Plagiarizing a momentous, hugely public, sure to be filmed and widely broadcast, commencement speech runs all sorts of obvious risks. Take the Canadian med school dean, some of whose audience, quickly identifying the source of the talk while he talked, started reading along out loud from the original as he shared poignant personal memories.

More recently, there’s the Arab-origin student speaker at Duke who found another Arab-origin student commencement speaker – this one from Harvard – and just went ahead and pilfered/proclaimed aloud all of her private thoughts/memories.

So at the Duke Chronicle you’ve got two stories covering this curious affair: The first adoringly applauds an intimate evocation of minority angst; then, fast on the heels of the rave review comes a cold clinical side by side analysis of the two speeches with the obligatory yellow highlighting.

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The foot thing? The Harvard lass quoted an Arab-American writer who described how we learn:

“…running barefoot, the skin of our feet collecting sand and seeds and rocks and grass until we had shoes, shoes made of everything we’d picked up as we ran.”

This seems to ol’ UD a singularly icky bit of writing, featuring little logic and mucho weirdness – shoes made of sand seeds rocks and grass? getting stones between your toes as a learning experience? – but okay, the Harvard speaker quotes it, and then revises and extends:

“[Sarah] Abushaar related the quote to her and her fellow graduates’ four years of “running through Harvard Yard” where the “skin of [their] feet [collected] a world of experiences.”

Still don’t like it. Skin of our feet? Still kinda dumb and gross.

Who cares. But Priya Parkash cleans it up nicely:

“Over the last four years, the sole[s] of our shoes have collected a world of experiences…”

Babe, she doesn’t even go there — she sees what UD saw, which is that the whole bare feet crunching down on stones that somehow enrich our experience thing doesn’t work, so as she plagiarizes through the document she brings a bit more sense to the metaphor or parable or whatever it is. She puts shoes on those feet.

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Still, once you’ve walked a mile very much inside someone else’s moccasins, there will be serious implications, especially when you’ve gone and made Duke, already a little shaky when it comes to its status vis-a-vis schools like Harvard, feel positively parkinsonian.

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Not that you can’t make poetry out of retentive feet.

And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

I’d have plagiarized that.

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