Please don't read my thesis!

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Ed and in it’s Wired Campus Blog, there is an apparent controversy between colleges that want to publish student theses freely on the web and students and faculty, particularly in creative writing, that want to keep their theses private. The primary reason is that these students want to be able to publish their creative works and believe that having their work freely available online will hamper that.

I especially liked this quote from Jeanne Leiby, editor of Southern Review at LSU:

“I don’t necessarily want people to go back and read my thesis,” says
Ms. Leiby, who earned a graduate degree in writing from the University
of Alabama. “I’d like to think that in 15 years I’ve become more of a
writer. I don’t necessarily want those early attempts associated with
my name.”

Hmmm… and what do you plan for the next 15 years? To get better? Worse? Sure I wrote a creative writing thesis 15 years ago before I switched to rhet/comp. Are the poems in that thesis great? No, not really. Some are OK. I don’t think there’s much danger of anyone reading them, even if they were online.

Of course this leads to a curious contradiction. Which one is it? Do we want to keep the poems private b/c they aren’t good? Or do we want to keep them private b/c they are good and we want to be able to exchange them for something rather than giving them away? I suppose it could be both, depending on the author.

So here’s my take on this business.

  1. Read the fine print! If you’re a graduate student or a faculty member you are party to an agreement regarding intellectual property with your institution. You should probably know what it is. It would appear that first-year students don’t have the right to refuse to submit their work to Turnitin.com. Of course they do have the right to not go to college or to go to a different college, I guess. Best to know what you are getting into before you start.
  2. My personal position is that authors ought to have the right to decide how their work is disseminated. I also agree with others in this article that creative works are a special kind of case. The way they are disseminated is part of the work.
  3. It may be the case that many publishers and editors, like Leiby, won’t accept works that have been freely published online. However, I believe these publishers are making a significant intellectual and economic error in following this policy. Take the Southern Review as an example. It’s a well-respected literary journal. I would guess that a significant portion of its subscribers are institutional. Are these institutions going to stop subscribing b/c some of the poems might also be available online? I don’t think so. However, let’s say I’m reading poems online and I find one that says it was published in the journal. Maybe I buy a copy to see other poems like the one I read and liked online. I honestly don’t see how you lose here.
  4. All it will take is for a half-dozen or so of the top MFA programs to start publishing theses online to reverse this course. Then publishers will discover that the best work is still the best work, even though its available online too.

In the end I think students are getting poor advice and publishers are making short-sighted policies here. You know the thing that is really stupid about all this in the end? Why would you care about getting published in Southern Review when you can put your work online where it will be seen by about a bazillion more people? The only reason you care is for reputation, and the only reason you care about reputation is so that you can land a tenure-track job. If you change the mechanisms regarding how we evaluate online work then all this gets turned upside down. You get to say, "No sorry dr. mla interviewer, I couldn’t get published in Southern Review b/c my thesis was published online, but I do get a bunch of hits every month on my poetry collection which means I have more readers online than I’d ever have in print. I’ve also got links to established poets saying good things about my work on their blogs."

2 thoughts on “Please don't read my thesis!

Add yours

  1. But, Alex–what would count as an “established” poet in this scheme? Also, why in the heck is creative writing a “special case”? Ain’t it *all* creative? I’ve been cavorting in the land of high rhetcomp theory for the last few weeks, here, and it sure looks an awful lot like poetry to me, especially when it’s going well.

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  2. The whole academic reputation business is just whacky: publish in these journals or with these presses. Why? Cuz they are the tastemakers, so my point is just that we can have a different mechanism for taste-making.
    The only reason I might say that “creative writing” is different is if it does indeed become far more difficult to publish your work if it is available elsewhere online. I think if you have a rhet/comp dissertation, you are not likely to just snip out a chapter or publish the whole diss as is. That sucker is going to be revised, so you can always manage to say it’s not the same. With a collection of poems, you might be trying to publish your work as is.
    All that said, the fact of the matter is that I can publish poems on this blog all year long and no one will care much to read them. But if they got published in a high profile literary magazine then all of sudden they would become “good.”
    So in some important ways a poem published in such a magazine is different than one published online, even if they are identical in language and form.

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