Monday, April 20, 2015

Icebergs Right Ahead!: Negotiating Our Way Through the Digital Classroom

For this week’s discussion I decided to dig a little deeper in to the idea of “negotiation.” (Since I still can’t quite wrap my head around the Drucker.) As defined by both DeVoss/Eidman-Aadahl/Hicks and Henry Jenkins, “negotiation” refers to “the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.” Throughout our course we have talked about the different ways that digital teaching and learning can open doors for our students. We’ve explored fascinating ways that technology can expand our students’ experience and allow them to encounter new perspectives. Teaching with technology allows our students to interact and work with people and information from around the world, and the possibilities for positive growth and learning seem obvious and endless. And yet, plenty of risks and complications are also inevitable, and as instructors it is our responsibility to help our students negotiate these interactions, and to use their digital tools in an ethical, respectful, and academically useful way.

Robin Wharton’s “Of Icebergs and Ownership: A Common-Sense Approach to Intellectual Property” introduces one particular set of norms that our students will need to negotiate – specifically how the rules of intellectual property apply to digital writing and publishing. Students these days have easy access to the work and ideas of many different people, and one of the greatest assets of learning in the digital age is being able to freely explore the work of others. Access to this wealth of information makes it especially important for our students to learn how to differentiate between their own ideas and those of others, to recognize and clearly communicate the difference between source types, and to credit their sources fully and accurately.

However, specific rules about exactly how students are allowed to use the work of others are hard to pin down, and as Wharton points out it can be dangerous for an institution to be too prescriptive with those guidelines. “Institutions attempting to chart a safe course through treacherous regulatory seas too often take an approach that positions faculty and students as passengers along for the ride, rather than co-pilots or fellow travelers capable of plotting a course of their own” (Wharton). Instead of passing down hard and fast rules from on high, she argues, guidelines should emerge from a collaborative process that engages both teachers and students, and emphasizes the key purpose of the project. “My primary concern is helping them understand how they can ethically and responsibly use and build upon the work of others in their own work.” In her own courses Wharton works with her students to “examine together the question of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable reuse of pre-existing work, and how the answers to that question evolve to fit particular situations” (Wharton).

In the world of digital writing and learning, expected norms of behavior may not always be clear or even solidly fixed. Expectations might change depending on the situation or the individuals involved, however if we are going to open the metaphorical doors of our classrooms to the larger digital world, then we are responsible for giving our students the skills to successfully negotiate their way through that landscape. Wharton sums up her approach like this: “Rather than setting them adrift in the murky waters of the law or establishing barriers to keep them from venturing out from the shallows, I try to provide my students with ethical tools that will help them successfully navigate the seas of professional discourse” (Wharton). Obviously Wharton’s experience is mostly focused on higher ed, but is there a version of this kind of negotiation that we could imagine doing in a high school classroom? Do you think you might face more or less institutional resistance at the high school or college levels?

Wharton’s piece is just one example of the kind of negotiating we might encounter as digital teachers and learners. This past weekend I attended a session on “The State of the Field: Digital Humanities” at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Although the specific projects discussed were focused on History instead of English, a lot of the central questions resonated with our course and specifically with this question of negotiation. As one speaker stated, teachers of the digital humanities need to be willing to work without a net. We are helping to develop a field that is still largely undefined and that in many ways requires the blurring of traditional boundaries. As a result the rules of engagement are not always clear. In order to make the best use of the new tools available we will need to be flexible, collaborative, innovative, and free to explore and experiment right alongside our students. The one thing we know is that “the human and technological networks within which we work will continue to change—and in ways that affect our teaching approaches, our social practices, and much more” (DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl, Hicks, 141). How do you think we can best prepare ourselves and our students to negotiate that change? What other boundaries (social, cultural, etc.) can you see your students having to negotiate in the digital world?  Lots to discuss!


  1. Thought provoking post, Robin! I’m particularly happy you picked Wharton to discuss, as that reading really had me contemplating what I realised back in undergrad doing both Psychology and tech-savvy creative writing. Central to navigating this ever changing world, with its copyrights, copylefts, fair use, and creative commons, is the ethics of using materials. I’ve felt this keenly during this course, second guessing myself and doubting if I’ve been handling the materials properly. This paranoia is partly from my laissez faire attitude towards copyright cases—so long as no one is being hurt, lambasted, or falsely quoted, and that there is proper attribution and a clear indication that the creator of remixed material is not earning anything from it, it surely has to be fine. Another part of my paranoia is my knowledge of ethics from the field of Psychology. It is focused more on how our work affects subjects, but the spirit of it underlies ethics as a whole.

    There was a tale our Department Head used to tell us, a group of Chinese psych students submitted to the Ethics Committee a proposal for a study on the Chinese student population. The proposal was rejected, because despite the Department Head having no issue, the Ethics Committee felt their study had elements that would discomfit the subjects of the study. On the digital front, many of the courses I’ve experienced handling materials that may be copyrighted on the internet have skirted the edge of turning into an impromptu “how not to get sued” lesson. Others stick to saying if you attribute the work to the correct source properly, you’re in the green.

    My knowledge of the copyright laws are shaky at best, but with the waters getting increasingly muddy, intellectual property, speaking-as-publishing, and so forth, there’s this sinking feeling that soon we can’t even use materials freely in class just to teach—or we can, if we hand someone a check first. Navigating copyright—or learning to understand what and what copyright allows us to do—is an important lesson for students, especially when they’ve grown up hearing about copyright lawsuits and getting confused by the legalese. They know about it and the crippling fear of “getting caught” doing something they might personally find ethically alright (such as sampling some music or the Chinese students’ study) but is lawfully illegal (or doesn’t pass the Ethics Committees prying eyes) might prevent them from fully taking advantage of the tools out there.

  2. I included Wharton on the reading list, precisely because I share Tiril's laissez faire attitude toward reusing material. Part of this may be part laziness, but the other more significant part of this is my resistance to what Lessig calls our "permission culture." I'm convinced that copyright laws and claims to intellectual property have crippled creative production, and I don't see any reason why we can't move more toward copyleft or creative commons licenses, particularly if the goal of copyright is to protect the rights of artists (not those of corporations or content controllers). As Robin recalls from the speaker at the conference (and I love the fact that you attended a DH session!), we do need to get used to working without a net, as long as we are engaging with previous materials ethically and responsibly. Teaching citation is key, of course, but I'm not sure we need to explain the details about "fair use" or how to avoid getting sued. Then we give in to the "permission culture," which I think offers next to nothing good for any sort of healthy creative economy.

  3. Much like Tiril and Alex, I think that it is more important for students to be comfortable in citing sources. We should not be pushing an agenda of fear, but encourage students to at least cite sources. In my 8th grade class I do not spend a great deal of time asking students to use outside sources. A majority of the time students are given sources and asked to answer a question about them, much like they will encounter on state standardized tests. However, we do complete a historical context project for To Kill a Mockingbird and my librarian teaches students how to cite sources. Most of my students ask why this important. I remember the library teacher saying, “How would you like it if someone stole something you made?” And one of my students saying that he wouldn’t care because he puts everything that he generally makes (his mixtapes, ha, or phots) up online for people to see and use. He said that he uses people stuff all the time without ever saying where it came from. Then, he pulls up his iPad and shows a picture that he downloaded and edited by sticking his face on it. Then, the library teacher went along the “you can get in trouble” route. It’s incredibly frustrating because at this age it is so difficult for students to see that there is a problem when the culture they are living in is constantly remixing without giving a what about who made the original content. Is it necessary to teach using fear? Any suggestions? I’m really at a loss.

  4. Thanks for the post. This is such an interesting topic and with so many things like this, questions of copyright have always been a concern, but with the recent developments of technology and social media, they now have become an important area of concern for instructors. Wharton writes about the importance of getting students to see that they are “not just users and consumers” but “owners and producers…of intellectual property.” I might adjust this way of thinking slightly, as students have always been, to some extent, producers of intellectual property. What has changed in recent years is that students are now publishers of intellectual property. Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, and countless other sites allow for the instant publication, and permanent archiving, of any writing or photos; Youtube has done the same for video and music. No longer does publication require vetting through an editor. Because of this, it is increasingly important that instructors pick up the role of teaching students what it means to steal, to borrow, to honor, or to reimagine existent works (though this is not always enough, as paying homage to one piece of intellectual property may still be copyright infringement, e.g. “Blurred Lines”).

    As this is still early in the life of instant publication, it will likely be the case that in the coming years (or decades) more developments in technology will allow for a digital editor, one that is able to instantly determine what is and what is not borrowed from other sources. In the meantime, it is necessary for instructors (and probably English instructors) to take up this cause. In my own teaching I have had little experience with the other forms of media production, just writing. One way that I try to prevent students from plagiarizing (intentionally or unintentionally) is to focus on developing the student’s authority. By emphasizing that the student has a voice that is of equal weight with any author we are reading, it becomes less likely that the student will feel the need to rely on the ideas of another writer (at least this is the hope). Perhaps by emphasizing both this and the purpose for the assignment, or product, concerns around copyright will diminish, at least until the legal framework behind copyright and intellectual property is finely reconstructed, as it inevitably will be, to reflect the actual needs of a digital age.

  5. You pose great questions, Robin! I can definitely imagine teaching students in a middle or high school classroom the ability to “negotiate ethical waters.” Although Wharton’s experience is with post-secondary students there are some main points that I think can be generalized to a middle or high school class. One of Wharton’s best points of advice is that students should feel like owners and producers of their work and ideas, not just users and consumers. Ideally this should start from a pre-school age, but students need to be given authority over their work and shown that if they can defend their claims or ideas on any given topic (with evidence) that although they may not have been the first one to take that stance, their view is noted and respected. By bringing together their own sources and taking a definitive stance on something they are becoming owners of their ideas and by connecting evidence to claims they are producing something new. Students need to feel some sort of intellectual authority in the classroom, not just that they are expected to mimic scholar’s views.
    Also Wharton points out that you cannot ‘own’ an idea. This is something I can imagine teaching and discussing in a 5-12 ELA classroom. Students need to realize that an idea can not be copyrighted, but like Wharton points out, students should know that professional/ethical convention calls for attributing ideas to where they came from. This can be murky for students sometimes, especially when they are not directly quoting, so this is a topic that should probably be continually taught and reviewed in a 5-12 class. Wharton also advises continual fair use education in your class (another idea for 5-12 ELA teachers). Rather than have a short plagiarism lesson at the beginning of the year, teachers should aim to continually review what is and isn’t fair use, how to cite sources, when to cite sources, etc. Sometimes students need continual reminders and examples of fair use in different contexts.
    So, how can we best prepare students for continually changing boundaries in technology? We need to teach them the ability to generalize fair use from print to screen. We need to make them feel like owners and producers and have them realize that ultimately they will be making the call on citing sources, so they need the skills to be able to make the right calls. The earlier that students start learning fair use and the skills to make those calls, the better prepared they will be in the future of the digital age.

  6. Thank you Robin for picking this article!

    This article brought me back to my college years. As I look back at it as an English major, one of the most useful thing I’ve learnt is how to do proper citations. It was taught by my foreign teacher, in a way that is unfavorable to Brian—by engaging fear. My teacher brought up many examples about violation of the copyright law, and scared us off by the serious outcome—losing up to 50% of the final points—if we couldn’t perform well in doing citation. As a result, we had to bury our heads in the MLA citation rules in order to be tagged “plagiarism”. But I have to say learning by fear is highly effective, if you dare to take the risk that students may feel too pushy and thus give up on this.

    I very much appreciate Tiril’s laissez faire attitude towards copyright cases, and is quite inspired by the idea of copyleft or creative commons licenses. As more and more communication and publication is done digitally, there’s the urge to redefine the copyright laws or even put a reasonable relaxation on it. The dispute between law and ethics has to be solved in some way. I felt quite nervous when I was doing my remix: some of the video clips are already themselves remix, and I have no idea where the original materials come from. Therefore I’m not sure if it’s legal for me to use the photo or graph within existing videos. And I suppose some people may share the same feeling with me. When it comes to digital ecology, we may have to redefine the meaning of copyright law and “fair use” and make it known to all digital users. But how can this be done with the huge amount of them?

  7. Thanks for the compelling questions Robin! I’d like to take up Brian’s interesting anecdote about this student and librarian exchange. Brian observes: “it is so difficult for students to see that there is a problem when the culture they are living in is constantly remixing without giving a thought about who made the original content.” I would heartily agree that our culture is perpetually remixing (anyone watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? The opening portion is a remix that seems to play on that Antoine Dodson ‘bed intruder’ remix phenomenon from a little while ago). Anyhow, I think this is just one example of the ways we are constantly encountering remixed, referential material and perhaps have become a bit oblivious to considering the significance of its constituent parts.

    Appropriation and referentiality are an important part of the resultant work — when we read T.S. Elliott we pay close attention to the allusions and when we talk about Shakespeare, we generally talk about what he was reading. However, I wonder if we think as deeply about digitally remixed materials we encounter on a daily basis. Do we take digital forms of remixing more at face value — as a unified entity unto itself, without full regard for the source materials?

    I’m not sure what the best way to broach these important issues of citation and fair use with students is, because I am so ill-informed myself. The approach I’ve been taking on our digital projects is using MLA style citations for video and audio but I’m really not sure if that is adequate attribution of sources. I really appreciated Wharton’s input here, especially her invocation of ethos — “rather than focusing on regulatory compliance, classroom discussions of copyright and intellectual property should center around ethos and the implicit and explicit obligations professional communities impose upon their members and upon “outsiders” who wish to communicate effectively within them.” I think a discussion of ethos is a smart way to bring these rigid legal issues into the humanities classroom in a more intuitive way. Of course it isn’t enough to say — ‘just do what you think is right, use good judgment,’ but its a pretty good place to start the conversation.

  8. Robin, thank you so much for your thoughtful and provocative post. In reading Brian's response, I was struck by the case of his student already seeming to own his digital authorship and how different things are today from when the rest of us where in high school. I definitely agree with others that handcuffing our students with fear of the law and being sued does nothing more than subvert if not suppress their ability to be creative. Along with this, I think it's also important to model for our students the importance of citing not only from an ethical standpoint but from a responsible one as well.

    The case Wharton notes at the end of her piece about the Buffy vs Twilight mashup piece says a lot about this kind of idea that this sort of digital authorship is really seen as still in it's infancy, and almost seems like a natural extension to me of the hip-hop culture. In this, it seems being able to use and think of these things in the term of "digital" makes working without a net much easier than it was for the DJ's and producers who were creating these new songs from samples of others in the early days of hip hop. It seems, when you look at the issue of rights clearances they all had to go through, we've come a long way today as far as that is concerned.

    I think part of my stance is related to embracing the idea of working without a net and being okay with not asking permission (as a part of the permissive culture Alex has introduced recently.) The saying "don't ask for permission, beg for forgiveness" comes to mind as far as these things are concerned, in my mind, because in the greater good of using these new digital tools to their best ability, it almost seems to become necessary in order to create anything.

  9. Robin, thanks for posting! I'm glad that this is a topic that we can all discuss (as copyright laws and all of the different types of copyright confuse me to no end and discussion like this help me separate the copyrights from the copylefts and the creative commons from fair use).

    I, like students in Brian's class, was taught about copyright and citing through fear. My mother once told me a story about how when she was in school, she wrote a paper and made a typo, omitting one single end quotation mark. Because of this, her teacher went on to berate her and say she could go to jail for plagiarizing and for stealing the author's work. This story has been in the back of my head for years and citing has been something that has scared me ever since. Even while I was in school I was always just told about cases where people were sued and how you could get in so much trouble for citing incorrectly. Rather than learning about how to properly cite sources and to properly give credit, I was always terrified of doing it wrong and getting in immense amount of trouble. I do not think that teaching this way is beneficial to students. It just makes them nervous that they've cited something wrong and worry that now they'll get in trouble or go to jail or whathaveyou (though maybe that's my own paranoia).

    But, on the other hand, I also sometimes have the laissez faire attitude that Alex and Tiril mentioned. I'll think "I'm a random person who is posting a random thought about a particular subject. How would they find me?" How does one get the job of "Professional YouTube Searcher?" And just comb YouTube looking for videos that may be in violation of some copyright law.

    While Wharton's ideas and lessons are clearly being applied to a post-secondary classroom, teaching students how to navigate the "murky waters" of copyright laws is still something that could be taught to high school students. We need to teach them the tools to use copyright earlier so that they will be prepared when they are in college or grad school, or even just posting something on the internet. Although, I don't exactly know how we would teach them this without it turning into a lecture on copyright laws or a discussion on "how not to get sued."

  10. Robin, I love the questions you asked in response to Wharton! Great post!

    Your questions are not just about teachers finding ways to teach students the difference between their own thoughts and paraphrasing from another without appropriate citation. Your questions also ask us to consider how we, as perpetual students, perceive intellectual property. I always tell my students, "when in doubt, put a citation;" if you ask yourself "should I put a citation here?" then you should. However, what about those things that we do not question because maybe we did not take an idea but we responded to an idea or gained "inspiration" from an idea? That is just one part of the murky water, but my advice still stands: when in doubt, put a citation.

    For my students, I have seen instances of plagiarism decline because they have become aware of why they need to cite--not just how to cite. I taught my students the reason why we cite someone else's work by taking an assignment they created and using chunks from several students and mashed it together. I then had students read that paper that I said was from a student in that class, and many of them recognized their own writing and became angry. I said imagine if you were someone who found their product or work in someone else's product or work, potentially leading you to lose money? Surprisingly, my students were taken aback, but they learned from their own anger I suppose.

    Appropriation is a hard topic, Robin, but I think so long as you're honest with your students about what they stand to lose not just by having to pay someone money, but from a potential loss they may experience themselves.


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