Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Finish Line for the Ivory Tower

What I remember most about filing my doctoral dissertation in the pre-digital age was running around. To graduate on time, it seemed we all had to be all dashing about in one particular week, gathering signatures and getting documents double-checked, before the university offices closed for the day and the formalized cut-off was one day closer. Even people who had been done for a long time seemed to be making this cross campus series of dashes, to finish up all the bureaucratic okays with time to spare for the inevitable snafus caused by sick professors and forms lost in their inboxes. As I recall, there was a lot of waving and mimed explanations and rolled eyes and lip reading as I passed by my peers all running around at lightning speed.

The final hurdle was the Special Collections room, where a librarian with a rulered template would check the margins on each page for binding purposes. Dissertations could be rejected if there was a stray punctuation mark over the line. Everyone wanted to get Bill Landis (now at Yale) to do the measuring, because he seemed like a mellow guy who wore flip flops to work and Hawaiian shirts, and he always had a nice calming word of congratulations for the frantic dissertation finishers.

What I don't remember thinking about was copyright. Copyrighting our dissertations was just like having the margins correct: it was just another box to be checkmarked to show that we were no longer slacker graduate students but were now magically transformed into university professionals ready for the job market (or in my case a postdoc that I would lose if I didn't file in time).

Actually, that's not quite true. Even a decade later, I do very distinctly remember having just one moment of reflection when I was looking at the copyright symbol next to my name. I can even tell you exactly where I was. I was standing in front of the copy machine on the fifth floor of the humanities library under bright flourescent lights with about two hours left to go before the deadline, which seemed a comfortable margin in comparison with others still racing around campus in my graduating PhD class. I was conscious that feeling harried was about to end and that these were the last moments before I filed. I was reviewing checklists and copying documents, including my title page, to be ready to walk through the door in Special Collections for the last page-measuring ritual. I was looking at the copyright page, which I added in at the last moment, and leaning against that great and glorious mechanism for copyright violation, the library copying machine, which was still warm from my efforts.

Here's what I thought in that instant of epiphany at the copy machine: I hate the copyright symbol.

Since I already had an MFA in creative writing I had a good reason to feel this distaste. In the weekly writer's workshops, we heaped scorn upon the writers who distributed copies of their poems with it pompously emblazoned on the page. It seemed ridiculous to put the copyright symbol on something that would only be passed out to a dozen people who were there to tell you to make changes rather than accept your work as a fixed product under the mark of final ownership.

(Right, we're going to grab that free verse line about the cicada on your mother's shoulder in the rusty dawn, and we are going to steal it and try to pass it off as our own. Hey, never mind the fact that I've been writing rhymed sonnets for the past two years about my own personal life, which are set in a different part of the country and reflect a different cultural context, I am totally going to jack your verse.)

That little "c" in the circle was a signal of paranoia, of self-importance, and of rejection of collegiality. In my creative writing days I was still doing the post-punk thing, so if I didn't like you, you knew it. I would sit with my arms crossed in the poetry workshop, clad in black leather and fishnet stocking and sporting cat eye sunglasses and earrings made from plastic cake decorations (usually pink baby carriages) on a couch with one or two other female members of what pretty much amounted to a gang. It was an academic gang, of course, so there was no actual violence to go along with the stinkeye, but we were pretty rough on the pretentious copyrighters in critiques.

As an editor of literary magazines in college, I hated to see copyright notices on submissions. Inevitably the work was less good than other writing I would see. Somehow, the copyright announced the writer's effort as overwrought juvenalia. It was like beginning a college essay with "throughout history" or "since the beginning of time": you couldn't say why necessarily what was going to follow would certainly not be good, but inevitably that was the case.

So there I was getting ready to turn in what had seemed just a moment ago to be this incredibly important thing, with the argument that would transform the current debate in academia about contemporary avant-gardes and technologies of writing and procedural composition and the meaning of creating schools of writerly affiliation in the postmodern age, the oeuvre that would help everyone finally understand Heidegger, and I suddenly saw it for what it was: a piece of writing with that symbol that had only represented insecurity and fraud in my mind.

Now, in the digital age, much of this dissertation submission running around can be done without leaving one's computer. You still get the hardbound copies to show your parents, but the documents themselves are uploaded to a service like the ProQuest database for archiving and printing. Like many things that are automated, however, there are inevitable losses. For one, there's no human being like Bill Landis to give you a high five. But, more important, it also limits the menu of publishing possibilities to what can be easily represented on a decision tree and takes out all the potential for administrative nuance that stakeholders might want to bring to the process. One of these foreclosed possibilities is variation from the traditional copyright regime.

For Internet researcher danah boyd, this regime has necessitated an uphill battle to give her dissertation a Creative Commons license, which she describes in a posting on her blog about "licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons." It's become a story in the campus newspaper the Daily Cal with a sympathetic item on boyd's dilemma called "Copyright and Copyleft in Publications: Creative Commons, an Alternative to Traditional Copyright, Promotes Wider Access to Knowledge."

Of course, scholars in digital media have had troublesome dissertations for academic departments for many years now. Just listen to Virginia Kuhn about the trials and travails of those like herself who were the first to file digital dissertations. (I'm an ASCII is forever kind of gal, so I'm not sure that rich computational media with custom code is necessarily a better idea than plain text, by the way.)

For years boyd has toyed with the conventions from one of the trickiest of the many genres of academic blogs -- the dissertation blog -- as she regularly updates apophenia. I enjoy reading boyd's blog, but speaking as a specialist in digital rhetoric, I often advise graduate students to steer clear of producing a dissertation blog, unless they are aware of the risks of providing too much disclosure about postponements and setbacks with committees or too little information about final prose content so the blog seems only to be scattering a few incoherent sybil's leaves for potential readers to decipher.

Now boyd has issued the following challenge to her colleagues still in graduate school. (Her other challenge to academics only to publish in open access journals certainly got attention last year.)

I also want to make a plea to all of you grad students out there who are slaving away on your dissertations... Use Creative Commons. The forms you fill out when you file your diss under ProQuest encourage you to make sure to copyright your dissertation. While theft is part of the framing, it is also framed as being about you profiting off of doing so (and ProQuest brokering the sale of your diss). Realistically, 99% of all grad students are never going to see a dime directly from their dissertation. What's the advantage of keeping "all rights reserved"? Why not let folks use it for whatever non-commercial purposes they deem fit (like teaching a chapter or two in class)? I mean... I would LOVE it if someone translated my dissertation. Or remixed it. Or turned it into a movie. That ain't ever gonna happen, but still... why actively prevent it?

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the link.

Update: Okay, I'm practicing what I preach. To all critics interested in Objectivism post-Ezra Pound, remix away!

Creative Commons License
Silent Readings: Lessons in Lessons in Objectivist Poetics for Contemporary American Poetry by Elizabeth Losh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Here is the opening paragraph of my now very dated dissertation, although some of these claims could also be applied today to the current Zero Comments blogosphere that is populated by more writers than readers:

After ten years of heated debate about the “death of poetry,” a phenomenon supposedly caused by professional writing programs and the universities that sponsored them, contemporary poetry criticism has been forced to account for a unique situation in the history of literary reception. The poetry workshop as an institution has evolved into a sort of implausible structure of infinite production as professional poets issue forth from hundreds of new M.F.A. programs by the thousands. Many cultural critics have taken the close of the century as a time of ultimate crisis for verse. They believe that the pyramid of literary production and consumption has been inverted and that the university has transformed the people who should be an outside pool of readers into a dependent class of authors.

Ironically, some of the same critics who railed against university-sponsored workshop poetry in the eighties and nineties are now railing against common Internet practices today. Looking at the critical conversation I represent in the first chapter of my dissertation, it's funny to see many of the same names resurface in books like The Dumbest Generation and The Cult of the Amateur.

For more about Creative Commons licenses for dissertations, check out this link for information.

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