Thursday, January 28, 2010

Soliciting advice

Okay, wise and worldly readers, help me out here.  Part of my job application process nowadays (no doubt for most of us on the academic market) is offering proposed syllabi for classes I could teach at one level or another, depending on the needs of the institution.  Since this is an anonymous blog, I'll be perfectly frank: I swiped a good idea for a course from a professor of mine from my undergrad days.  Approximately a quarter of the suggested readings are ones that I recall reading for hir course; the rest are ones I have selected anew.  Indeed, some of my more inspired selections hadn't even been published when I was an undergrad.  Most of the concepts that I intend to tackle are tolerably similar to those I encountered in that course; there is some different emphasis on geography, case studies, etc., due to my own research interests and the texts I know and like best.  And, in a final bit of thievery, I would like to use the same course title, since I am unable to think of anything better.  (The subject matter doesn't lend itself to a lot of creative titles, like some courses do.)

Here's the question: am I ethically obligated to contact this professor, who is still at my alma mater, and request hir permission to borrow/adapt the course as my own, before I send it out to anyone?  Alas, I must admit that this is now something of a moot point, since I have already sent it out to a few places to consider.  But pangs of conscience worry me, and I most certainly wouldn't want hir to hear about this somehow and decide that I was a thief of intellectual property.

What is the proper course of action, given that I
  • was myself a student in hir course;
  • am plainly using the same title, if one were to compare syllabi;
  • have suggested some of the same materials, but also many others that zi did not; and
  • am putting this syllabus forward as a form of intellectual creativity, in that it's not a humdrum "Introduction to Blahblah" or "Topics in Whatever" kind of course?
I'd be particularly interested to hear from those of you who are in a position to see things from my former professor's point of view.  I'm leaning toward sending hir an email about it, but I don't want to strike a wrong tone without realizing it.  What say you all?

1 comment:

  1. Oh, this is a great question. I wonder what other people think...I'm trying to imagine a student of mine doing this, but honestly, I haven't had any undergrad students go on to get MAs or PHDs, and the MA students I've had haven't gone beyond the MA and are only in our grad program to get a higher salary at their secondary ed teaching jobs.

    What I'm thinking generally is that it would depend on how original I considered my course. Say I had a course that was called "fear and loathing in western culture," well, that title would sort of be mine, and sort of not, since it derives from another title. And the contents underneath it, well, in the context of my field, I'd say that there would probably be a series of canonical works that would immediately come to mind. I'd probably choose some of those works out of ease and familiarity and also with some idea that canonical works are kind of touchstones for students that help us better understand some of the lesser taught works. Could somebody else independently come up with the same course title with some of the same works? Probably. In that case, if a former student wanted to develop a course like that at another university, I probably wouldn't mind so much. If, on the other hand, I taught a class that was really specific to my own research, and my selection of texts was governed solely by my own expertise, I'd be a little more proprietary about it.

    So I suppose the question I'd ask you is to what extent was your professor's course hir special genius, and to what extent was it something culled from various scholars in keeping with a direction your field was taking at the time?

    I would also note that I relied heavily on a handout I got in college in developing my own handout on the same subject, without attribution or contacting my professor, in part because I realized in reviewing it that its content was considered "standard" knowledge in the field. The way these professors had presented that knowledge in chart form may have been their own special idea, but it's hard to imagine other ways of presenting the same material--in which case, I think it's okay to adapt or reproduce it closely...but that may be my own selfish brand of justification!