The Originality of Ideas and Other Scholarly Myths

I’ve been sitting with Andrew Rikard (Davidson class of 2017) in a classroom all morning. We’re attending ILiAds (Institute for Liberal Arts Digital Scholarship) at Hamilton College to work on our digital Mina Loy project. We’ve spent most of the week attending presentations, exchanging ideas with other teams, and tinkering with our website.  This morning, we sequestered ourselves in order to write. We wanted to reflect on the collaborative process and on the ways in which digital tools can transform how we teach, learn, research, and communicate. We each decided to write our own blog posts.

Andrew put in his earbuds so that he could focus and not be distracted when I mutter aloud to myself, as I invariably do when I’m concentrating. But every so often, he’d pull out an earbud and ask me a question, wanting to talk through his argument to make sure it made sense. He would say something that would trigger an idea in my mind or echo something I’d been thinking about in another context. I’d listen, take notes on the white board, ask questions, and map out connections and parallels. Andrew was developing a brilliant argument about how digital domains (students designing and managing their own web presences) could transform pedagogical practices in ways that would allow students to have ownership not just of data, but also of the creative production of original ideas.

Here’s a example of our dialogue:

Andrew: I’m starting to think that a “domain of one’s own” is a misnomer, because it implies an ownership over ideas, which isn’t what we’re actually after. We want more of an emphasis on methods, research, exploration, and process.

Suzanne: That’s right, and the metaphors we’ve been using to describe domains emphasize walled, bounded repositories and individual ownership more than creative processes and collaborative exchanges.

Andrew: Yes, because “domain of one’s own” draws upon Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and she’s not really talking about the same thing. But how can I say that when I don’t know enough about her argument?

Suzanne: Woolf was referring to the way, historically, women have been denied access to the material spaces and economic privileges associated with the production of knowledge: they didn’t have access to libraries, offices, or to the quiet and solitude such spaces provided. It’s not that they didn’t have the intelligence or imagination to write, think, and produce knowledge, but they lacked the material resources to do so.

Andrew: Okay, so this situation is different. I want to emphasize that a “domain of one’s own” shouldn’t be an isolated space for individual contemplation, but a space of connectivity and creative exchange.

In this conversation, whose idea is it that the metaphors we use to describe intellectual property are bound by architectural models of walled spaces and by economic notions of individual ownership? Is it Andrew’s or mine? He was first to protest the limitation of the language, “domain of one’s own,” and if he didn’t say that, I wouldn’t have thought to extend his concern to a more general epistemological problem with how we conceive of originality and ownership of ideas.

Here’s the problem as I see it (after talking with Andrew):

share_ideaIdeas do not form in my head, and I don’t think they form in Andrew’s or yours either. They form in the space between us—in the synapses between two (or more) minds at work. Andrew was sitting across the table from me when I explained this idea, pointing to the empty space between our two laptops: that‘s where the ideas happen. Ideas occur not within but between minds. If you’re perceptive and alert, you’ll grab the idea as it spawns and put it in a book, article, or blog post. (If, as Virginia Woolf reminds us, you have the material resources to do so.) But the print or digital document you create is not so much your idea bank, as it is a point of contact between you and other minds. When you grab an idea and put it in writing, you’re putting that idea between two minds. It’s not in your head; it’s in a space between you and your reader(s).

Originality means newness and creativity; it’s tied to the notion of origin or source. But if the origin or source of ideas is the space between minds at work, how can we claim individual ownership of those ideas? Everything I’ve ever thought, said, or written has in some way been shaped by something someone else said or wrote. Even if I have a “new” idea about a Mina Loy poem—an idea no other scholar has published—I wouldn’t have thought of that idea if Loy hadn’t written the poem, and probably wouldn’t have thought of it if I hadn’t read what Roger Conover, Carolyn Burke, and Cristanne Miller, and a host of others have written about Loy, modernism, and women writers.

Academic scholarship, especially in the U.S., is obsessed with the idea of ownership and copyright. When I presented our digital Mina Loy project at a recent academic symposium, I was surprised by the level of fear and resistance. The concerns centered on questions of ownership: What if someone steals your ideas? If published online, will your work be protected by copyright? Those are legitimate concerns that I should think about, embedded as I am in an academic economy where status and value are premised upon the quantity and quality of scholarly publications. But what I really wanted to say was: How valuable are my ideas if they don’t exist where others can interact with them? Or if they appear only in a prestigious, expensive, hardcover book owned only by university libraries and a few scholars? And are they really my ideas in the first place? Or are they ours?

Of course, as Andrew points out, it’s easy for me to promote a collective ownership of ideas when I’m a tenured professor. As an undergraduate, he has a lot more to lose if he doesn’t lay claim to his ideas, or if I run off with ideas from our conversation and publish them without attribution to him.

The whole notion of attribution, so central to the scholarly enterprise, is premised on a notion of intellectual property. An original idea belongs to a particular thinker, so you must attribute it to him or her. Attribution is vital to the scholarly enterprise, but perhaps not because an individual originated or owns an idea, but because the apparatus of citation and attribution reminds us that we are all embedded in a network of ideas. We are always in conversation with the people who came before us, are with us now, and those who will come after us.

I’m all for documenting the conversation. What we write and publish is stronger when we acknowledge its ties to others, not when we claim sole ownership. I’m also hopeful that the digital humanities can broaden our understanding of original scholarship in ways that emphasize the collaborative origins of intellectual thought.



4 Responses to “The Originality of Ideas and Other Scholarly Myths”

  1. Nell Ruby says:

    I love the idea that the idea is in the space between PEOPLE–so connection (plug in with electricity) is related to connection (turn on with human spark). Adds nice nuance to the idea of connectivity as relationship as well as wired.

    Virginia Woolf’s “Room of one’s own” idea is about having space / time / encouragement to think and reflect as essential to agency and personal power within a system–it seems like “domain” does something similar for students, in some ways providing power to speak world-wide (be a content creator). Important I think to pay attention to Wolf’s choice of the word room (a humble space, a part of a larger shared space) as very different from the word domain, a word that seems to have emerged from the sort of unfortunate lineage of programming verbiage that has a an ownership/colonial nature (like master/slave–mostly now replaced by parent/child, but still used in programming to demarcate a function that has power over another function ).

    Thank you for sharing this writing, as an example of ways to teach and learn through sitting together in a relationship. It may be that this is the role of higher ed in the 21c–to sit with each other and talk, learn, think, have ideas–relate on a personal and intellectual level–to enliven the space between us. I think students crave this, I know I do!

  2. Emily R says:

    Something that jumped out at me in your post was your description of the audience reception (“fear and resistance”) of your Mina Loy project presentation at an academic symposium. This characterization is the opposite of what I would hope for or expect from a group of intellectuals brought together for the purpose of sharing insights and ideas! It’s true though that the digital, wall-less spheres in which we can now share previously unpublished ideas are a double-edged sword, in that you can’t open your work to limitless exposure without the accompanying potential for limitless infringement or false attribution. I’m very interested to see how the field of intellectual property law evolves to fit the growing needs and anxieties of artists and scholars alike.

    I’m also really interested in the relationship that ownership of original ideas has with both ego and commerce. Andrew has “a lot more to lose” if his scholarship is “borrowed” without attribution because he lacks the time-earned credentials and aura of a tenured professor. But why is that? Would the general academic community “care” less if a student’s ideas were stolen as opposed to a professor’s? Would a student’s ideas be deemed less “valuable” ? And if so, how is that characterization valid if a professor or venerated scholar could successfully front them as his or her own?


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  1. […] collaboration. While we were there, Davidson College Professor of English Suzanne Churchill blogged about the collaboration at the heart of thinking: “Ideas occur not within but between minds.” […]

  2. […] collaboration. While we were there, Davidson College Professor of English Suzanne Churchill blogged about the collaboration at the heart of thinking: “Ideas occur not within but between minds.” […]

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