Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I've heard teaching described as an exercise in plagiarism. Most of us cheerfully use approaches, material and exercise we've gotten from colleagues, and most of us also cheerfully share our approaches, material and exercises with colleagues. I do plenty of this myself, although -- mindful to model academic accountability for my students -- I try always to acknowledge my sources.

At the same time, syllabi are intellectual property. Professors put weeks, if not months, of work into these documents. Actually, it probably amounts to years, when you think about all the background reading and thought that culminates in designing a course. Many of my professor friends no longer post syllabi on websites, for instance, because they don't want strangers just lifting their work.

I'll always share syllabi with colleagues in my own department, especially graduate students designing their own courses on similar subjects. But last week, I got an e-mail from a stranger (who shall remain nameless and de-identified, to use HIPAA language) who plans to teach a freshman-comp course about narrative and medicine, and who more or less demanded a copy of my syllabus from this fall. This individual also asked if I'd be willing to read an essay he plans to submit to medical-humanities publications.

The tone and cluelessness of this letter left a seriously bad taste in my mouth. First of all, I spent a long time writing that syllabus, and I'm not just going to hand it over to a stranger. Design your own course, dude! Also, c'mon: it's mid-December, when academics are up to their necks in grading. If you're an academic yourself, surely you know this? And if you're an academic, you must be aware that we all have our own writing to do. No, I don't have time to read your essay. (I have a long-standing policy of only reading manuscripts by current students, unless I'm doing a formal manuscript review for a press, something for which I'll be paid and/or receive service credit from my department.)

Aside: I know that the world is full of people who assume that writers, and writing teachers, greet unsolicited manuscripts with cries of joy because they have nothing else to do with their time. "A 900-page novel about telekinetic gophers! Riddled with grammatical errors! Printed in green ink on butcher paper! In a shoebox! Be still, my heart! My life's dream has been fulfilled!"

Okay, obviously I'm being unkind and sarcastic here. I can identify with the desperation of beginning writers -- been there, felt that -- but there are accepted ways to get people to read your work. Take a class. Enroll in a workshop. Do your homework, and by all that's holy learn the conventions of the field. Be professional or be toast.

I'm sure my correspondent's unread essay was, at least, professionally formatted. But I wouldn't expect a college instructor to fall into the arrogance of sending his work to a stranger without an explicit invitation.

Annoyed, I put off answering this missive until this morning, when I informed him, as nicely as possible, that I wasn't comfortable sharing my writing assignments until he told me how he planned to acknowledge them as my work, not his. (I also reminded him that composition instructors need to be very sensitive to tone in their own writing, since it's something we try to teach our students.) I did send him a list of the reading my students had most enjoyed. I closed, though, by saying that I was sorry I didn't have time to read his essay.

I clicked on "send" and then saw that I had a new e-mail from him. Our e-mails had crossed in cyberspace. His second one copied the text of the first and repeated, with evident exasperation, his demand that I send him my syllabus. He'd also attached his essay so I could read it.


Dude: it's mid-December, when you may safely expect fellow academics to take a week to answer an e-mail. No, I'm not going to read your fracking essay -- find someone who actually knows you to do that -- and if you want my writing assignments, you'd #!$%* well better footnote me on your syllabus.


I've deleted the second e-mail, since he now has my response to the first. Frankly, I think I was generous to share any information with him at all. I'll still send him my writing assignments if he can promise me that they'll be acknowledged; I'm very curious to see how he'll respond to that request.

In happier news, I turned in my grades yesterday. In even less happy news, grim weather's forecast for the mountains for Saturday through Wednesday, so we may not get to San Francisco at all. Pray for sunshine!

Later: I got back a much nicer e-mail than the other two -- and he seems genuinely engaged with the subject -- so I went ahead and sent him some material. I'm glad the conversation ended better than it started!


  1. Some people have quite the sense of entitlement don't they???

  2. Why does this sound like a request from one of those hacks who makes his money writing term papers "for fun and profit?"

  3. mbj: My initial reaction exactly! Now I think it was at least partly one of those vexed e-mail tone problems.

    Marshall: Based on how he introduced himself, I actually don't suspect this. If I did, I wouldn't even have answered the e-mail!

  4. Only read from your present students? Damn! And here I was planning on sending you the 1600 page Weird Fiction Transhuman Opus I wrote last week.

  5. Anonymous10:41 AM

    Dear Susan,

    "A 900-page novel about telekinetic gophers! Riddled with grammatical errors! Printed in green ink on butcher paper! In a shoebox! Be still, my heart! My life's dream has been fulfilled!"

    Would you write that novel for us? Please?


    ps - maybe not the grammatical errors, now I come to think of it - but with the right plot and pictures, couldn't the rest of it make a great coffee table book?!


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