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?