Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A practical question.

Let's say you've worked very hard on a project. You've been part of the organizing from the outset. You've done a lot of thinking and writing and rewriting. You've worked hard to build consensus. You've done loads of personal outreach to try to build a community around the project (including "cold-emailing" people you don't know personally). You've been the dependable facilitator. You've laminated a bloody sign.

You are the first to acknowledge that the project that you've been working very hard on is a local implementation of someone else's broader project. Because, after all, one should give credit where credit is due.

Let's further suppose you are a lowly assistant professor trying to build your tenure case. Your colleagues in your department have an inkling of what kind of effort you've put into this project (which will appear under the heading of "service" in your list of accomplishments).

So, you open the paper and, in a story about a professor from another department receiving a service award -- one you are very much inclined to feel this professor deserves, mind you -- you discover a quote from an administrator crediting the professor who has won the award with "creating" this project.

Who did the what now?

You struggle with the sense of "create" that could be appropriate here. Certainly, award winning professor didn't create the idea ex nihilo since some other guy did. (And wrote a book about it!) Award winning professor did raise the idea of trying a local implementation of this project, in an ongoing online discussion that award winning professor can legitimately claim credit for. But, while award winning professor has been a font of encouragement and moral support, award winning professor has not been involved in the torturous details of getting the project to actually come off.

Let us be clear that we have no reason to believe award winning professor is trying to seize credit for this project. Instead, we have a high-profile administrator heaping this credit on award winning professor in a periodical whose headlines are sometimes misspelled. So, there is a non-zero probability that the administrator was misquoted. All the same ...

So here's the practical question: what ought you to do? Arguably, your significant contribution is being overlooked. And, a claim that the achievement really belongs to someone else is being publicized to (among others) people outside your department who will judge your tenure case on College and University Retention, Tenure, and Promotion Committees. If they believe what they've read in the paper (and, with no glaring misspellings in the article, why wouldn't they?), it is entirely possible that your claim that this project constitutes real service on your part will be regarded as puffery or worse.

At the same time, recall that you're a lowly assistant professor. It's not like you can be all "'Fraid not!" with regard to the high profile administrator's quote.

Is there any way to set the record straight without stepping on a political landmine? Or do you have to just let it go?

(It's interesting, I think, how this scenario illuminates the trickiness of power relations in academe. As a lowly assistant professor, your contributions often don't get the notice of high profile administrators or other powerful people of note. Instead, there's an assumption that really good things that happen are due to the known galaxy of powerful people. Yet, the lowly must somehow jump up and down to get their contributions recognized, else they don't get to stay in the club long enough to become powerful people of note themselves.)

This has more to do than you think it does with the issue of authorship, to be taken up in class tomorrow. Stay tuned!


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