Sunday, April 10, 2011

Whose Idea Was It?

I was out of town for a few days, and have been running through a bunch of potential ideas for what my next post should be. I've been struggling with the fact that I really don't want this blog to be solely a litany of my complaints about academia and angry posts about how much I despise it. This blog is my journal, yes, but that kind of litany of complaints isn't helpful for anyone to read ... nor will endlessly complaining about academia help me leave it.

But I've been out of town for a few days, and thus don't have much job search progress to report (which is okay, since I'm a little different from other post-academic bloggers in that I do have a nonacademic job that pays my bills while I plan my next move). I'll get back on the job search this week, but in the meantime I didn't have much to report ... but I wanted to make sure to write something down.

Anyway, while I was looking at my RSS reader this afternoon I came across the most recent post from one of my favorite post-academic bloggers, After Academe. S/he wrote a post about intellectual property in academia, which reminded me of something that happened to me at our field's national academic conference a couple of years ago.

Now, the big thing in academic research, particularly in the social sciences (and I'd assume the humanities as well) is to come up with a great idea, or a great argument or explanation for a social pattern that no one's ever thought of before. Usually this comes after a lot of reading, writing, and discussion with trusted advisors and colleagues. You struggle, struggle, struggle with a problem, or a way to connect two disparate patterns or ideas that appear in your data. You write drafts, and get feedback, and write more drafts, and read more work by other academics ... and if you're lucky, you finally come up with a new idea, that causes both you and your advisor or co-author to exclaim "wow, that's what's going on! That's why that pattern exists! That is the thing that ties together all of these different events/patterns/ideas! Go write it down!"

I had such a moment while writing my dissertation proposal - after a lot of discussion and reading and writing and struggling, I came up with a new way of thinking about a problem that had confronted scholars in my (admittedly narrow, but still) subfield for some time. It was indisputably my idea - in fact, when I said it aloud to my advisor, he said "wow! That's a great idea! I've never thought about it that way before! Go write a few paragraphs about that, tying it to previous research, and we'll put it in your proposal."

Fast forward a few months, and my nationally well-known, tenured advisor was giving a keynote address at our national conference. I went to the talk, and was happy to hear him acknowledge other scholars in our field (although not me or other graduate students who worked with him, which is fine). But he then went on to propose a new, overarching theoretical orientation for studying the problem he and I focused on in our research ... and to my great surprise, presented my new idea about how to view the problem, without attributing it to me.

Now, that wouldn't have been a huge crisis or problem if it was just a one-off comment. But in the Q&A, several commenters praised him for this fantastic new idea and asked questions about it and talked about future research they could do stemming from that idea. I was right in his line of sight the whole time, and he never acknowledged me. And it was my idea.

I definitely think it's possible that he had forgotten it was originally my idea, since academic discussions are often pretty circular, with ideas bouncing back and forth. But regardless of his motives (or lack thereof), it infuriated me. Here I am, a new scholar, trying to make a name for myself in my field ... and there he is, a tenured and world-famous professor, who has now taken public credit for this idea.

The fact is that your intellectual property, your ideas ... they're hard to guard when you're in grad school and in academia more generally. Your ideas are created in collaboration with other people, and they are presented informally and formally many times before a published final product is ever released. It is very, very easy for others to take your idea, or for it to become "old news" before you ever get a paper published.

And you know, maybe that's the way it should be ... but for someone like me, who always had a hard time coming up with truly "new" ideas? It made me feel hopeless and discouraged. If my own advisor wouldn't give me credit for one of the few truly original ideas I'd ever had ... how would I ever truly make a name for myself in my field among an immense group of total strangers?

In a world where everyone is discussing ideas and reading each others' work and critiquing each other's conclusions, don't be surprised if you don't get credit for something you came up with, somewhere along the line. In itself, this might not matter that much ... but in academia, where your ideas are the most important currency you have? It can be incredibly discouraging, and can even harm your career if your hiring or tenure committee decides you haven't come up with enough "original, groundbreaking ideas."

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