Saturday, January 24, 2009

Professional Foul

In soccer, a harsh violation of the rules, such as a goalkeeper handling the ball outside of the 18 yard box or taking a player out with a two-footed, spikes showing tackle, is called a professional foul. These are usually dealt with with a red card, ejecting the player from the game and forcing the offending team to play a man down.

Every career, vocation, or hobby has its professional fouls. In Nate's business, things such as having a romantic relationship with a client, giving out personal and identifying information about a client, or acting outside of the client's best interests are all professional fouls. Even in online video games, things like camping and using cheat codes are professional fouls.

My profession has a number of these as well. For example, plagiarism is a huge one. If you are influenced by a person or use their ideas in your work, you cite them. A former colleague of mine who now teaches at another university has committed one of these fouls against me and had the audacity to tell me about it.

For the sake of remaining anonymous, I am going to be very vague, even though I think a search through this blog might reveal some of the details. For about 4 years, I have had an idea about incorporating a major black and white television show into a social criticism of post-World War II America. I utilize this television show in my classes, I spoke about this idea in bits and pieces around my friends and colleagues, and I have done a fair bit of research into the making of this show and its creative team. In short, this is my idea and a lot of people know it.

Recently, this colleague informed me that he had advised his graduate student to use this television show as the (not "a", but "the") central point of analysis in his dissertation. Essentially, he took my idea and he advised a student to pursue the idea as the foundation for this student's terminal degree.

In theory, the terminal degree becomes the basis for your first professional book. So, again in theory, this person will sometime within the next five years, publish a book based on my idea.

This is wrong on so many levels. First, it is a clear professional foul right up there with outright plagiarism. There was no independent thought in this decision. I had a good idea that was in the formulative stages, I clearly acted on it and started doing the work to advance it past the idea stage. This person took my idea and essentially gave it to someone else. Not cool.

Second, the study of the humanities at the graduate level is akin to the old craft apprenticeships of the pre-1900s. To learn a trade, you were taught by a master...someone who had proven their worth and had demonstrable skill. The apprentice was at that person's mercy to receive good instruction and learn the rules of the trade, as well as perfecting their own skill. Graduate studies in the humanities is a lot like that. The student places a great deal of trust in their primary advisor to teach them the skills and rules of their given discipline. The advisor is essentially entrusted with this person's career.

This is where professional foul number two is occurring. My colleague is essentially taking his student's career and advising him to write about an unoriginal idea. The basis of the PhD is original work and, while this student will no doubt do the work on his own, but the idea will not be his. This will not help the student advance in his career goals. This is very bad advice and pretty darn close to an abdication of his responsibility as a graduate instructor.

To compound this, I am making it a point to have something in print on this project by the end of the summer. This is my idea and I'm going to publish on it. I feel kind of bad for the poor graduate student because, once he is finished with his degree, I will have already published multiple articles on it, thus overshadowing his work and making his work seem, well, unoriginal. I can't do anything about this, as I have no responsibility to this student. Had my colleague asked me about this before he advised his student, instead of after the fact, I might have broke off a piece of the project and let him have it. Now, however, it is all mine.

Moral of the story: Don't be a German.

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