Sunday, June 08, 2008

Should this bug me, or do I always over-react?

I made a new friend at Congress. It was someone I'd certainly known of. She had taken over when I declined to embark upon a career at the first uni where I had a Visiting position, in 05-06 . Let's call it First Uni, or FU. (I left because I had the offer for Dream Uni, and didn't like FU enough to be able to fathom spending my career there...) So anyway, we went for drinks at Congress - we had much uproariousness - and spent a lunch together, and the AGM, and the reception, etc., etc. I was all excited about My New Friend.

During one of our times together, she told me that she thought I was an "amazing pedagogue," which was a lovely compliment. She said that because all the previous years' syllabi are on file at FU, and so she has looked at my syllabi. She told me that she has used parts of my course design for her own incarnation of Fun Course (the course I was most excited to teach, when I took the position... it was the first course I ever designed for myself...) She talked about how well the articles I'd chosen worked together, and we mentioned some of our favourites. I imagined she had taken a few readings here and there, gotten some ideas.

Well. Procrastinating yesterday, I ended up on her website, and clicked upon the syllabus for Fun Course. It is exactly the same as mine. Exactly. The weeks have the same theme-names, the readings are the same (but for a tiny handful of additions at the end), and even the evaluation structure is identical. I was floored. I was also bugged. But, though I was stunned and mad, I didn't say anything to M., even though he was sitting right across from me, working. I wasn't sure I should be as bugged as I was. But, man, I'm really pissed off. It feels like plagiarism.

What is more, one of the courses I laboured over and pushed through curriculum committees and Senate to get on the permanent books at my new place, this past year, was modeled after this course. I was planning to teach it much the same way next year. I don't like the idea that there's someone out there replicating it, while I teach it here. Grrr...

The other thing is, there's a certain clause I put in all my syllabi, about what I expect of myself, and of the students. It's basically a pedagogical philosophy. Well, it's in all of her syllabi, too!!! WTF??

But, you tell me. Am I completely overreacting?


Psychgrad said...

I read your post title thinking I would try to be liberal. But, I still think it's kind of icky. I think her use of some of your material is ok - no need to completely re-invent the wheel. But I think she goes too far with using your teaching philosophy.

PossiblyFutureDrGirl said...

I'm kind of harsh about stuff like this, so I'd definitely call it plagiarism. Unfortunately, I have no idea what you could do about it, other than confront her. And that's cool --go assertiveness! --but the big question is: is it all worth it?

Whatever you decide, I sincerely believe that you are in the right, and she is most definitely in the wrong. Good luck!

dbm/gaa said...

On the one hand I totally object to the fact that her syllabus is EXACTLY like yours - can we just call it yours? This is not cool, you should never totally lift someone else's work like that. What I can't understand is how could someone do that, I am too much of a curious micro-manager to ever just accept and teach someone else's material!

On the other hand I know that most of my syllabi are cobbled together from my own and other people's work, but whenever I use something 'wholesale' from someone else I ask permission. The one thing I can think of like this is my old co-teacher's statement about essay writing is so good I asked her if I could use it, and she said I could (even then I edited it). And I've taught so many courses based on other people's courses, and now people are teaching courses based on mine, because all I've ever done is adjunct, that the lines begin to blur.

But yeah, I'd be totally pissed if it was exactly the same, or mine. Look into using a Creative Commons license in the future (I've done this with syllabi). As for approaching this particular person, I'm not sure but think you should probably keep it light to start with but I'm crap at that stuff as I tend to wade in at the deep end.

Brigindo said...

This is a strange one. I've never seen a syllabus totally lifted from me or anyone else. I do wonder how could someone NOT edit and change a syllabus, even if it is great, just to make it their own. I was called in to adjunct a class a 2nd section of a course at the last minute. They gave me the syllabus from the 1st section and said I could use it as is --but really how could I? So I did some marathon revisions and made the course my own.

I suppose you could be flattered. I don't know if I would be pissed as much as repulsed and disappointed that I thought this person would be a new friend.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I think it would bug me... My stuff (especially when I was starting out) was cobbled together from various other people's examples, but I never took any one syllabus wholesale, I always edited stuff, and the examples had been given explicitly for the purpose of copying. If someone asked me if they could use my syllabus wholesale I'd say yes, but I'd be kind of annoyed if they didn't ask.

And honestly, I have a hard time imagining *wanting* to use someone else's syllabus word for word. That said... if I were teaching an entirely new subject, something I'd never taught before, I *might* use someone else's stuff wholesale. But I have a hard time thinking that she won't end up changing things the next time she teaches it, and the next time, and the next time... because I can't imagine not changing syllabi around each time I use them. So I'm presuming that over time the similarities will wane (if that makes any difference).

Now, if she were still using the same syllabus three years from now, I'd be even more peeved, because it would be mine, and she wouldn't even be a good enough teacher to alter anything in that time!

Marcelle Proust said...

The syllabus is annoying, but the teaching philosophy seems more serious. Wasn't there a big stink, a year or two ago, about people using other people's teaching philosophies in tenure applications? Perhaps you could express your dismay in the guise of a warning, for her own protection, that she should at least revise the pedagogical statement.

Earnest English said...

You are not overreacting. Of course, people borrow things from each other all the time -- and that's fine, to a point. But one should not use another's whole syllabus, and one should definitely never borrow pedagogical statements and the like. You might be able to address the pedagogical statement part with New Friend. There's addressing it outright, but then there are also sneaky things like: wow, I had no idea that we taught so similarly. I do think she must revise the pedagogical statement. You can also ask her what she's planning on revising when she teaches the course next time. (This gives you ideas, which is what she's stealing from you, and demonstrates your expectation that she is going to make the course her own VERY SOON.)

Keep us posted, because this is a very sticky area.

neophyte said...

Of course you're right to be annoyed -- you're also right to feel flattered.

What I'm more worried about is what one worries about when one's students plagiarize -- not the (nonexistent) personal offense to the eminent scholar whose work they've foolishly stolen, but the student's own ability to step up and do the hard thinking and hard writing that it's hir job to do. Just so with a teacher scarfing a syllabus. I'm with brigindo here -- how can someone teach a syllabus that doesn't belong to hir? It's not just stealing -- it's inorganic, and if there's one thing good pedagogy (like yours) should be, it's organic. Teaching might be performance, but you should sew your own damn costume.

(Hi, H! I'm reading. I'm just quiet about it.)

Hilaire said...

Thanks for your comments, all - it really helped me to read your responses to this situation.

I'm absolutely fine with borrowing bits and pieces of courses, as some of you describe - I've certainly gotten ideas for readings from others, and I LOVE looking at others' syllabi for ideas. But that's a whole different beast. As NK, Brigindo, and Neophyte suggest, most of us have a compulsion to make things our own! That's what I assumed she had done, when she said she used bits of my course. I was just fine with that - take some of the readings, but you restructure it, I assumed.

Anyway, I think I will talk to her about it this summer. Marcelle, you're right - at least about the philosophy statement, where she could get into trouble. Also, we are both going to be on the job market this coming year, and I don't want there to be *any* confusion over the fact that these things came from me...we'll be applying for some of the same jobs, and if there are teaching dossiers going in, with syllabi, then I am going to insist that hers explicitly credit me. This could really damage my credibility.

PossiblyFuture - Yeah, assertiveness in awkward situations like this is definitely not my strong point, but I think I can do it reasonably kindly, not attacking, but talking very reasonably about how damaging this could be to both of us.

Thanks for weighing in, all!

Belle said...

Late, as usual. Interesting situation; I agree that pissed (even angry) is appropriate. When FU kept the syllabi on file, is this the kind of use they intended?

Your story has made me think about where mine are on file, and how they might be used. Think I'll check on that...