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on authorial ownership.

i am so angry i could spit.

professor x and i have had some conflicts already, and i find half of what she says patently unreasonable, so i guess i shouldn't have been surprised that she'd find a way on the last day of class to make me so intensely angry. but i was! i actually was. i guess that's my fault.

she made a quick comment, as she was leaving, about the final drafts of our term papers. she said (a semi-paraphrase, as i cannot recall the precise wording), "i'm treating you as professionals, so i expect you to tell me why you don't take my suggestions. i noted that on your second drafts, i was making a lot of the same comments i made on your first drafts. so either take my suggestions or tell me why you aren't, one of the two."

i blinked. said, "um, how would you like us to tell you?" she said, "oh, you can just send me an email." and then she left.


i own my writing. you own your writing. writing - academic, fannish, scribblings on the back of a napkin, new york times best seller - belongs to the author who penned it. it does not belong to her editors, her friends, her betas, her publishing house, her professors, her peer reviewers. it belongs to her, totally and completely and without exception. that's why we cite when we draw from a source, why we don't plagiarize, why we put an author's name on the cover of a novel.

we don't refrain from plagiarizing or infringing on copyright just because it's bad form and will have people yelling at us. we don't cite the works we used in our writing because we're trying to be nice or because we're trying to take the heat off of ourselves (that is, "don't blame me, she said it first!")

we do those things because to do otherwise is to steal, is to be intellectually fraudulent, is to break the careful agreement drawn between writers and readers. i, the writer, will give you, the reader, my work, but in return, you won't claim it as your own. you can criticize it, burn it, laud it as the best thing ever written, but you can never own it, because i own it. i made it. i thought it up, i put it on paper, i did the work.

it's mine.

in academia, we get the advice of professors to improve our writing. we can choose to take that advice or leave it, knowing that we might get a worse grade if we refuse. but that's our right, because we own our own minds.

we get the advice of peer reviewers, and we can choose to take it or leave it, knowing that a journal might refuse to publish our article. but that's our right, because we own our own minds. it's the same for editors (who might not publish our books or articles), our bosses (who might fire us). there are lots of good reasons to take the advice of people giving it, but there is no way to hold a gun to our heads and say, "you must do what i say."

we get the advice of beta readers because we want to improve, not so that we can give our writing away. we get advice and we think about it and talk about it and we argue about it, but in the end, a beta reader cannot blame an author who does not take her advice. she can believe that the work would have been better had her suggestions been followed, of course. she can tell the author that, straight out. but she cannot, cannot, cannot make the author do anything, because the author owns every word that she creates.

a beta might ask, "why didn't you change such-and-such as i suggested?" the author might reply any number of ways: "i didn't think it was in keeping with the character." "i didn't think it maintained the tone of the story." "i felt that the suggested grammatical changes made this section more difficult to understand."

she could also reply, "because i was partial to the way i wrote it. i liked the way it sounded and felt in my head and in my hands as i wrote it. i put part of myself into that sentence or paragraph and i could not give it up, even to make it easier to read." she needn't apologize. that's a perfectly acceptable answer. if this is ALWAYS the answer, of course, she may need to rethink the way she uses her beta, or why she has a beta, or whether she wants her work to be shown to the world if it is so precious to her.

but in the end, she can always respond, "thank you for your help. i really appreciate hearing what you have to say. but in the end, this is mine and i like it the way it is." because she owns it. because it's hers.

there is often talk about the reader's privilege. i think that's great. i think reader-response theories are fantastic. i think stanley fish's interpretive communities are fascinating. i think hermeneutics are the bee's knees. i stand by the fact that readers have enormous leeway to read a document as they see fit. if an author is unwilling to have this happen, then she should keep her writing locked away. publication and distribution give readers many interpretive rights.

but not ownership.

to ask a student to justify every suggestion not taken (or every author to justify every suggestion from a beta not taken) is to suggest that the professor (or the beta) has ownership of the text. is to suggest that the reader is so privileged that she can choose to obliterate the author's ownership of the text. is to assume that the answer to the question cannot be, "because it's mine and i own it and i don't want to change it."

and that, my friends, is unacceptable.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 5th, 2009 03:14 am (UTC)
OK, but, in the context of a teacher to her students, doesn't she have a point by providing two options?

The purpose of the student is to learn. If the teacher makes a suggestion for improvement, the only way the teacher can see any learning has taken place is by a) the draft being changed in light of the comments, or b) the student commenting on why the change was not made.

Without either of those things, the teacher has no way to know if you understood anything she said, if you took any of it into account, if you learnt anything at all from her comments.

I understand that you're angry, and I understand your anger comes from interpreting her words as "this piece of writing should incorporate my changes", and that this interpretation assumes she has some right of ownership over your writing, or you have less ownership of it.

However, wasn't she really just saying "in order for me to mark you on your learning, I need to see evidence of learning - either through a changed draft, or through reasons for your decision to leave it unchanged"?
Mar. 5th, 2009 03:57 am (UTC)
why can't she judge my learning by what i've written? i wrote a twenty-five page paper about a subtopic of the course. so shouldn't that show what i've learned?

her comments were largely not substantive. primarily they dealt with structure, etc. for example, she wanted me to cut my introduction and also to move around the order of certain sections. where she made substantive comments, i did indeed take them, because she knows far more about the topic than i and i'd be an idiot not to accept substantive corrections from an expert.

but the other stuff? my perogative.
Mar. 5th, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)
Fair call.
And I agree, that "as professionals" your job is to think creatively and write original content, not be a typist transcribing your editor's thoughts.
Mar. 5th, 2009 03:42 am (UTC)
I call bullshit. Ugh. My sympathies. *hugs*
Mar. 5th, 2009 03:58 am (UTC)
eh, i'm not as angry now. is there some point at which professors get taught to be complete and utter d-bags? could we replace that time with teaching them how to be responsive, supportive, helpful readers and commenters, instead?
Mar. 5th, 2009 04:01 am (UTC)
Madam, your professor is a CUNT!
Mar. 5th, 2009 09:22 am (UTC)
Gah, I'd go bonkers if I had to explain myself EVERYTIME I ignore a professor's note/suggestion. My sympathies, because that's just insane!
Mar. 5th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
I think you should completely explain in excruciating detail why each and every one of her suggestions sucks. Like, I would literally go down each and every single point, and then at the very end be like "but most importantly, I haven't taken your suggestions because its mine, I own it and I don't want to change it" then you should add a 'ps' that says "you'd think by the second draft as a professor with some experience you'd come to the conclusion that, if your edits are rejected its because they aren't good enough, without having the whole student body point it out to you in a email.

That bitch.
Mar. 6th, 2009 07:20 am (UTC)
What about just writing STET all over your drafts? Too passive-aggressive? Anyway, I'd definitely suggest ending such an email with, "I said good day, madam!"

That's a totally unreasonable demand, not that you didn't already know.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )