It’s Just a List of Books: Syllabi, Bibliographies and Ethics

This post was inspired by a colleague of mine.

Several years ago, when discussing intellectual property rights for lecturers, we touched upon the idea of bibliographies, of reading lists. She had become aware, through informal conversations, that several lecturers felt that their module reading lists should be protected under intellectual property law in the same way as their other academic work.

On the one hand, I can understand their hesitancy to relinquish these rights. Developing an undergraduate module take a great deal of time and effort. This includes not only the writing of lectures and assessments, but also of student learning materials such as reading lists. Although some are nothing more than a list of every possibly related book or article available through the university library, most are in some way crafted to reflect the aims and philosophy of a particular course. Should that lecturer leave the university, for whatever reason, what was to stop their former employer from simply continuing to profit from their hard work?

On the other hand, it is just a list of books. They may have been carefully assembled by a given lecturer, but does that give the lecturer intellectual property rights? Can it, for example, be compared to a recipe that is somehow an original act of creation? Is the work of sufficient scholarly rigour to trump the university’s rights to the fruits of your labour in furtherance of your basic job functions?

But let us move away from employer-employee relations for the moment. Beyond questions of job security, the ethics of intellectual property  (distinct from any legal claims) are tricky.  Part of me understands, even sympathises, with the desire to have work independently recognized as something of value, something distinct that a person brings with them to a role. On the other hand, there are a number of reasons why reading lists, even diligently craft ones, should not be hoarded.

  1. Teaching fellows and adjunct lecturers. Historians working for universities on short-term or hourly paid contracts, often covering parental or research leave, are rarely paid for weeks outside the formal teaching sessions of the university. Crafting appropriate reading lists for their modules, even simple catalogues of library resources, takes a great deal of unpaid work. The universities in which I have worked have been quite understanding of this and legacy reading lists have always been left behind to assist me. Even when I took up a  retired module from a departing faculty member, they were kind enough to allow me access to their module guide. This proved invaluable and was much appreciated.
  2. Early career staff on survey modules. Historians moving from postgraduate teaching to full-time lectureships often feel they are in the same position as their adjunct counterparts. Coming to a new position, they may have very little experience in devising chronologically diverse reading lists. Although I had taught US history survey modules for many years, suddenly having to reconcile the holdings of my new library with the works I had used in the past was very difficult.  Moreover, whereas I had sufficient knowledge of trends in my own field to devise discussion-provoking reading lists, my understanding of recent shifts in other periods was patchier. Fortunately, I had saved the modules guides of every course I had taught (or taken) and could search these for inspiration. Yet, here academic ethics played a role.  I did not technically ask permission of my former colleagues or professors to copy segments of their reading lists. Was I wrong to do so?   Was this different from scanning footnotes of recent articles or books for inspiration in my research?
  3. Staff moving into a new field or new pedagogyEven if you have taught survey and specialist modules in your field for many years, the time may come when you want to radically shift your pedagogy; for example, you may want to move away from a few purchased texts to a wide range of articles, or perhaps a combination of controversial popular texts. Having the advice and exemplars of others who have already taught modules in this way would be invaluable. Here again ethic are unclear. Individuals like Linda Calder, by publishing her pedagogical experiment, make it clear which texts were used, inviting others to do the same. However, other lecturers may consider their unusual methodologies added-value to the student experience, something they are personally contributing to their organisation. Is it right to simply copy them?

From my own experiences, I believe most of my colleagues would agree that a reading list probably is just a list of books, unworthy of legal copyright protection. Yet, the ethics involved are more difficult to resolve. Personally, I am happy to share my lists. (Whether they are worth sharing at this stage  is another question entirely). But I simply cannot assume that is true of everyone else, even among those whose module guides are easily accessible online.

This thought was driven home last month when I asked if anyone had any suggestions for my upcoming survey module. I received  two very happy and enthusiastic replies. I had to slightly weedle a response from a third. For whatever reason, suggestions were not forthcoming. Whether this resulted from a desire  to protect hand-crafted lists, or a feeling that I should be doing my own darn work, I cannot say.

In the end, my reading list was compiled and I am ready to begin my module next spring. I am left, however, with a nagging sense that something ought to be done. Even in a wiki-fied world, there does not seem to be an easy way to share modular and customisable reading lists–at least no way that does not somehow feel like the exploitation of a few kindhearted souls. Slightly saddened, I journey on.

*Image courtesy of davidsilver

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