owning your words

In a Chronicle of Higher Education column, Jennifer Sinor writes about having one of her course syllabi used by a colleague at a different institution, posing the question “Is it plagiarism when a colleague borrows your syllabus and then uses it in its entirety for his own course?” It’s an interesting question. When do you own your words and when are they up for grabs by everyone else? Sinor’s experience suggests to her that although she feels she owns her syllabus, and its appropriation by someone else was plagiarism, the others she talks to are less certain. Her department chair’s response, interestingly, is that she doesn’t own her syllabus: the university does.

As Sinor’s column goes on to discuss, the question of what aspects of a professor’s output are property of their employer and what are their own intellectual property are not entirely straightforward these days. But I’d like to focus not on the specifics of syllabi but on the recognition that we have different types of relationships to the words we use and the writings we create. § continue reading