When We’re Too Much On Our Own: A Response to Academic Thievery

I was sitting at my dining room table, drowning in a sea of textbooks, notes, and articles, trying to prepare syllabi for my fall courses, when a friend stopped by to provide some much needed relief.

“Whoa! What’s going on in here?” she asked, obviously scared at the sight of too much paper.

“I’m trying to get my syllabi together for the fall. I just can’t figure out where to start.”

“Are any of your colleagues teaching the same courses?”

“I’m sure they are.”

“Well, can’t you just email one of them and ask for some help?”

I looked at her, puzzled.

“I mean, can’t you ask to see someone else’s syllabi just to get an idea for a jumping-off point?”

Another puzzled look.

“You are teachers, right? Don’t you guys share?”

My friend, whose mother is a 5th grade teacher, is certainly aware of the idea that most teachers, especially those of younger students, collaborate. The idea that if you are a teacher and have a good plan, a good model, a success story of any kind, it should be discussed, shared, shouted from the rooftops even, because, as she later noted within the same conversation, “teaching is hard.”

Yes, this would seem logical. When and if one has a successful lesson, a behavior modification technique that works, an awe-inspiring unit, it would seem beneficial to share that information with colleagues so that more successful lessons, more good plans, more engaging units, and more consistency within departments can occur.

Not so in higher ed.

After reading Jennifer Sinor’s essay, “When a Syllabus is Not Your Own,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I felt compelled to examine this idea of the thin line between sharing and stealing and the implications thereof. In her essay, Professor Sinor complains that a colleague asked to borrow her syllabus for “some ideas” and wound up using the whole thing – word for word, textbook for textbook – in his own class. While I don’t necessarily disagree with Professor Sinor’s angst over her “stolen” syllabus, I do find the idea of private property in higher education a bit disconcerting.

If one searches the words “lesson plans” on Google, there are an infinite number of links with helpful lessons, real life stories, and interactive websites by teachers, for teachers. There are lesson discussion boards, and most instructors even put their email addresses at the end of their lessons so that the viewer may contact him/her with follow up questions or suggestions. However, all of these sites are developed by K-12 instructors.

There is something about being a K-12 instructor that presupposes any ideas of plagiarism or stealing or intellectual property. These instructors, despite what those in higher ed may think, are really on the front lines of the educational battlefield. These are people who have to deal with parents, administrators, and students in their awkward stages of development. These are people who cannot just lecture from the front of the room as their students idly take notes. These are people who understand that there needs to be actual lessons taking place – hands on, interactive, democratic lessons. The other thing they understand is exactly what my friend noted as she watched me flounder in paperwork: teaching is hard.

K-12 instructors aren’t trying to protect their property. They aren’t trying to hoard materials or claim the rights to their lessons. They want to share what they have because they understand that their objective is to teach successfully, and they want other teachers to be successful as well. Therefore, they create websites for lesson plan ideas, teaching forums, and discussion boards. And, they don’t just offer an overview; they provide all of the readings, overheads, and materials that supplement the lesson, questions to ask during class discussion, and ways to handle crisis situations that may arise. They cover it all because they want others to know how to do it right.

Higher ed instructors, on the other hand, do not handle collaboration well. There may be some workshops or lesson swaps offered by a teaching and learning center on campus (I’ve been to these workshops, and it is often the same four instructors in attendance every time).There may even be sample syllabi online that are available to the public (and this is only because the instructor has a website for his/her students; it’s not truly intended for other teachers’ use). But, the idea that we’re in this teaching thing together is certainly absent at the college level. And, I believe this speaks to many problems with trying to be an actual teacher at a post-secondary institution.

First, the emphasis on scholarship, as Professor Sinor points out, obviously affects the teaching component that accompanies working in higher ed. Because teaching is devalued, so too are lesson plans, syllabi, and any kind of professional development. In fact, the idea that there should be a lesson plan for each class, as opposed to a lecture or PowerPoint presentation, is virtually treasonous in the college environment. Therefore, it seems almost ludicrous to share information with each other because…what exactly is there to share?

Second, and more importantly, the college environment, as a private space with its academic freedom and intellectual property, breeds an overall sense of individualism and non-collaboration. K-12 teachers share information because their lesson plans are being collected weekly and measured up against state-mandated benchmarks. Their mentors and principals are observing their classes, and their students’ parents are coming to Back-to-School Night loaded with questions about why Susie had three hours of math homework last night. While the freedom in higher ed is most certainly freeing, there is no oversight, no real observation or accountability for teaching. We don’t really answer to anyone. Therefore, we’re very protective of maintaining that privacy. Because we don’t have to let someone check our work, we won’t let someone check our work. Because we are allowed to teach what we want in our classes, we develop each of our classes to match our interests, our areas of scholarship, and our level of creativity and competency in teaching; and, oftentimes, this may not actually coincide with what is best for the students. But, who cares? It’s my classroom. This idea of “mine, mine, mine” creates a place in higher ed in which there really is no such thing as collaborative innovation. It’s every teacher for his/herself.

Now, as to Professor Sinor’s issue with her colleague, I do agree that it seems slightly unethical, or at least unprofessional, to use someone else’s developed materials without directly acknowledging the source of said materials or having a detailed discussion with the syllabus’s author about using the materials first. However, I think Professor Sinor’s essay speaks to a different issue altogether, and it is not just one of academic dishonesty.

The underlying issue is collaboration, or lack thereof, in higher ed. Again, I am not advocating “stealing” as a form of collaboration. However, the idea that it is unscrupulous and unprofessional to ask a colleague to use his/her syllabus or lessons or books is problematic. The fact that I was puzzled at my friend’s suggestion to contact one of my colleagues for help because, unlike her, I knew the unspoken rules of privacy and ownership, is troublesome. The notion that we, as professors, cannot and will not share information or help each other to develop better models for teaching is, in part, what gives the college its elitist image. The irony of professors taking jobs in public, educational environments in order to escape or rebel against the private, capitalist business world is obviously lost on many of us that teach at the college level. Professor Sinor’s article may raise reasonable questions of ethics in higher ed, but it also perpetuates the individualistic philosophies that pervade it.

Say what you will about K-12 teachers – at least they know how to share.

Part of Professor Sinor’s essay can be found here: http://chronicle.com/article/When-a-Syllabus-Is-Not-Your/45769

A full version can be found if you have a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Ed.


About moniacal @ X Rated

On a lifelong journey to be a person in a place...
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2 Responses to When We’re Too Much On Our Own: A Response to Academic Thievery

  1. Marc Schuster says:

    Thanks, Monica, for sharing this thoughtful essay!

  2. moniacal says:

    Just a side note here: I wrote this essay the first semester that I starting teaching full time when I had to develop FIVE courses (3 preps) on my own for the first time. I have to say now, almost three years later, that I am lucky to have some amazing colleagues who are completely on board with both developing and sharing materials for and with other instructors. I will say, however, that much of what I wrote above concerning the limits of academic freedom, the lack of oversight, and the apathy toward professional development are still major problems, in my opinion, at the college level.

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