My Unoriginal Thoughts on Originality

In Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom, Will Richardson quotes journalist Dan Gillmor: “If my readers know more than I do (which I know they do), I can include them in the process of making my journalism better” (4). In response, I wrote this marginalia: “Does journalist-blogger Dan Gillmor turn his readers ‘who know more than [he does]’ about some things into collaborators or sources?” I then considered this for a few moments, erased the question mark, replaced it with an em dash, and wrote, “or is the line between collaborators and sources not so clear anymore? We act like this line is still pretty clear, for the most part, in academia—postmodern assaults on the concept of the author notwithstanding.” And I would add (to my own remarks), courts act like this line is still pretty clear. It matters whether a court of law considers you a proper journalist or not. (Although, lately, in the environment of the Obama administration’s “war on leaks,” it matters less than it traditionally has.)

A couple days after having this interaction with Gillmor’s text, I had something of an ah-ha moment while reading J. Elizabeth Clark’s “The Digital Imperative: Making the Case for a 21st-Century Pedagogy.” Clark asserts, about the effects of the invention and popular adoption of the printing press, “[W]ith the mechanized reproduction of text, the ability to alter a manuscript with marginalia, or to comment on previous marginalia, disappeared. Gutenberg’s invention interrupted the rich tradition of interaction with a text” (23). I underlined and starred this quotation and turned over the page to its blank side to do some writing and unpack the quotation. I wrote, “I think Clark is saying here that one could alter the actual text with marginalia, since there would have been very few copies of the text in the world (and probably only one for a given area, or even country or continent). Therefore, one could actually alter the text itself. One would not be altering a version of the text (one paperback among millions) but (transportation and communication being so limited) the text. Isn’t this something we can do now in the comments section of an article on the internet?” Having written this, I felt proud of myself for unpacking what Clark was saying and especially proud of myself for the question I asked linking the idea I unpacked to the collaborative nature of web 2.0 texts.

When I read the next paragraph in “The Digital Imperative,” in which Clark performs the same unpacking I did and makes the same connection I made, I was pretty disappointed. I had been scooped! I felt like Elisha Gray, who (the story goes) invented the telephone independently of Alexander Graham Bell but, since he got to the patent office a mere two hours after Bell did,  got none of the credit.

All of this made me think of an exchange I had with a literature professor about intellectual property a few years ago. She was discussing the virtues of collaborative writing, and I asked, “If I write collaboratively, how will I know my ideas from the ideas of my partners?” She proceeded to tell me that a merging of ideas is kind of the point. I saw her point (which was, of course, not her point, but it’s hard to get away from the language of intellectual property), and in the last few years this point has been making more and more sense to me. As evidenced by my reaction to being “scooped,” though (to someone else arriving at an idea I thought was mine before I arrived at it), I have not entirely left behind my feeling that people can own ideas. I tell my students that all writing is collaborative and that they shouldn’t get hung up on the notion that they need to have totally original ideas for their work to be good. When I tell them this, I am also speaking to myself.

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2 comments on “My Unoriginal Thoughts on Originality

  1. “Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” – Albert Einstein. I have always loved this quote for its honesty. I think its true anyway, and your post reminded me of it. A few years ago I had to find out if a patent existed for a product. It is one of the most defeating processes I can imagine. It wasn’t for my idea, so I didn’t really care. It’s really pretty incredible how they classify and categorize ideas and products.

    Personally, I struggle with this sometimes too. I think an idea is mine, but it has been influenced by things I’ve read and people I’ve talked. Is it then their idea too? We read and take in so much information in this program, at what point does an idea or belief truly become our own? Does it ever? Sometimes when I’m writing things for class I know an idea is not mine and I read it somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can remember when and where. What do you do then?

  2. Collin,
    I agree with both you and Vanessa about using the ideas or images of others. I´m currently TA´ing for Dr. Hackenberg´s Vampire Tradition class I was tasked with creating a lecture about Vampires and how the Comic Code of the 1950s affected their presence. Dr. H wanted me to do a Prezi, which is an online tool for creating presentations. It was the free version, which means that my presentation was public. I told Dr. H that I was worried about somebody ¨stealing my presentation,¨ to which she commented ¨well, isn´t the point of education sharing and using other people´s ideas?¨

    She raises a good point that really coincides with your blog. Even in traditional essay writing, students still have to appropriate and use the words of others in order to enhance their own arguments; their creation relies on the knowledge and work of others. (and it´s all dandy as long as they cite whoever they incorporate). However, nobody bats an eye to this process, but YouTube will mute an AMV that uses a popular pop song, because it may violate some copyright law somewhere.

    Perhaps these people are becoming too concerned with who wrote/created what and when, rather than the final product/message of the work. If so, then somebody´s missing the point.

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