Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Separating Boilerplate from Plagiarism

What separates boilerplate from plagiarism?

When I read about President Starcevich, at Kirkwood Community College, having plagiarized in a speech, I had to wonder where that line goes.  That’s not an attempt to defend or excuse President Starcevich; it’s just an acknowledgement that administrative communication spans a variety of genres, some of which would make plagiarism objectionable, and some of which would not.

For example, we have a standard “weather emergency procedures” memo that goes out every year.  It includes language that doesn’t change from year to year, and it goes out to faculty and staff.  Veterans probably barely scan it, but it’s helpful for newbies and relative newbies.  I think of the memo as boilerplate.  There’s nothing in it to suggest that a given author has a personal stamp on it.  We have a host of memos and formal documents for which the language is given, either explicitly or by longstanding habit.  I’ll admit frequently just acceding to pre-existing language on documents like that, seeing it as pointless not to.  I don’t consider that plagiarism, though someone with an axe to grind probably could.

At graduation, certain lines are scripted.  Lines like “Graduates, please proceed up the aisle and to your left, and give your card to the person at the microphone” are pre-written, often not by the person who speaks them.  That doesn’t offend my sense of writerly integrity, either.

On the faculty side, it’s not unusual for sections of syllabi to repeat from year to year.  Sometimes it’s actual institutional language, but in many cases, it’s a formulation that a professor found useful once and just never bothered to change.  Given the function of syllabi, that strikes me as entirely reasonable.

I make a distinction between documents like those, which are entirely functional and basically impersonal, and documents that are presumed to have an identifiable person behind them.  Speeches, articles, books, blog posts (!), and presentations strike me as requiring a high standard of authorial honesty.  I even custom-write the “welcome to the new semester” memo every single time, just because a boilerplate welcome strikes me as self-defeating.

College presidents generally don’t have speechwriters, but they do a lot of public speaking.  I’ve seen different strategies for handling that.  Some give basically the same speech wherever they go.  I’m not a fan of that one, since it basically conveys that the audience is irrelevant, but it does offer a certain efficiency.  Some have “set pieces” that they’ll swap in and out, depending on the occasion.  (I’d guess that Starcevich incorporated the story as a set piece, then forgot to attribute.  Joe Biden did the same thing in the 1980’s with a set piece he took from Neil Kinnock.)  Some actually write out every speech de novo.  Some wing it, whether out of confidence or out of a temperamental inability to stick to a script.  Some take refuge in brevity, though fewer do that than probably should.

I’m guessing that where people sometimes fall into traps is in mistaking which set of conventions to apply in a given situation.  A college president who used a speechwriter might raise eyebrows, while a prominent politician using a speechwriter is a non-issue.  Re-using the boilerplate from last year’s memo about getting grades in on time strikes me as fair, but re-using last year’s convocation speech would not.  If I got word that someone had plagiarized my blog in a speech, I’d be torn between a murderous rage and a certain pride.  If my successor reused language in a memo on snow day procedures, I really wouldn’t care.

College presidents need to keep in mind that faculty, as a group, are uncommonly well-read and verbally proficient.  They have trouble respecting leaders who are obviously neither.  Better to give a short, honest, pretty-good speech than to try to fake greatness.  They’ll see through it.