Ownership of Ideas: Intellectual Property and Academic (Dis)honesty: Part 1

Do you know about Crash Course? Happy Saturday morning to me! I’m sitting on the couch with my cat watching YouTube and it turns out, Crash Course has covered Intellectual Property in a mini-series!

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Crash Course is a project by John and Hank Green, aka the Vlogbrothers, who do pretty awesome work all around. In fact, they founded DFTBA Records, which stands for Don’t Forget to be Awesome! DFTBA works pretty closely with another organization I love, the Harry Potter Alliance, which is a great example of fan activism: a thing that happens when fans across the globe connect via the Internet and decide that they want to turn their attention outward, toward the public, toward social justice, toward human rights, instead of just appreciating whatever the focus of their fandom is. So for example, instead of writing Harry and Draco fanfic and posting it on Tumblr where it remains in a closed loop of fans who read, respond, and share, fan activists inspired by the Harry Potter series might get involved with trans* rights, voter registration, or organizing against child labor.

In ENG 131, we’ve been talking about intellectual property, and we watched the documentary film RIP: A Remix Manifesto, about remix/mashup culture and the future of copyright in the digital age. Gaylor, the film’s producer, presents these four truths as the “Remixer’s Manifesto”:

Screenshot of "A Remixer's Manifesto" from RIP: A Remix Manifesto

Let’s start with the first truth: culture always builds on the past. This one connects to our framing question: what is original? Is there one true source, is there anything uninfluenced by what came before (or around)? We’re getting into philosophy here: can we find the truth unsullied by external influence?

The second truth argues that the past always tries to control the future. As technology advances and tools for communication evolve, we will, for a time, view what is possible through a lens of what is familiar. Imagine looking outside through a window and not knowing how to make sense of what you see. This creates conflict: our past and our present (and our future) are not in alignment. When something holds power, and that power is challenged, there is resistance. The past will attempt to control the future by imposing its own value systems, or criteria for evaluation, and when the future fails to meet those criteria, it will be criticized. A great example of this is the literacy “crisis” ____ by mainstream media. Composition/rhetoric/writing scholars have found these criticisms to be unfounded: it’s not that students “can’t write,” but that they are engaging with media differently, much like what we read about in Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The third truth, that our future is becoming less free, speaks to attitudes of the past being used to restrict or limit activities from the present and those that may exist in the future. We’re trying to…well, I know there’s an idiom for this, but I can’t seem to find it. We’re using old standards to measure new things. We’ve talked about the importance of context for understanding and defining literacy in ALP: at one point, being able to read and write on paper was a sufficient definition for literacy, but 21st century literacy looks different. It wouldn’t make sense to use the same definition for literacy over the next hundred years. If we did, we would be greatly limited. Imagine if schools only taught to that basic definition, ignoring the actual realities of everyday life?

The fourth truth states that to build free societies, you have to limit the control of the past. I think this is essentially asking for a revolution. Look at American history: have efforts to limit the control of the past generally been well-received? Likely not. Why do you think that change is feared?

This has a lot to do with power dynamics, and dominant groups exercising their control in an attempt to maintain their power. We are a capitalist, patriarchal society. Here’s what that means, in a nutshell:

  • Capitalism is a socio-economic system that values profit over people. In other words, everything can be monetized, and thus everything is considered property, even ideas and attention. Capitalism operates on a scarcity model: there can’t possibly be enough goods or resources for everyone, and thus there is a need to fight for and defend what you own. Money is power.
  • Patriarchy is a term for a society that is driven by masculine power and behaviors. Generally, this means that men retain power, and that masculine characteristics are considered superior: competition, aggression, violence. This doesn’t mean men are bad, but it does have significant consequences for people who are not men, as their power is limited. Many would argue that this system is in fact harmful to men as well.

Imagine what happens, then, when it is suggested that people share resources, that information isn’t property, that ideas aren’t original and cannot be claimed as such. What happens when people who make music, or art, ask their audience directly for support instead of going through record labels as middle-men who seek to make a substantial profit (how much CAN we make? how much COULD this be worth?)? What happens when people give permission for their work to be used by other people, when they encourage its use (see Creative Commons) and merely ask for credit? Think about how we defined new media: 

  • On demand
  • On any device
  • Interactive user feedback
  • Creative participation
  • Community formation around content
  • Democratization of the creation, publishing, distribution, and consumption of content
  • Bits
  • “Networkable” and “compressible”

New media is made for sharing. It’s made for collaboration. But this begs the question of ethics: how do we do it ethically, so as to honor all participants: the creators, the contributors, the users, the viewers? Are there “best practices” for working with others’ stuff outside of a pay-to-play, profit-motivated system? How does all of this translate to an academic setting?

Part 2 will pick up with connections between intellectual property, ownership of ideas, and academic policies regarding plagiarism.


Comics and Accessibility

Prior to the start of classes this semester, our teachers’ union (AFT Local 1650) organized a Professional Issues Conference (PIC) that all full-time faculty were required to attend. This year’s speaker was Thomas Tobin, who talked to us about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept that aims to make educational materials accessible for people with disabilities and for people who might be accessing information on-the-go, i.e.: let’s talk about not just how people access information via screen readers, but let’s also talk about when and where and why they access information in the ways that they do.

Colleges and universities are facing significant pressure in regard to ADA compliance, and rightfully so. But accessibility for people with disabilities isn’t the only issue in need of addressing. Here is a link to an infographic illustrating demographic information for today’s college students, from the Lumina Foundation (you can read this article about the Lumina Foundation’s foundation if you’re interested; I think the infographic is still useful despite this criticism). In sum, college students are NOT always white, middle-to-upper class, fresh out of high school with lofty dreams and parents footing the bill. We can probably agree on that much: anyone who has walked the halls of a public university, and especially anyone who has been on a community college campus, can attest to the range of ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and expressions of personal identity. However, there are less visible but still apparent differences in lifestyle: some people might be raising children (or siblings), others might be working multiple jobs, some may have arrived in the United States just a few months ago, others might be in temporary housing situations. UDL takes these factors into consideration in addition to making materials accessible for those relying on technology or other assistance because of disability. It’s about reducing barriers. Here’s a video to illustrate:

One thing I was able to do for this semester was to check my syllabus and calendar for accessibility using Word 2016. I also chose an accessible theme on WordPress, meaning that it is flexible and can be viewed on both desktop and mobile devices. I’ve also tested the screen reader on my iPhone (Settings>General>Accessibility>Speech>Speak Screen) by having it read posts to me out loud, which was especially useful. After making sure that my electronic materials were accessible (I am still learning, so if you find something that needs fixing, please let me know!), I created a Google calendar for each class nd embedded it into a page on my site. I’m not sure how accessible these are on mobile devices, but it’s certainly useful to pull up quickly if the paper document isn’t available. One student told me they really appreciated the calendar, so I’m hoping that it’s actually going to be used; if it’s not accessible easily by phone, I’m not sure I’ll put the time and effort into making them in the future.

Despite my best efforts to make these materials accessible, it occurred to me this weekend that traditional text is fairly easy to adapt to devices like screen readers, but texts that rely heavily on images are not so easily translated. We have apps like Audible, or even audio books through the library, that can do the work of seeing words on a page for us and speak them out loud so that we can get information or follow a story. But comics, even when digitized, pair words with images in order to communicate, and the images can be especially significant. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, illustrates several types of word/image combinations that writers and illustrators use.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a comic that uses texture to tell a story, and the creator’s hope is that storytelling could happen by way of tactile exploration. This is ultimately what got me thinking about Blankets, by Craig Thompson, which students in my ENG 132 classes read. For traditional novels, a person who is visually impaired or blind would perhaps use the audio book or VoiceOver/other text-to-speech features to listen to the story. With a graphic novel, that doesn’t quite work. There are a number of wordless panels in Blankets, and plenty of panels that use both words and pictures to convey information, particularly subjective information about the characters. How is this information delivered to somebody who is not relying on sight to see and interpret what is on the page? Here’s an example:

This is a wordless panel from the graphic novel Blankets. The image shows Craig and Raina laying together in bed in their pajamas, on top of the blanket that Raina made for Craig. Raina’s eyes are closed, and she is laying in Craig’s lap, holding on to his arm. Craig’s arms are wrapped around Raina, but his eyes are open and he looks uncertain or worried.

You can see my caption below the image. Is that how you would have described the image? What details led you to see Craig and Raina in the way that you did? Can you think of any experiences from your own life that allowed you to relate to the image? Do you see yourself in Thompson’s story (think about recognition as one use of literature we are exploring)? It’s likely that our descriptions of this image would be similar, though they may differ depending on how descriptive we chose to be, or what details stood out to us. If this panel did have words, we’d need to include in our image description whether those words were narration, dialogue, or thoughts that were not said aloud.

Here’s a link to a WordPress page that gives tips for making blog content accessible; one strategy they mention is how to write descriptions for images like the one I’ve used above. WordPress suggests not just describing objectively what is in the image (i.e. two people laying in a bed) but to convey the feeling of the image as well, which I have tried to do in my caption above. However, this is complicated by the fact that interpretation of images is subjective, and unless the author/illustrator has contributed to the alternative text, it’s possible that the story could be lost in translation, or at least mixed up along the way. Think about all of the Bible translations! Scribes put their own twist on the material, and differences of interpretation (which is something Thompson gets at in his book) led to some pretty serious divisions within Christianity. Whose interpretation should we trust? Would my descriptions of the images in Blankets do the story justice? Would my own experiences color my retelling? I imagine they would, just as they influence my teaching.

I will be the first to admit that I am not well-versed in accessibility; I don’t teach online, and I rely on pretty simple and easy to find methods to assist me when I need it. I’ve never had a student who needed accommodations, but I would like to become more knowledgeable so that I can provide that support should the need ever come up. I’d also like to assign material that can demonstrate these needs for other students who may take their sight, or even their ability to access material without logistical complications (language! time! money! patience!), for granted. We’ll spend some time working on writing rich descriptions with some panels from Blankets together to experiment.

Below are links to a few sites regarding comics and accessibility; I’d love to know if you have any feedback or resources to share!

“Digital Comics: Successful, Accessible, and Ruining How We Read Comics?” This article addresses the concept of time in comics, the individual reading experience, and how digital comics may fall short. The title is misleading; the only mention of accessibility is “anyone…anywhere.”

“Enhancing the Accessibility for All of Digital Comic Books” This is an article from a Belgian publication that argues comics “[do] not completely fulfill the needs of a large segment of public such as mobile users, motor-impaired people, and low-sighted people.” The article highlights the physical nature of comic books (they are distributed primarily as paper copies), and in regard to sight only addresses how to make the images viewable to users who have low-sight, not those who are completely unable to see.

Accessible Comics for the Blind by Paths to Literacy links to Comics Empower, an online comic book shop that makes comics accessible using audio.


In ENG 094 we’re talking about networks as one non-cognitive issue that has an impact on college success. You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” To an extent, this is true. While both knowledge and networks matter, if you have knowledge but no network, you’re at a disadvantage compared to your peers. Here’s a link to the Michigan Radio documentary, “Connections: The Power of Networks,” that we listened to in class.

If you want to read more about networks, I’ve included some links below.

No one is a stranger: harness the power of networking from Zendesk

Detroit Young Professionals – a student in ENG 132 last semester researched this organization!

The Power of Networks and Women of Color: Elle.com Scholar Reflection, on homogeneity in the journalism industry and finding strength in the collective

Connections That Count: The Informal Networks Of Women Of Color In The United States from Catalyst

Manuel Lima on the Power of Knowledge Networks in the Age of Infinite Connectivity on BrainPickings; this is less about personal networks and more about visualizing knowledge.

Student Clubs and Organizations at HFC

To expand your network, you might look for organizations within your field of study; professional organizations sometimes have reduced cost memberships for students. See if your community or neighborhood has town hall meetings if local politics interest you. Use social media to your advantage; you can search for events nearby as well. Meetup.com is another good resource. Make it your goal for the semester to find at least one person who can help you get closer to your dreams, whatever they might be.

Upcoming Events

I want to draw your attention to two events that you may be interested in attending:

On Monday, January 16, 2017, poet Claudia Rankine will be speaking at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium. Here’s a link to the Facebook event page. The event is free and tickets are not needed; however, it may be crowded so you may want to arrive early and plan for parking (which is not free in downtown Ann Arbor).

On April 4, 2017, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will be speaking at the University of Detroit-Mercy. Tickets for this event are $10 (free to U of D students and faculty). Here is a link to the event website. 

Uses of Literature: Knowledge

The second of the four uses of literature that Felski outlines in her book is Knowledge. The chapter begins by illustrating two schools of thought regarding what kind of knowledge, if any, can be obtained from literature:

  1. Literature is seen as a semblance, shadow, illusion, or even counterfeit/imitation, in relationship to the world. It is secondary: a representation of reality, but not reality itself. An untruth.
  2. Literature is a reflection: a mirror of reality.

The question of literature’s relationship to knowledge remains open; much will depend, of course, on how we define the act of knowing. In my first chapter, I focused on literature’s potential merits as a guide to self-interpretation and self-understanding. I now turn to what literature discloses about the world beyond the self, to what it reveals about people and things, mores and manners, symbolic meanings and social stratification. Not all texts, of course, lend themselves equally well to such an analytical rubric; my concluding chapter centers on works that actively defy or disrupt our frameworks of social reference. But one motive for reading is the hope of gaining a deeper sense of every day experiences and the shape of social life. Literature’s relationship to worldly knowledge is not only negative or adversarial; it can also expand, enlarge, or reorder out sense of how things are (Felski 83).

In other words, we’re moving from what we can learn about ourselves through literature, to what we can learn about the world. Felski seems to find both ideas above equally plausible, and offers an alternative way of seeing: “Once we relinquish the false picture of a reality ‘out there’ waiting to be found, we can think of literary conventions as devices for articulating truth rather than as obstacles to its discovery” (84). Here, she calls reality a false picture, but seems to favor truth – lower-case-t-truth (multiple truths?) versus capital-T-truth (one truth).

Felski uses the term mimesis, which is defined as imitation: you probably recognize the term “meme.” Memes are repeated images: sometimes the text changes, but because the core image is the same we recognize it and come to understand what it means, regardless of whether or not the text is present. Consider Success Kid. She invites her readers to imagine mimesis as a redescription, which makes sense. Every time a new meme is created with the Success Kid image, it is redescribed. It is not merely a copy, but an interpretive process. I like what she says about truth, quoting Ricoeur:

The world against which we measure the truth claims of the literary text is a world that is already mediated via stories, images, myths, jokes, commonsense assumptions, scraps of scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, popular aphorisms, and the like (84-85).

Put simply, my truth is not your truth, because we each experience the world differently, so we cannot argue for some universal truth or a single reality, as it doesn’t exist. Therefore, literature is by default both truth and untruth, both representation and reflection, both illusion and reality. No matter where it falls on the spectrum here, it can teach us.

Felski introduces metaphor (figurative language – a representation and a reinterpretation, yes?) to the argument next, pointing out that even our use of language is “tangled up with our embeddedness in the world” (86). Basically, language use depends on context, and it both creates and is used to create reality. In the same way, worlds create selves (we are defined by the constraints of the world we live in) and selves perceive and react to worlds (we change and adapt to the world we live in). Language creates us, just as we create it. Felski says next that “what metaphor and mimesis share is the capacity to generate new perspectives, to make possible other ways of seeing, to intensify meaning by dynamically recreating a world already mediated by language” (86).

One gift of literature is intersubjectivity: the ability to share experience across more than one conscious mind. Through literature, particularly through well-written characters, we can come to know specific societies or communities from the inside, as if we were truly a part of that group. We share their inner monologues, their actions, their conversations. At the same time, this can backfire, particularly when characters are not accurately portrayed, leading to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. This is why it is important that people tell their own stories, otherwise someone may speak for you, and they may not do you justice.

Felski uses one of my favorite poets as an example next, Pablo Neruda. She references his “Ode to Things” (one of my favorite poems is “Ode to My Socks”), reminding us that it isn’t just people, or places, or events that one can know as a result of literature; perhaps we should also know the inanimate objects we hold on to in our lives. Poetry, Felski argues, can do that.

Of course, literature can mislead us; it can even offend us. But as Felski says, “literature, by dint of it’s generic status as imaginative or fictional writing, cannot be automatically precluded from taking part in practices of knowing” (103). Though literature, and especially poetry, might be placed in the box or domain of creative writing, it is not without value: literature, according to Felski, is a “form of social knowledge…[texts] fictional and aesthetic dimensions, far from testifying to a failure of knowing, should be hailed as the source of their cognitive strength” (104).

Think about this as we read Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead.” Felski is talking about literature, but I would argue that much of her argument in this section of her book could apply to poetry. What can poetry do, for us? What good is poetry? What might it accomplish?

Hawk’s Nest Videos

Here are a few videos on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster:

Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy

West Virginia@150: Hawk’s Nest 1930

Witness at Hawk’s Nest (this one is dramatic; it is based on the novel of the same name and published by West Virginia University Public Health)

Two videos from the US Department of Labor: 2013 “Deadly Dust” Silica (“statistics are people with the tears washed off”) and “Stop Silicosis” (this opens with a report from the late 1930’s and testimony from a man in Woodhaven, MI). The original “Stop Silicosis” film from 1938 can be found here.

For further context, here’s an overview of 1930’s America. 


Contextualizing BotD, Part 3

Our second class on BotD covered a few shorter sections: Mearl Blankenship, Absalom, The Disease,  George Robinson: Blues. We also read The Doctors. To accompany these sections, two excerpts from a book on the Hawk’s Nest Disaster were provided, one of these is George Robinson’s statement to the court, and the the other is a short interview with the daughter-in-law of Dr. Harless, who treated many of the men who contracted silicosis before he was terminated by Union Carbide. These sections provide further human contact with the incident; in other words, we’re not just getting Rukeyser’s thoughts on what she observed here, but actual statements from the people who lived there, who worked in the tunnel, and in the case of Absalom, we hear from the mother of three boys, the youngest of whom (at age 18) asked that his body be used for research.

In these last sections (Arthur Peyton, Alloy, The Disease: After Effects, The Bill, and The Book of the Dead), we hear more about the court proceedings, and the relationship between water, power, corporations, and people. We are presented with law, with the consequences of a labor disaster carefully curated by a corporation, and a return to The Road in the last section (notice the repeating lines).

I’d like to investigate a few of the names mentioned in the poem, and you may choose to pursue any of these names further for your annotations: Dr. Hayhurst, Dr. Harless, Cecil Jones (and his family), Mr. Marcantonio, Dr. Goldwater, Mr. Griswold.

A newspaper announcement found via a Google search. Note Marcantonio’s accusation.

In the last post, we saw a letter from Nancy Naumberg to Muriel Rukeyser, offering suggestions for what would become BotD. Here is a photograph she took of shacks along the railroad tracks in Vanetta, a community/coal town along the Gauley River. For perspective, here are some images from Google Maps:

This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that, Alloy to the west, and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.

This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that (mentioned in “West Virginia”), Alloy to the west (“Alloy” is a section of BotD), and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.
Nancy Naumberg’s photograph is of a town in Vanetta. As you can see, Vanetta is just north of Gauley Bridge. Alloy, another town mentioned (we didn’t read that section) is to the west. Note the Gauley River National Recreation Area to the northeast, and Summersville above that. Summersville is where the gravesite and memorial is located, and where many of the bodies were taken and buried in unmarked graves prior to being moved to the memorial cemetery.
This map shows the Gauley River traveling through the GRNRA, and to the north is Summersville. That small circle right before the road crosses the river is where the memorial is located.
While people flock to the area now for white water rafting, hiking, and rock climbing, the towns along Gauley River and New River were once coal-mining towns. In fact, you can hike the Kaymoor Trail (if you can handle the stairs) and head down into the mine where you’ll see the processing plant, coke ovens, and town site.

A few major themes we should address (in groups!) in regard to BotD now that we’ve read through the poem in its entirety (mostly):

  • Citizen journalism and authority: who has the authority to speak on an issue? Where does authority come from? Rukeyser was certainly no expert (by certain standards), and yet her work ensured that Union Carbide would be exposed for years to come, despite their efforts (and successes) in minimizing the incident. How do we see citizen journalism at play today? What obligation (if any) do citizens have in witnessing, documenting, and circulating information about events? Are their words just as valid as “experts?” Is there a place for both? Can you think of any examples?
  • Here’s another essay on the same subject. What do you make of this? Were the doctors victims of corruption (in other words, were they victims much like the men who died?), or were they willing participants in the problem? Why? On a similar note, you may recognize the saying, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. What obligation did the doctors have to the workers? To the company? What barriers did they experience to being on the side of the solution? 
  • How does this connect to our own obligation as individual readers, or viewers, of documentation like BotD or the news we encounter on our televisions and social media accounts? What does it take to be part of the solution? What obligation do we have once we have witnessed an event? What barriers do we experience to taking action and/or creating change?


Next time we meet, we’ll be discussing annotations. Here’s what you should be doing before then: think about the sections we read in class, or consider reading the sections we skipped. Look for areas that were especially interesting, moving, or even confusing. Look for places where you needed more information as a reader, and places that stirred a memory of something else (another text, an event, a personal connection) over places that required interpretation. You’ll need to choose one section of the poem that you can annotate. I will show you an example of an annotated poem, and you’ll have time to begin searching for information with my support.