patchwriting, because to move forward, we need to know where we are.

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