The Czar speaks again…

Ok, so now to my surprise, the Trump campaign has brought forward a responsible party for the plagiarism in Melania’s speech. In the New York Times of July 20, we read that Meredith McIver, an in-house staff writer for the Trump Organization, has issued a statement claiming responsibility for the plagiarized elements that remained in the final draft of the speech. In the words of Jason Horowitz’s article (he said carefully referencing his source),

In the statement, Ms. McIver, a 65-year-old co-author of several books with Donald J. Trump, said that as she and Ms. Trump were preparing her speech, Ms. Trump mentioned that she admired Mrs. Obama and read to Ms. McIver parts of the first lady’s 2008 speech at the Democratic convention.

Ms. McIver said she had inadvertently left portions of the Obama speech in the final draft.

Now, part of me wishes that the speech had explicitly used the words of Michelle Obama. This could have been a very unifying kind of pivot. “Like the current First Lady, I share the values of hard work, etc.  But while all of us are united around some core values, we also have our differences. Which are…”  This is the kind of nuanced reasoning we teach to freshmen all the time, precisely because it breaks down the reptilian reliance on false dichotomies.  It also reminds us that one’s opponents in a genuine discussion of ideas are not one’s enemies. Instead, we got plagiarism backed up after the fact by the most common excuse of plagiarists: she “inadvertently left portions of the Obama speech in the final draft.”  This should have the credibility of the employee who, caught with a hand in the till, says, “I’m going to pay it back,” or the cheating spouse who blurts out, “This isn’t what it looks like.”

As the Czar of Plagiarism, let me explain two things.

  1. All plagiarists change something in the words they are stealing. Perhaps this is to assuage their guilt; perhaps it’s to throw off  Instead of establishing innocence, the changed elements establish mens rea.  Think about it: if you steal a car, you don’t sell it as is down the street. You repaint it at least, or chop it up for parts. So when apologists for Trump’s campaign pointed to the differences by way of exculpating Melania & Co, they were being much dumber than they meant to be. Tough guys and sharpies should know better than to look at the pieces of a stolen vehicle and say, “That’s not my car, mine isn’t in pieces.” The really clever plagiarists can even pass through the search engines of by totally rewriting what they steal—but the charge of plagiarism still sticks when you’ve lifted the whole argument, including the particular evidence, and put it in your own terms.
  2. The most common excuse I hear these days from students busted for plagiarism—let me be clear, this is a small minority of the very honorable Honors students it is my pleasure to teach—is precisely this: “Oops. I didn’t mean for that to stay in. That’s a mistake.” I have literally heard students claim that they “accidentally” turned in their notes file (made up of copy-and-pasted stuff from or Wikipedia) instead of their final draft. But mind you, this “notes file” has no attribution of source, and is formatted just like a final draft, including a title page. Please, all ye entering freshmen, unlearn this excuse now. It will not save you from the consequences of plagiarism. If we were to accept it at face value, it would only expose just how terribly you do your research, since you apparently don’t label your notes files appropriately with references for your quotations. It’s not a great idea to run from being called a crook by embracing the idea you’re a moron. You’re a college student!

The saddest truth, though, is that Melania Trump herself, who claims to have been inspired by Michelle Obama’s words, didn’t notice the all-too-close resemblances. This of course undermines the credibility of the scenario we’ve been given. But let’s move on.

Plagiarism has no party affiliation; it’s a temptation even good students can succumb to in a jam. But hopefully this scandal will show matriculating students this fall that it’s not an option.  After all, they won’t have the excuse of a team of sloppy speech writers. Though I’ll probably hear that one, too, before too long.


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The Czar of Plagiarism Speaks

One of my less glorious roles in life is to be the Czar of Plagiarism in the Honors College—technically what is known as the First Hearing Officer.  This isn’t a large part of what I do, since in an Honors College we have, well, honor. But it’s important to follow through on the isolated cases of academic dishonesty that we do see.  It’s nothing I would talk much about normally…but then this isn’t a normal year.

So when Melania Trump cribbed a paragraph of her speech at the Republican National Convention, suddenly the whole world began to talk about plagiarism. This led to my sudden appearance on KHOU News:

I’m hoping at least this discussion will have a good effect on entering freshmen this fall. It really pays to do your own writing, particularly when you are talking about the values you learned as a child, how your word is your bond, etc.  On the other hand, I fear some students will take this example the other way, and think plagiarism has no consequences. Come to think of it, I better get ready for a busy year…

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What do we look for in an oral exam?

It’s that time of year when Human Situation students are getting ready for the final oral examination.  Since oral exams are rare and the students are largely freshmen, it’s understandable that they don’t quite know what to expect.  I posted something last year that turned out to be very helpful, so I’m reposting it now with a little freshening up.

First of all, if you’ve seen the rubric, you can tell that we are looking at the full range of texts in the semester.  At a minimum, you should have something to say about every text we read. We don’t expect total recall of the whole text of say, the Odyssey; but it is not unreasonable for us to expect you to remember the names of major characters, the general incidents and outline of the work as well as some details that were personally significant to you. We dwell on particular scenes in discussion and lecture, and we’d expect those discussions to stick in your memory. If you sound as though all you know could have been taken from Spark Notes, then we’re not that impressed.  You should really know who Polyphemus is, what the bow contest was, what’s so special about Odysseus’ bed or his scar, and whom Telemachus visits.

In a text like Plato’s Symposium, we expect you to retain the general nature of the speeches (yes, all of them) and how they relate to each other. We might throw a question at you like: why doesn’t the Symposium just end with the speech of Diotima?  It might be understandable that you’d forget the name Pausanias, but you should definitely remember the name Alcibiades and why his intrusion seems important. (And thanks to that last sentence, you will NOT forget the name Pausanias.)

Some of us are quite open to your challenging philosophical positions in the exam. For example, you might declare you find Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to be seemingly inconsistent; however, expect immediately to be asked to explain the inconsistencies in detail.  It’s not enough to say, “I just don’t buy the argument.”  You should also be careful to review the meanings of words as defined in the context of the course. We might ask you, “What is yoga in the context of the Bhagavad Gita?” or “What would Marcus Aurelius think of kleos as a goal for virtuous action?”

If we are discussing the Hebrew Bible or a Christian work like Augustine’s Confessions, know that we expect you to engage them as texts. We are neither trying to convert you nor subvert your faith; but we are expecting you to enter into the terms and details of those books as texts. You don’t have to be a Christian or a Hindu to address a comparative question like, “How do Plato and Augustine see the nature of the soul’s desire as opposed to the Bhagavad Gita?”

Ultimately, the exam shouldn’t really be all that much about your memory of texts and arguments—it’s not a trivia contest. It’s a lot more about your engagement with the reading. So what’s the difference between a B- and a solid A exam?  Here are some observations.

  1. An A exam feels like the examinee has conviction based upon a thoroughly digested reading of the texts.  This means thinking through the arguments, pulling them apart, comparing them, and coming up with new ideas. Hopefully you have done this in your discussion sections and your papers.  All that previous work is fair to use for the oral final; use it, but build on it. Repetition doesn’t get you much.
  2. An A exam is not one where we have to walk you through the connections.  Sometimes the examiner poses a question that immediately draws two texts into play.  Once you see the connection, a lot of things should fall into place. But if the examiner has to map them out for you, then you get a lot less credit for the discussion.
  3. In an A exam, the examinee is often as ready to teach as to learn. While we don’t expect it to happen in every exam, the fun thing for us is that we sometimes learn to see things differently based on what students say in the oral final. This again reflects not just assimilation of information, but a new synthesis and digestion of all this from your perspective.
  4. In an A exam, there is solid textual detail that naturally comes forward.  While we don’t expect you to remember everything we might mention, we do expect some decent kind of recall.  However, when you offer of your own accord some detailed textual analysis, we can’t help but be impressed. That’s why memorizing some parts of texts is always a great fallback, particularly when they are central to your understanding of the text.
  5. In an A exam, the examinee holds her own without bluster.  This means that in the give and take of questioning, she keeps her poise but also allows herself to think, in order to add judicious insight and nuance to her answers.  One common mistake is to think we’ll read bluster and obstinance as conviction and certainty.  You can get marked down for simply riding one hobby horse through all the texts, so remember that this is a conversation, not a debate tournament.  Learning to concede points, to qualify claims, or to reflect on the implications of a line of reasoning are all part of critical thinking. There is more to critical discourse than talking fast. Sometimes taking a moment to ponder and formulate an answer to a good question looks quite respectable.
  6. In terms of the show ChoppedYou need to use all of the ingredients from the basket, but it’s not enough just to toss them on the plate. You need to transform the ingredients and give us a real sense of your cooking skills.

Lastly, these observations are not made as some kind of ideal of what an A exam should be.  These are actual descriptions of what A exams are like, from the point of view of the examiner. There really are people out there who will get an A.  It’s not easy to do, but people do succeed at this all the time. And we are always very proud of them.  Good luck!

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Theater: The Drama of Ourselves

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working on a cd with John Lienhard that served as one of the premiums for the KUHF pledge drive that year. It was all centered on theater, and featured our Engines of Our Ingenuity colleagues Andy Boyd and Roger Kaza in addition to ourselves.

In case you missed it, the content is available online now here.

One of those many great things that comes from being a part of the Engines team!

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An Awesome Bit of Synergy

So here’s why I love my job. An awesome colleague, Ricardo Nuila, MD, came to us with a project: mounting a service learning trip to a clinic in Santa Ana Honduras run by an NGO, Shoulder to Shoulder. With the help of student assistants from the Bonner Leaders program, we were able to make this happen and selected 17 amazing students from the Honors College at UH—including Jonathan Adams, a Classical Studies minor and Biochem major (renaissance man!). We added to this crew a talented  young videographer, Abigail Hagan, who had gone with the Honors College before on a mission to Haiti, organized by my colleague Shasta Jones. In the end, Ms. Hagan produced this amazing video that reveals all that is so important about this endeavor:

Honors Service Abroad to Honduras, 2015 from Abigail Hagan on Vimeo.

We have just received another batch of applications from students eager to participate in this clinical project, and we see another crop of committed and talented young people ready to go, thanks in part to this video. When I see things like this happen, I think I have the best job in the world!

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New Book in our series with Ohio State UP

I had one of those funny moments today.  I received several new books in the mail, and I looked at one with the title Ancient Sex and thought—wow, who sent me this? Then I realized, “Oh, yeah, that’s the next in our series with Ohio State UP!”  Ok, it had been a long day. We sent it off for printing a few months ago, and I hadn’t seen the final design; the volume is very handsome indeed. blondell_ormand_ancient

The contents are dynamite. Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand have done a wonderful job in bringing together a team of scholars to tackle ancient sexuality from new angles (I know, sounds like some kind of erotic football, I should police my metaphors better). Here’s the blurb:

Ancient Sex: New Essays presents groundbreaking work in a post-Foucauldian mode on sexuality, sexual identities, and gender identities in ancient Greece and Rome. Since the production of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, the field of classics has been caught in a recursive loop of argument regarding the existence—or lack thereof—of “sexuality” (particularly “homosexuality”) as a meaningful cultural concept for ancient Greece and Rome. Much of the argument concerning these issues, however, has failed to engage with the central argument of Foucault’s work, namely, the assertion that sexuality as we understand it is the correlative of a historically specific form of medical and legal discourse that emerged only in the late nineteenth century.

Rather than reopening old debates, Ancient Sex takes up Foucault’s call for discursive analysis and elucidates some of the ways that ancient Greek and Roman texts and visual arts articulate a culturally specific discourse about sexual matters. Each contributor presupposes that sexual and gendered identities are discursively produced, and teases out some of the ways that the Greeks and Romans spoke and thought about these issues. Comprising essays by emerging and established scholars, this volume emphasizes in particular: sexual discourses about women; the interaction between sexual identities and class status; gender as an unstable discursive category (even in antiquity); and the relationships between ancient and modern sexual categories.

We’re very proud of our latest addition to the series Classical Memories / Modern Identities, and are of course always looking for new submissions.

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Confessions of a Spelling Bee Pronouncer, Part II

webster-dictionary-1828I understand the devotion to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, I really do.  It is our American dictionary, after all, started by Noah Webster in 1806, the founding father who sought to save our language from the “clamor of pedantry” that surrounded the British approach to our common tongue. He argued for popular sovereignty over the language and refused to let aristocratic norms decide how we speak. It began in the appropriately American way: pragmatic, based on classroom experience, geared to the education of a broad swath of the public, not a thin film of upper crusties.  And it brought genuinely American words for the first time into a dictionary: skunksquash.  He learned 28 languages and mortgaged his home to keep the thing going. Noah’s word-ark brought us to a world of democratic, new-world English.

So the spelling bee powers that be are right to insist upon this dictionary as the standard for American spelling contests.  They are, after all, imminently democratic enterprises. A group of very diverse students compete over one thing we all have access to: our language. And it inculcates the basic value that language is power, a healthy thing for smart kids to learn.

But it seems to me an UTTER violation of the principles of democracy, popular sovereignty and common sense (that GREAT American value!) that these children, who have a hard enough time learning our antiquated, polyglot and sometimes simply perverse spelling, are “guided” in their pronunciation by the idiosyncratic respelling system still deployed in Merriam-Webster’s.  This is simply wrong, and it should stop. And I am very nearly serious when I say this.

Let me explain.  Around the world, people are learning English. More people speak English as a second language than speak it as a first language.  All these English learners have one thing in common: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is in almost every learner’s dictionary of English.  It is the perfect antidote to our ridiculous system of orthography.  It is a rational, internationally agreed upon, universally used (if adapted a bit here and there), and now unicode system that covers the basic sounds of the world’s languages.  An IPA transcription will immediately give the lie to such travesties as the apparent similarity of food and wood, which do not rhyme because they contain completely different vowel sounds. You’ll see this right away when you see the IPA phonemic transcriptions: /fu:d/ vs. /wʊd/. What’s more: when a student learns the IPA, they can use that very same knowledge to learn French, or German, or Swahili. IPA is a kind of unicode to the sounds of the world’s many tongues. Why keep its knowledge from the young people of this country?

One answer a serious researcher has come up with is that empirically, casual dictionary users find the English-based respelling systems easier to use [1].  That’s a valid point, I guess; but only if you are thinking about access to English.  I would state again that the IPA is better overall if we want our students to learn more than just English, and to have a great tool to describe sounds that vary across the spectrum of global English.  I agree, this is more ambitious than just tracking what the casual dictionary user finds more helpful.

Now my true confession: this mostly annoys me because I struggle with unlearning the IPA in order to be a bee pronouncer!  The idiosyncratic symbols used in the wordlist I’m given tend to throw me off as I grow tired. I spend all day teaching Latin, so to be told the symbol ī represents the vowel sound in eye is a bit much. It’s not “long i” after all, but a diphthong, as IPA will show you: /aɪ/. And from years of reading German, I get completely flummoxed by ä representing the vowel in don, as in the Websterese: \nänə’jesəməl\ for nonagesimal.

This is not a major issue, I know. There are larger matters of concern in literacy today. I’m sure it would cost quite a lot of money to reconfigure dictionaries to the IPA after decades of respelling systems. But I say: let’s do it for the children…

[1] Helen Fraser, “Dictionary Pronunciation Guides for English,” International Journal of Lexicography 10.3 (1997):181-208.

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