How It Feels to Be Copied

I wrote this some time ago, in 2015, I think. I thought it was published here, and when I discovered it lying in an archive of notes on my computer, I thought it was only right to put it where I intended all those years ago.

It begins with whispers and occasional sideways glances among the people who know what is happening, and with very odd questions among the people who don’t know — I remember someone from across the university remarking that I should check out the other project, since it too was on the same topic. Then, someone finally steps forward and points out what others have known, or suspected, for a while. They show you a website, and I was confused because the prose, while not exactly my own, was so much like how I wrote, how I thought, and the title of the project was remarkably similar to my own, and, in fact, was fairly close to a phrase I had used in an essay that I had published out of the larger research project. Finally, when I kind of stumbled back to my office, unsure of what to think, a hallmate sticks his head in to say that the other person has been asking about the topic. My hallmate tells me that he kept telling the other person to talk to me, but …

But what? How do such things happen? As a student of culture, I am fully aware that there is such a thing as zeitgeist, that ideas have their moments. I have also chosen to pursue a scholar’s life in the humanities, which means I have chosen to sacrifice greater economic opportunities for the ability, I hope, to serve the greater good, to make a contribution not only to the domain of human knowledge but also to make a difference in the lives of individuals students and the life of my community. And so, the first thing I feel is betrayal. Someone else has done something to me.

But, really, the other person doesn’t really need to care that much.

As for the other project. It takes my idea, which is to examine creativity through a clearly creative object, and focuses on an old wooden boat form that is only made by a few antiquarians for other antiquarians. It’s not a terrible thing to spend time with someone older than you making antiques, but call it that. Don’t call it scholarship. It’s a memoir.

The difficult part is when universities begin to confuse this kind of work with the actual work of scholarship and science, which is probably going to happen more often in more places as universities allow themselves to be run by professional managers and not academics.

This has always been a risk, of course. The great mass at the center of almost any university is the spread of abilities. One of the central tensions in the academy has always been between those who prefer to research, and do it well; those who prefer to teach, and do it well; and those who prefer to manage things, and maybe they do it somewhat competently. But the pay hierarchy goes: administration, research, teaching.

As bean counters take over, not only will they count butts in seats but they will also count publications, without any sense of what matters and what does not. A colleague of mine reported that in her conversation with our dean, when she pointed out that she felt like her work, published in the top journals in her field, was largely being undervalued, our dean replied, “that quantity matters, not quality.” (If he was being ironic, there was no later action he took to reveal that subtle dimension: floggings continued with hopes of morale improving.)