Keep Your Paws off My Ideas

philosophers need each other or things get weird
philosophers need each other or things get weird

Last semester, my philosopher was granted a semester free of classes and teaching responsibilities so that he could finish his dissertation and apply for jobs. He decided to spend this semester in Delaware with me, which removed him from his extremely vibrant and collaborative philosophical community. Now that he’s back in his department this semester (at the bitter end of his graduate student days) his hours are completely taken up with conversations, papers to review, class discussions to lead, and discussion-heavy events with other philosophers.

“You can’t do philosophy in a vacuum,” my philosopher always tells his students.

As his statement implies, at the heart of analytic philosophy is the idea that our ideas must be constantly shared and butted up against the ideas of others. Analytic philosophers delight in the process of examining each other’s’ argument bits: they call for definitions and redefinitions, challenge premises, test out thought experiments, and figure out each other’s’ philosophical lineage of beliefs (is this person an ethical Kantian? If so, this influences all of the arguments they will make within ethics). To the non-philosopher, these exchanges look like heated, super-intelligent battles over very strange bits of premises.

When I contrast this with my own experience in English, I see why Kathleen Fitzpatrick challenges us humanists to think differently about collaboration and authorship in Chapter 2 of Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. Fitzpatrick notes the anxieties we feel as academics in the humanities when it comes to the concept of collaboration through a series of questions: “What, exactly, will we be given credit for—or held accountable for—when our texts form part of a larger network, when other authors’ responses appear within the same frame as our own writing? How will the multivocal nature of such texts transform our sense of authority?” (82, in my e-text).

Without being deliberately condemnatory of English departments in general or of this department in particular, I will say that my experience in the process of creating papers has been either extremely isolating or semi-collaborative (and semi-collaborative only during the research process). Perhaps part of this is my own fault (the perception that one’s peers will suddenly realize how unintelligent one is), but to my eyes we don’t really have this same sort of community most of the time that philosophers do.

Now, there are times, especially after classes, when we do get together and discuss ideas from class. There are also times when we meet up somewhere and write together (sharing researching experiences along the way!). There are even times when we share bits of our work with people. These times are so sweet but so limited.

we say “uh, stay out of my ideas-business, people”

To go a step further, even many of our sources are isolating in nature rather than welcoming discussion. When I see something awesome like the Dickens Serial Novels Collection, I just want to share bits and pieces of the cool stuff I find there with other Dickens-folk. Now, technically I can do this if I find out who these secretive beings are and connect to them though social media sites, but the Dickens-folk are often closeted or hiding behind another institutionally acceptable designation (19th century periodicals). Further, removing the content on this site from the ability to comment also creates the illusion that these are untouched by the eyes and interest of others. I feel like I’m coming to these texts for the first time. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could comment right underneath, say, the first Pickwick number with an observation or a connection to another recently posted article on Victorian societies?

This said, I can’t help but consider this proposition of reimagining authorship as a collaborative practice—not necessarily writing papers together but sharing ideas together—as an absolutely fantastic idea. Yes please, let’s talk about our ideas! Let’s give up our dusty ideas about ownership and authority and create digital (and physical, please?) communities of idea-sharing!

Any additional thoughts about collaborative writing/speaking/publishing? Has anyone come across a digital archive that allows for comments? What are you most afraid of in collaboration?

12 thoughts on “Keep Your Paws off My Ideas”

  1. Katie,

    Despite what I just posted on Janel’s blog, I have to agree that I find face-to-face conversation about ideas the form of collaboration that I find most rewarding and engaging. I cherish our cohort dinners where we discuss how our sections of E110 are going because we’re able to share what worked, what didn’t work, and what are fears are for/with upcoming lessons and assignments.

    That said, I’d like to answer your final question about what I’m most afraid of in collaboration. I’ve had so many bad experiences with collaboration as an undergrad—being the only one in a group doing good work, let alone the work at all; or being the only one in a peer review group who clearly understood the purpose of the assignment at hand—that I feel no desire to revisit the collaborative setting as a graduate student. So, the fact that I’ll be graded on a peer review assignment for Kristen’s Renaissance Allegory seminar this semester is horrifying.

    Now, it’s not that I mind sharing my own work. Quite the contrary: I’m egotistical enough to want to share my writing with whoever wants to waste time reading it. And yes, I love constructive criticism, even if it ruffles my feathers and makes me have to go back and revise. What I don’t like, though, and thus fear, is having to pretend like I live for peer review and collaboration, like I’m just dying to hear what other people think of my writing.

    But maybe that will change once I write something I actually feel any sense of commitment toward.

    1. I agree that physical ideas-sharing is the most fun of all. Perhaps your anti-collaboration (or hesitant-collaboration) stance is from a lack of positive experiences with it (working with others who mooch or don’t care). For David and the philosophy community to work, people actually have to put in some effort and care.

  2. Katie,

    I had a very similar reaction when reading Fitzpatrick’s discussion on collaboration. I think we’ve all been taught for so long that we need great ideas to publish/get jobs/make a livable wage, that it can be very hard to not feel protective over the ideas that we do have. I don’t know about you, but i know when I come up with an idea for research there is a bit of panic within me as I read through the other sources on the subject. I’m afraid that someone else would have already discussed MY idea.

    I think its interesting to consider how guarded most academics are about their research ideas in relation to how open they are about teaching materials. As Chris notes, it’s incredibly common to share lesson plans/prompts/etc. Frequently this sharing even occurs without attribution. I believe this transparency is one of the best parts about teaching, it makes it such a collaborative/helpful/supportive environment, yet there’s still part of me that resists imagining this same type of research environment.

    1. Heather,

      Yes; I, too, have that panic about topics! I think about the horror stories from others about finding that book that negated the dissertation idea sometimes (my own philosopher almost had that moment when he was working on his dissertation).

      And why is it that we don’t mind collaborative teaching? You are totally right in that we are always swapping ideas and prompts and stories. Perhaps we’re okay with this because it’s hard to put a stamp on “good teaching,” because such a thing also depends on one’s classroom persona and the dynamics of each individual classroom?

      Sometimes I hear horror stories about idea-sharing in the academy: For example, one of my philosopher-friends was writing a paper once for a conference. He met with one of the professors in the department who worked on this type of philosophy, as, you know, that’s what we do when we’re working on an important paper. This professor, then, took this grad student’s idea and published it as a chapter in his own book (without any credit to the student).

      Maybe this is why we’re hesitant. Also, it’s hard to let go of intellectual property.

      1. The professor is a shady guy. I don’t think it happens too often (especially if one is always publicly documenting one’s ideas online!).

  3. Katie,

    There’s something that sounds transgressive (sexual?) about the process of “examining each other’s’ argument bits.” It strikes me as a deeply personal and also deeply vulnerable relationship. Imagine the offspring that can come from these academically-illicit conjugal conversations! It does sound, from your description, that philosophers are doing a better job of this than we English people. What about the study of philosophy makes this happen, do you think?

    As academics, don’t we want to read each others’ work? Aren’t we curious about the limits of our own knowledge and how the hard-won knowledge of others informs, extends, corrects, and complicates ours?

    I’m with you. Let’s jump on the idea-sharing bandwagon and “give up our dusty ideas about ownership and authority.”

    Allons y!

    1. Janel,

      Yes! I often work in sexual metaphors without meaning to do so, but I am very pleased when it happens. It just makes sense.

      Also, YES, I love reading other people’s work. I don’t share my own class work very often, though, but I have a good (bad?) reason: I don’t finish in time to unabashedly ask for someone to read over it. David reads my work sometimes (he’s so good about dropping everything to comment), but I always hate to ask others to do so the night before a paper is due.

      In order to be more collaborative, I need to get better at this.

  4. Chris,

    If all of my peer review experiences had been as negative as it sounds like yours have been, I surely would be less excited about heeding Fitzpatrick’s call for more collaboration and openness in drafting.

    My high school experiences were similar to what you describe, but in college and even moreso in grad school, I’ve specifically sought out people who share my commitment to true engagement. And I can state that my ideas are categorically better formulated and tested by those peer to peer interactions. I guess I just don’t really see how it can go wrong, at this level–I can learn something from everyone, even people who aren’t my favorite, because they offer the feedback of an engaged audience.

    Heather, I don’t think I make a major distinction between feedback from peers vs. feedback from faculty. They’re both readers, and if they provide their honest response as readers, it doesn’t mean that they’re “right” but it does give me information about how I’m communicating my ideas and how my readers are reacting. Of course, one of them is going to give me a grade and the other has no power over my grade, but when I interact with a respected peer, we build a relationship in a way that I don’t experience as thoroughly and as fearlessly as with a “superior.”


    1. Janel and Katie–

      Even though I have had experiences in the past like the ones Chris relates above, I have to say that grad school has also done wonders for my trust and belief in peer review. While I see some of the potential (and very real) problems that Callie points out in her post, I think that having other people read and respond to your work is almost always a good thing (even if it can be scary).

      HOWEVER, I think the key to making peer review as successful as possible is coming to it voluntarily and with your partners carefully- and self-selected. As a member of a department full of smart people working on a variety of topics, I feel spoiled for choice: I can get an opinion about my discussion of x Victorian topic with fellow 19th colleagues, while someone in a totally different time period/field can offer excellent insight as to whether I am actually making sense overall. Oftentimes, of course, this sort of “peer review” is not the official, Writing Center session kind of procedure, but rather a casual conversation or request to skim something. That being said, I had three friends actually read over and give me feedback on an important e-mail the other day before I sent it (though this may be more a symptom of my overthinking all my written texts than the resounding endorsement of peer review I hoped to convey).

      Nevertheless, I don’t know that I have quite as an idyllic vision of peer review as Fitzpatrick, and I too am still troubled by many of the issues that others have raised in their posts about other types of collaboration.

  5. Janel,

    I think I should have clarified my question a bit more. The evaluative aspect isn’t what I’m wondering about so much as the willingness to rethink total ideas. For instance, when I have my advisor look over a paper (regardless of whether or not it will ever be receiving a grade), I’m far more willing to revise whole ideas, given her superior knowledge in the field. With peers, however, I am more likely to use their advice as a means to restructure/clarify what I’m saying, rather than totally rethink the idea of the paper.

  6. One thing I think about often is how we collaborate and discuss within the graduate seminar. For me, this is the place where the expectations of meaningful discourse/debate are highest but oftentimes we are the most nervous or unsure about participating. I assume this is the case (at least for me) because of the way that our class sessions are never truly free spaces–at the same time as we’re supposed to be openly exploring an idea, we are still being monitored and evaluated by the professor, by our peers, by our own ideals of scholarly participation.

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