August 11, 2008
Plagiarism, Starting Points and Your Syllabus
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, it's that time of year when new law profs or profs teaching a course for the first time ask around the building or their email-sphere if anyone has a syllabus for a particular course.  I know last year I was the subject of great largesse in the Securities Regulation arena, and this year I have been free with my own Business Associations syllabus.  In the course of my academic career, I have received teaching notes and powerpoint presentations from friends and colleagues, and have shared my own exam questions and notes.  What is your expectation when you send a professor (either within your school or outside) your syllabus?  Do you imagine that your friend might use it as a starting point, then construct their own?  Make one that is similar or completely different?  Copy it in its entirety?  Do you have different thoughts about your listing of readings from a textbook?  Outside readings?  Class administration rules?

I for one have never cared if someone took my classroom infrastructure wholesale or cherry-picked what they needed.  And, I have to say that this is true both about my BA and Torts syllabi, which basically include readings from a textbook and cover the basic topics that I suppose all other BA and Torts classes teach and also about my seminar syllabus, which reflects weeks of topic selections and reading selections from scratch.  I have never created a truly innovative course like a semester-long simulation; I might think differently about that.  Anyway, perhaps my near-socialist academic thinking is not the norm, and I'll turn to perhaps why in a minute.

But this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an associate professor of English at Utah State University writes an essay about her anger that a colleague at a different school has adopted her syllabus, which she provided him, without any changes at all.  (Although, she also seems upset that "Professor P," who teaches at a different institution, omitted an arguably controversial book from her reading list, so it's unclear if she would have been happier with or without the omission.)  Now, this course seems to be one that she created, and one that is closely aligned with her research interests:  a course that explores the memoirs of teachers describing their classroom experiences.  I'm not sure if she would have felt as proprietary about a syllabus for a freshman English comp course, but she might.  Anyway, the essay explores some interesting topics, including whether a professor or university has a legal interest in a syllabus, including one that is posted online, what the norms are concerning "syllabus plagiarism," and whether exempting syllabi from intellectual property protection devalues classroom teaching vis-a-vis research, which is protected.

So now I feel like Gordon has a lawsuit against me.  He sent me an electronic version of his BA syllabus four years ago, I think.  It tracks his book, which I use.  I don't think I changed that much -- after all, wouldn't he know more about what readings in his book go with BA?  Now, after teaching the class 5 or 6 times, I may have changed 30% of the readings.  Am I a plagiarist?  Gordon, what were your expectations?  Did you think I would glance at your syllabus and then start from scratch?  How much did you want me to pick and choose before I was a thief?

In my defense, I did begin my academic career teaching legal writing, which is an amazingly collaborative effort.  Within programs, professors use joint syllabi or share freely of syllabi, memo problems, exercises, examples, etc.  Legal Writing Institute conferences always had an "idea bank" where everyone who contributed an exercise, memo problem or appellate brief problem could receive a copy of everyone else's contribution.  These things were used and re-used so many times that no one could remember who came up with some exercises for the first time.  Is this the academic norm or the exception? 

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