I didn’t want to write this blog post. I still don’t want to but events, and the ever-grinding wheels of the ELT rumour mill, make it almost unavoidable. Coupled with that is the fact that, with no intention or action on my part, things are being said and discussed which are to some, it seems, frustratingly opaque.
In case you have no idea what I am talking about it is the accusation, made in a closed Facebook group where (quite rightly) I have no access or ability to defend myself – and since repeated elsewhere – that I stole someone’s talk (and others’) and passed it off as my own. If that accusation was indeed true I would be guilty of severe professional misconduct.
Every talk I prepare – and I assume this goes for other conference speakers and workshop leaders – takes a long long time to put together. Weeks sometimes, sometimes much much longer. In that process we read, listen watch, attend other talks, have conversations, and suck in information from all sides. Speaking personally it is sometimes an incredibly lonely process interrupted by sudden flashes of excitement and the wonderful moment when things start falling into place – so that a talk finally emerges. Ideas, during this process, fly around everywhere.
In the case in point I became interested in a particular topic because of a plenary I attended (and have acknowledged everywhere) nearly two years ago. I used that talk as the basis for planning my own session on a similar topic. During the subsequent months (in this case literally months) it took to put my talk together I scoured the internet, read, referred back to my earlier talks, blogs, books etc and kept my eyes and ears wide open to what was going on in the world and which might add ‘grist to the mill’. And had a number of conversations. One of these – stimulating, wide-ranging and enjoyable – lead to the current accusation, even though it was only one of many many sources for my thinking and talk development.
It gets difficult, this blizzard of ideas etc and can sometimes lead to accusations, for example, of using someone else’s ‘meme’ or idea – even where such ideas are in common currency all around us and no one can really claim ownership of them.
This kind of problem is not new: classical music composers have always incorporated parts of other people’s work (even where they are not conscious of it). They use folk tunes, and draw from a tapestry of all the other melodies floating in the air around and above them as they seek for inspiration. I think of the times, sitting in orchestra, rehearsing a symphony by X and suddenly thinking ‘wait a minute – that’s a direct copy of something written by Y’ – though it wasn’t really a copy at all, at least not a deliberate copy, just part of the creative sharing, borrowing, and unconscious intertexuality of music creation. As a songwriter myself I understand the difficulty (aka impossibility) of ever producing a song which is genuinely melodically original. To say nothing of the lyrics.
And what of ELT and the talks and workshops that many of us (wish to) offer. I have an endless supply of memories of sitting in a conference hearing someone else tell a joke or anecdote that I thought was ‘mine’!! (which it almost certainly never was; I will probably have got it from somewhere else myself). I think of the many many times when someone has used my formulation of something (from, say, one of my methodology books) without saying where it came from – because it had become, in some way, common currency. Or worse, that sinking feeling, as you attend someone else’s talk, that yours has ‘had it’, because theirs is so similar (and usually better). And yes, inadvertently I may have done the same with other speakers’ content (that is if it WAS their original content in the first place), though I try to be as scrupulous as I can be about these things (as do my peers, the ones I respect anyway). The fact is that we learn endlessly and continually from the amazing wealth of talent around us all in the field of ELT. In that context, if someone brings a lack of attribution to our attention (that we didn’t give proper credit where credit was due) we are honour bound to do something about it.
In the case that provoked this post, amongst the many other speakers, books, sources I referenced during the talk (and there were a lot) it IS true that I was discourteous enough not to mention my conversee as one of the many people I had read, watched, listened to or talked with (but only one, and not the one I based my talk on); made aware of that I instantly did so – as I am and was honour-bound to do – in the places where such acknowledgement might be useful or helpful for them. (I have resolved never to give the talk again, as it happens; I have no desire to cause anyone upset, even if I disagree, categorically, with their view of the situation. To be clear you have not stolen someone’s talk and passed it off as your own if your talk was actually based on someone else’s talk – acknowledged – not the one alleged! And anyway, there are a lot of other things to talk about in ELT).
This whole area of ideas and who they belong to is, as I have said, complex and difficult to negotiate. An accusation of stealing is serious; a carelessness in giving credit is regrettable. So if there is anyone else out there who thinks I (or other speakers) have stolen their talk or ideas, please let us know and if they are right I (and I am sure colleagues in a similar situation) will instantly do something about it (if anything can be done). In my case I should point out that I have a detailed record, going back to 1993, of exactly when I first (and subsequently) gave the many talks I have worked on. That should at least make it easy to establish any causal chronological relation there is (if there is one) between someone else’s work and mine, for example. In the muddy in-between? More difficult (as this blog suggests), but we’ll try. At least I will.
So that’s my blog. Please feel free to comment – respectfully, as I have tried to do here. The real question is this; who owns ideas and how should we deal with that?
Many thanks Jeremy for sharing your experiences regarding this. The process of preparing a talk yourself is an evolution. You watch other speakers, reflect on points made, read and read some more and then prepare – as you mentioned. I am sorry to hear that you were singled out but keep your chin up. You are a fine fellow and one that I would continue to watch at future talks.
Thank you very much Martin. The whole talk preparation process is a long-drawn-out one. We should/must acknowledge where we can of course – and when we do not try to put it right at once. But where ideas come from? That’s a much more difficult one!!
I always find this concept of information ownership strange. If you do a talk, surely it is to share information. If someone else picks up on that information and does a similar talk then surely that’s great. Mission acomplished – you have convinced someone of your arguement and they are now helping to multiply your message. What outcome could be better? If you are doing a talk and want to be the sole owner and possesser of that information then you should just stay home with your mouth shut and certainly not be in the business of teaching. Speaking at conferences should be about building a speaker’s ego it should be about sharing and building on our common body of information so that we can all benefit from it.
Hello Nick, thanks for your comment.
Yes, i think the whole point of talks/conferences etc etc is to share and receive a whole range of ideas, opinions, arguments etc etc and see how they all contribute to some ?better understanding of what we are about. But the ideas themselves? They are not owned by anyone, I believe. They just ARE.
If someone stole one of my songs, word for word, note for note and said it was theirs, that would be more difficult. But a talk, with many threads and ideas? It’s never like that and I have certainly never complained when i have been (not!) quoted. It’s not that serious and anyway – as i suggested – my ideas probably weren’t mine in the first place!!
Thanks for your post. While I agree that ‘ideas come from everywhere’, it strikes me that we would benefit from seeing the whole context that this incident fits into. In trying to imagine this, I am not taking sides or accusing anyone; I’m merely trying to understand the background.
I wonder if there is something about power dynamics and gender here? A well-known male ELT person fails to acknowledge (whether by oversight or whatever) a lesser known female ELT person. If I read this correctly, this seems to be what has happened. In a context in which there are still all-male panels and all-male conference line-ups (there is an upcoming UK one being advertised with 10 men, 0 women) , bullying and worse, perhaps we can start to understand why the incident you recount could happen. In a profession in which women dominate numerically yet often get no seat at the ELT table, this incident, no doubt upsetting for both parties, perhaps starts to make more sense.
This is not, I repeat, saying who is right and who is wrong; it is merely trying to understand where such feelings may spring from.
Thank you for your comment Sue, a lot of which I agree with – and some of which i feel (perhaps justifiably) sensitive about. However it seems that 3 issues are being mixed or elided here and I think I’d like to try to separate them.
An accusation is made that I stole someone else’s talk and passed it off as my own. An analogy would be if, when i sang the old Canadian standard ‘Four strong winds’ in a folk club in Bury St Edmunds last Thursday (as I did) I had said ‘here is a song I wrote’. Well I didn’t, obviously, because it was written, years ago, by someone called Ian Tyson! The talk I gave (and which has caused all the trouble), was actually modelled on a talk by someone called Dom Thurbon who I watched in English Australia in November 2015, and who I acknowledge. He was the source of my talk. It also relied (my talk) on information and sourcing from all over the place – and from my own work over many years, as well as on zeitgeist references all over the media. But – as I readily acknowledge – I did indeed also have the benefit of an interesting conversation and that too (one amongst many references, and not the thing I modelled my talk on) fed into my thinking. A simple, single mention of that fact during my presentation would have been appropriate and courteous and I am culpable of not having made that mention. But as you can see, I hope, the accusation of ‘stealing a talk’ does not hold up in this circumstances (incidentally i would never have blogged about any of this this had not the subject taken off without my participation).
But the second issue you raise is about power dynamics (we’ll come to gender in a minute). I am scared in case there is some truth in this, although I do not see myself as having any power over anything – nor do any publishers I have ever worked with, for example, or conference organisers! They have always had the upper hand. There has been success,yes, but there has also been significant failure and we are all balanced precariously between them all the time. But I do tend to hoover up ideas from wherever i find them and have many fascinating discussions which may, to some extent, depend upon my standing (whatever that is) in the profession. Did that happen in this case? Well, it didn’t seem like that to me, though there may be disagreement about that, but I am conscious of needing to be more careful in the future about the danger you mention. a danger that this incident, perhaps, exposes. I believe (well that is my view of myself, but its only, of course, my view) I have been very supportive of others in the world of ELT, older and younger. If I have not, I deserve to be called out on it, In this particular case, however, and because the person in question sees this very much as their ‘territory’ (even though, as I understand it – never having seen their talk – much of the content of the two sessions is very different, and many of these are ideas are actually common currency), I have decided not to give my session again, to give them a free reign, and have publicly acknowledged this person’s work.
And so to the issue of gender – one about which I have been heavily criticised in a place where I cannot defend myself. I believe I have been referred to as ‘arrogant’ and ‘breathtakingly hypocritical’. Both those things may be true, but on subject of gender parity in conferences, for example, I could not agree more that the situation is completely unsatisfactory. Finding myself on an all-male panel the other day, for example, was extremely uncomfortable and unexpected. Representations were made and opinion was given. The result was that on two subsequent evenings the panels were gender equal. That is how it should be (in my opinion) and shows how sensible engagement, rather than unfounded vitriol, can achieve results. But that was just one incident. I entirely acknowledge – how could I not – that women are woefully under-represented in some parts and aspects of our profession.The reasons for this are complex and not necessarily one-dimensional, though yes, a good deal of patriarchy still hangs around and I daresay that as a beneficiary of that I am sometimes less aware than i should be of when it is taking place. As I said before I, and all of us, need to be called out on this when we fall short and we all need to engage about how we (both men and women) can try and change this situation.
As to bullying? Well as someone who has been significantly attacked for things that i did not say (in one particularly egregious example the words & example of my female co-presenter were ascribed to me and woefully misinterpreted to accuse me of blatant sexism), and who, if my information is correct, is constantly attacked in a place where I have no ability to explain or defend myself, well then yes, I know about bullying. When and if anyone (myself included) behaves like that we deserve to be called out for it.
“There has been success,yes, but there has also been significant failure and we are all balanced precariously between them all the time.”
Sorry Jeremy, but to say that you are ‘balanced precariously’ between success and failure is going a bit too far. The vast majority of ELT teachers across the world are precarious workers (and often women), earning little money with crappy working conditions – something that ELT teaching organisations do nothing (or very little) to remedy or address. I don’t see what connection you have to this world or what you have done to change this situation, or support those who are trying to change it. The only ELT ‘guru’ to have poked their head above the parapet and supported TaWSIG (though not unreservedly, it must be said) is Scott Thornbury (https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2015/04/26/p-is-for-power/). The people at the top of the industry seem uninterested in a dialogue with the people at the bottom who actually buy the product and keep the wheels of the ELT machine oiled. Also, unlike the world of zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment suffered by many ELT teachers today – a situation which TaWSIG has helped to bring to light and is causing real suffering – it seems that once someone has attained a certain level on the ELT ‘circuit’ – they then get to stick around like glue and flog themselves and their products into eternity. In contrast to what you’ve written, you seem to be balanced precariously between ‘success’ and ‘more success’. What a nice position to be in!
And the ELT industry which you have surfed to success benefits from these low wages and crappy working conditions, because it means that a big slice of the pie stays within the coursebook system and its merry-go-round of publisher showroom events. (BTW, if, as you say, the publishers and conference organisers have the “upper hand” – then how do you think this state of affairs came about, and how is it maintained?)
And your statement that ‘ideas are everywhere’ doesn’t make sense, it’s utter nonsense. Some ideas carry more weight when they’re spoken from people at the top of the tree, rather than those at the bottom. That’s just basic sociology.
If ideas were just ideas, regardless of who holds them, then perhaps Rosalind Franklin would be just as famous as Watson and Crick, and we’d be playing the left-wing ‘The Landlord’s Game’ rather than the capitalist ‘Monopoly’. (Google ‘Lizzie Magie’)
Ideas come from people’s heads, but some people’s heads are worth more than others.
Thank you Paul for your thoughtful and necessary comments. I have been thinking about how best to reply since the points you make cut across both personal and public issues. I’ll give it a try.
Firstly I need to reply to your comments about the conditions under which many people are forced to work in the ELT industry. That is, of course, no surprise to me and why, when i was a teacher, I was a member of the union which fought (and still fights), with very variable success to try and enshrine decent working conditions. But that was then (for me).
The way some schools operate is nothing short of scandalous; zero hour contracts, low pay, unpleasant conditions. I know all that, of course I do, and it is wrong, wrong, wrong. All over the world (and ELT is not unique in this respect) there are good ELT organisations, not-so-bad organisations, and total sharks. This is all part of the same vortex which sucks in, for example, unqualified native speakers in second grade schools in Asia, for example and pays them backpacker money even when they are way way past that demographic. When language teaching is ONLY about making money bad practices (for both teachers and students) automatically follow.
But there are organisations and inspection routines that have tried to do something about this. The BC inspection scheme includes teacher pay and conditions in its routine, and the EAQUALS scheme similarly does its best to address this issue.
Perfect? No of course not. For all of my professional life there has been talk of trying to set up some kind of ELT equivalent of the GMC (General medical council) but it has never materialised – and inspection schemes are the closest the industry has got. In part that’s because in the private language sector especially, the variety of both legal (and sometimes barely legal) provision is enormous.
How to respond? Well short of some kind of legal measure (try that in all this different countries!), calling out schools that mistreat their staff may be an answer. And apart from that?
That’s a start. I’ll dress the other issues in my next reply.
So, Paul, you say that you disbelieve my comment about, personally, being balanced precariously between success and failure; that the way you see it, it’s success and more success; and that people like me “stick around like glue and flog themselves and their products into eternity.”
I am not quite sure what insights you have into my life (or the lives of people like me). But if you think most of us are on some kind of gravy train which pours money and success all over us then I am sorry to disabuse you. It is not like that – that is why, of course, I, and many of my peers, are members of the Society of Authors, the closest thing to a trade union we have as freelance authors in a world where we frequently get shafted. We repeatedly find ourselves up against unfair treatment. Every author I know, myself included, has been screwed by a publisher, losing months and months and months of work for no reward. And it is more than that. Some ELT authors do, it is true, earn serious amounts of money (I mean very very large sums), but it is not like that for most of us. Please do not misunderstand me, I have, of course earned better than some of the teachers you describe in your comments and I am grateful for that, but I do get fed up with the suggestion that all people who have ever had books published are rolling in it. That shows a misunderstanding of the process and the product. Every book you write or co-write stands the same chance of success or failure so that for me, as for others, some things I have written have done well but others have been – not to put too fine point on it – failures. The work that goes into both of those, however, is exactly the same; sometimes worth it, sometimes wasted; sometimes success, sometimes failure.
And now for ‘flogging themselves and their products and sticking around like due’. Well I find the terms you use potentially offensive, if I am honest. I care passionately about my profession, and about the way languages are taught and learnt – just as much now as I did when I got into this. I spend my whole damn life trying to work out how to advance discussions about what we do, about how to help students more effectively and more appropriately, and how to give teachers pedagogic tools, support and motivation. That’s why the talk I did yesterday, for example, (which may or may not have been any good – that is for others to judge) took weeks and weeks to prepare. Was I flogging myself (ask the same question to others like me)? Well in the sense that teachers promote themselves when they teach, maybe yes. But actually what I was trying to do was to provoke more discussion about the teaching-learning conundrum and how that might effect how teaching takes place.
Do people like me stick around like glue? There is a difficult subtext underneath your comment, I think. Are you suggesting that people should leave after a certain time? At a certain age? When people tell them it’s time for them to go (who will tell them?)? A retirement age for freelancers? That’s a first. And this enforced absence should apply even if the person is still a fully functioning curious and engaged person who thinks they have a contribution to make – and works extremely hard to do so? I think that’s what you appear to be saying and if so we need to talk about that.
More success? It doesn’t seem like that to me and my peers. It is true I get offers to speak; true that I teach (both online and face to face). However, you would have to ask my employers or inviters why they ask me. But you know what? Frequently they don’t; no repeat invitation because in some ways I have failed. That has happened/does happen to me. Nothing special about that. A bit like other people. And it’s pretty unsettling.
One of the worst things that teachers is experience is when students complain about them (it has happened to everyone that i know). It is undermining, awkward and destabilising. Well guess what, it happens to all of us in different ways. So please do not presume to tell me about my constant and increasing success. It is not like that. Not for me. Not for you. Not for my peers. Not for any of us.
And finally; promoting products. If you mean by that I talk about material I have written – written uncynically, doing the best I can, making compromises, yes, but trying to offer genuine help to people struggling with classes and lessons – then you bet I will on occasion tell people about it. I am proud of it and I would like to tell people about that. Just as any presenter will talk about things they have done, learnt, designed etc if they believe in it. And you know what? Sometimes people like what we have done, sometimes they don’t. But it’s up to them if they want to go any further with it – and frequently they don’t.