Monthly Archives: May 2012

Wrestling with Authorial Control

I like to think of myself as an active proponent of remix culture. I praise people who share their work with Creative Commons licenses that allow reuse, and I try to license my own works the same way. So if you want to take the words of this post and rap them over a beat you made, you can legally do so without needing to ask me, as long as it’s not a commercial venture, you give me credit for the original, and you use the same CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 license I use on my site.

So it’s been interesting in the last few days wrestling with feelings of authorial control that, academically, part of me felt I had somehow transcended. Here’s what happened:

The Initial Essay

For a custom textbook at my current school, I was asked a couple years ago to write a student-friendly piece introducing them to rhetoric. The point was supposed to be the practical usefulness of rhetoric, as my piece would be paired next to a denser, more theoretically heavy piece. I love writing for students, so I submitted to the textbook editors an essay called “Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches us about Writing.” (I also posted that original version here.)

The editors of the textbook made some edits, as editors are wont to do, so the version that ended up in the book is a bit different: two of my sections were deleted, my section breaks (marked with a *) were taken out, and some of the language and punctuation was, well, normalized. Here’s an example: after telling a story of someone whose Facebook posts made her seem rhetorically unsophisticated, I expressed my frustration at that sort of thing with this section-closing line:

Why study rhetoric? Because so many people so often seem to have no no no idea about how to communicate well.

In context, my hope was for the line to express the emotional level of my frustration, my punctuation-less “no no no” emphasizing the rhythms of speech more than the dictates of “proper” mechanics. But the edited version deleted the story that came before it and used this line instead:

Why study rhetoric? Because, communication is difficult, and even more difficult if we are not rhetorically aware.

Style-wise, the new line (to my ear) lacks the stylistic umph I was going for throughout the piece, and it lacks the rhythms of spoken speech. (Try sounding natural reading any sentence that begins with because-comma.)

I don’t want to sound too complainy, though–there was a lot of good work done to my piece, too. Many of my small errors were fixed, and plenty of my wordinesses (which I tend to drown in) were smoothed out beautifully. And hey, my piece was in a textbook for like 7,000 students! Rock on!

Revisions and Contracts

What does this have to do with authorial control? It gives you a sense of my attitude toward the piece as it grew into its next iteration, and as I locked the piece further and further into my mind as mine.

The essay as published in the textbook (the heavily edited version) was accepted for publication at the newish, online, free writing textbook Writing Commons. (Why was the edited version accepted at Writing Commons and not the original? It’s a long story; the short version being that the editors of Writing Commons used pieces written for the custom textbook as some of the first pieces to go through the peer review process at the new site.)

Leaping at the chance to revert some of the changes I wasn’t too happy with in the printed version, I used Word to compare my original version with the revised version. I then created a new final cut that incorporated the best of the book editor’s revisions while keeping a lot of what I had originally written. (I love showing undergraduate students the wonders of Word’s compare document features, which were made so much easier to use in Word 2007 and later.)

Screenshot of Microsoft Word's compare documents feature

The best part: that the editors added “Lord” before “Voldemort”

Writing Commons graciously worked with me through these changes, and I now have this new version up at their site (where perhaps many more than 7,000 students will find it helpful), peer reviewed and all.

Even better: Writing Commons uses the same Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license I use on my blog, and I retain copyright over the piece. I love the idea that someone who found this piece helpful can print copies out, make a video of it, cut out the pieces she finds most helpful, and so on–and all legally (again, as long as she follows the guidelines of this particular CC license).

But the Writing Commons contract also includes an interesting optional clause: essentially, they wanted to know if I’m okay with other Writing Commons authors updating my piece later on. If I checked yes, I would always be first author, but later revisers would be included on the list of authors. This clause makes sense, especially given how quickly pieces can age and need updating, sometimes at times when the original authors can’t be contacted. If someone brilliant came along and wanted to add a few new paragraphs to my piece on rhetoric as freestyle rap, they would be able to, as long as Writing Commons allowed them to and as long as I checked yes.

But I said no. And as I checked no, my thoughts were, “I don’t want anyone else messing with my language. I don’t want my stylistic quirks reduced to voiceless academese. I don’t want my vignettes cut out in favor of preachiness. I don’t want someone else to change the flow I found and add some other stories that have nothing to do with me.”

And this mental defensive posture came about five seconds after I was congratulating myself on being so open, such an example of young scholars who embrace Creative Commons and the “some rights reserved” mindset, so morally superior.

Oops?

Thinking it All Through

In “A Loss for Words: Plagiarism and Silence,” from the 1994 issue of American Scholar, poet Neal Bowers tells the story of his obsessive search for a plagiarist who was publishing his poems verbatim in multiple journals. I haven’t read the piece for more than five years, but I remember my reaction to Bowers: a dash of sympathy and a healthy mix of “get over it, dude.” I remember thinking, “Well, duh!” when Bowers wrote:

As angry as I still am, however, I confess that after two years of thinking and talking about being the victim of a chronic plagiarist, I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t have simply let the matter drop. In the end, my efforts to obtain justice have yielded few results; and I am not materially worse off than I was before my work started appeanng under someone else’s name.

Thinking back now, I realize this was at least a little uncharitable of me. It’s not like I’ve never felt I owned words before. I like writing, and I’m good at it; there have been plenty of pieces that I want to put my arms around and grasp, and if someone published them under another name, I would probably lash out with sudden Wolverine claws to protect my children.

But when I first read Bowers’s piece (which apparently he expanded into a book?), I was just getting excited about all the possibilities for purposefully losing control over writing. Authors like Kathy Acker and Jonathan Lethem and Dave Shields who blatantly create new, awesome things from the work of others, showing the claims of “I WROTE THIS JUST ME AND ONLY ME FOREVER WITH NO INFLUENCE” to be as flimsy as theorists have been suspecting for a long time.

In many ways, my thoughts on this stuff haven’t changed. I know that even my piece on rhetoric and freestyle rap isn’t as “original” as I feel it is: folded into it is something of Geoffrey Sirc’s ethos and the style of countless other essayists I’ve admired. The format of using clearly marked section breaks of varying length is absolutely stolen, but I’ve stolen it so often I have no idea where I first came to love it. Even the basic concept of seeing rhetoric as akin to freestyle rap was suggested to me long ago when I first learned–and this was a groundbreaking moment for me–that Homer’s poetry was performed orally by poets remarkably like freestyle rappers, who had a series of stock phrases in their mental storehouses that they could improvisationally (improvisatorily?) pull out when they needed them during a performance. I didn’t acknowledge this source in my essay. Heck, I didn’t even realize it was there until just now, as I consciously plumbed the influences that went into that thing, that collection of words that I love so much and want to protect.

So the closest I can get to a tidy, Full House-style conclusion right now is that I like the idea of living in that tension. I’m clearly more like Bowers than I sometimes like to think, protecting the fruits of my writing with a strong sense of authorial power. But even as I feel these feelings, I’m suspicious of them, wondering how much they’ve been infused into me from my Western cultural background and how much they were put there by a creative creator who revels in his own version of authorial control. (Wait, hasn’t someone else wondered something just like that before? I better go look it up. . . .)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Roundup of Writing on the Job Market

While at Computers and Writing last week, I posted to Twitter a link to my write-up of the digital tools I used to organize my job search, and I got more hits on this blog than I had ever had before. (This was at least mostly because the inimitable Tim Lockridge was talking about his clever tech-use when I tweeted, so everyone was all prepped up for thinking about this stuff.)

That made me remember that I chronicled my job search a bit for the graduate student newsletter Inklinks at the University of South Florida, edited this year by the amazing Jessica Cook. On the chance that they will help future job-seekers, I’ll post the articles here, informal and personal as they are.

  • In the December 2011 issue, I wrote about the things I felt I had done well and poorly in the years leading up to the academic job search. Just my article | Entire issue
  • In the February 2012 issue, I wrote about what it was like interviewing at MLA. Just my article | Entire issue
  • In the May 2012 issue, I wrote some final reflections about the whole process, written after securing a tenure-track position. Just my article | Entire issue

Enjoy!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Computers and Writing and Memory and Meaning

I’d like to write a post summarizing the Computers and Writing conference. But right now, I’d rather live in the world of memory than summary. I want to think through the threads of uncertainty, time, and music that the conference brought to mind, which are so wrapped up in my ideas about memory.

*

14th Street Bridge

Yoichi R. Okamoto, “THE TWO 14TH STREET BRIDGES, LOOKING NORTH FROM VIRGINIA TO THE DISTRICT”

I’m Washington, DC right now, even though I just left a conference in Raleigh and live in Orlando. Yesterday, a friend picked me up in Raleigh and I drove her to DC, where she’s moving.

Both of us used to live in DC, and it’s our favorite city. As the sun set, we crossed the 14th Street bridge and gawked and gaped and said things like, “Hello, crazy drivers zooming around me! Hello tourists with fanny packs! Hello unnecessary circle of flags around the Washington Monument!”

Now, I’m in the old terminal at Reagan National Airport, waiting to fly home. I’ve lived in this space before. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce sitting in the same collection of seats, even though that was six years ago.

I’ve only been in this city for seventeen hours, yet there is a pit of sadness in my belly over leaving.

*

For my musical presentation at the conference, I played a video with my voice talking over some images (and occasional black screens), while I played records live as a musical accompaniment. My motif was the musical prank, the moment where an audience’s expectation for how music will sound is thwarted, complicating the idea that we identify with music and make meaning from it based on how our expectations are met or not met.

To mess around with expectations in the audience, I changed the speed of the records, played them backwards, and played them along with video footage that they were never meant to accompany.

But my expectations weren’t met, either. A piece of fuzz in my needle kept the records from sounding the way I expected. The weight balance of the needle arm was probably misbalanced, leading to more skips than I expected. My arm was shaking more than I expected, so I missed a couple of precise arm placements thad had worked fine when practicing at home.

And just as when an audience is surprised, and thus is led to make meaning from the surprising sounds, I was surprised by what sounded, and I made my own meanings as well.

*

I asked my friend to drive me by my old neighborhood in Washington, DC, the Columbia Heights / Petworth area. Even when I left five years ago I knew the area was gentrifying, that the pedestrians were getting whiter and the stores were getting sleeker, bigger, more national.

But I didn’t expect the difference in the feel of a space that is surrounded by new, tall condos instead of three-story townhouses. What used to be on that corner, I kept asking myself, where that tall, metal building is now? I’ve walked by that spot hundreds of times–how could I have forgotten?

*

Anne Wysocki gave a keynote address introducing her long-term project on the rhetorical canon of memory. She’s designing a beautiful interactive web space that allows users to simulate a walk through the different ways people have engaged with memory over the last 2,500 years. It was lovely and important enough that I thought, I want to be involved in this project. I want to engage with memories from now on. I don’t want to forget.

David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body

David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body

Much of Wysocki’s talk reminded me of a book by musicologist David Burrows called Time and the Warm Body. (At rhetoric/composition conferences of late, I find myself mentioning Burrows once a day, and twice on days I present.) I tweeted the book title to Wysocki as she spoke, just in case she hadn’t come across it. It’s Burrows’s consideration first of how our bodies experience time and the “now,” an experience of time that he situates as the epistemological nature of how we experience music, given our nature as embodied, time-based creatures. Language draws our minds to other spaces and other times, but music draws us to the now.

Wysocki tweeted back, later, an earnestly cheerful reply that she didn’t know the book and was excited to look it up. It made me feel good, and it made me think about all the books the people in the room had read individually and all the books we had read collectively, as a massive library of memory that could never be perfectly tapped.

*

Drinking with Trauman the next day, he mentioned that I have an earnestness about me.

On the drive to DC, I told my friend that I always think of my wife as the earnest one, but that I liked the idea being earnest myself, too.

I want to be earnest. I want to construct things, and engage with memories through my earnestness.

*

At one point during the conference, I jokingly tweeted that the theme of Computers and Writing 2014 should be The Goonies.

Scott Reed rewteeted it with an earnest “THIS –>” preeding my tweet.

I could look up these tweets to make sure I’m quoting them correctly, relying on the exactness of a computer’s memory. But my memory is just fine, in this case, even if it’s not always accurate.

*

I remember where I was when I read another David Burrows book, Sound, Speech, and Music: the waiting room of the Tire Kingdom near my house in Orlando. The coffee was bad, and the 24-hour news network on the loud TV was worse.

I don’t remember what my car was in for that day. But I remember being surprised by Burrows’s prose, his theories of music and speech that included lines about psuedopods of meaning reaching between humans engaging and identifying with each other. And in my surprise, I found meaning. And in my meaning, I created memory.

*

DC's Union Station

Gryffindor, “Main hall of Union Station in Washington D.C.”

Before taking the Metro to the airport this morning, I met an old DC friend in Union Station. At first, I felt turned around: there is construction that blocked off the path I expected to take inside the building. And maybe it shouldn’t matter, but a net a few feet above my head blocked bits of my sight as I glanced up at the pounds and pounds of air between me and the distant windows near the ceiling. Even though I wasn’t walking vertically, the net made me feel even more disoriented.

But the Corner Bakery was still there, and so was the bookstore (though it’s a Barnes and Noble now), and so was the line of people outside waiting for taxis, and so was the neverending construction outside the station.

I’m not sure how I felt so comforted and discomforted at the same time, helped along by the con/destruction around me, and my confirmed and demolished memories.

*

Jody Shipka presented on the process of archiving and remediating found texts as a way to remember and honor the people who created them. She has amassed an astounding collection of old photos, home movies, and slides from various yard sales and such.

The clips she showed were comforting and discomforting, constructing and destructing (as some of the film she showed literally burned to pieces just after she digitized it). I tried to tweet during the talk but eventually had to stop, pulled to the now that Shipka drew to my attention with a beauty I didn’t expect. It was one of those wonderful presentations with ultra-small audiences that makes me feel I witnessed something rare.

During the question and answer period, we talked about what it means when bodies encounter retro, analog media. Keith Dorwick (whose presentation just before Shipka’s was also evocative and tremendous) said, “And I hope Kyle doesn’t mind my saying this, but it was a powerful moment during the question and answer of his presentation when he told us that his hand was shaking while he cued the records. There’s an inevitable indeterminacy that comes from the interaction between any physical media and a human body.”

I responded that there was something lovely and important–and indeed, unexpected–in the physicality of the analog, the touch of a record.

I also said, “Yesterday, I apologized to a friend about how many pops and crackles there were in the records, but so many people have told me how much they loved hearing those pops.”

Shipka replied earnestly. “Why did you apologize?”

I thought for a moment, said, “I think it’s because of this: I love vinyl, but I know there are people who love vinyl with a seriousness that I don’t have. They know how to wash it, and they have all the right brushes, and they hold it right, and all that. For me, it’s a much simpler preoccupation. Like, I like to buy ninety-nine cents records from the thrift store, to listen to them, not to preserve them or be an audiophile or something. I love them, but as an enthusiast, not a collector.”

Dorwick said, “There are people who say that listening to CDs is too sterile an environment. There are people who say that when you listen to a recording that is too perfect, you’re not hearing it right. We need the pops and crackle to hear it as a lived experience, as something that’s really there.”

*

The quotations above aren’t exact. I remembered them that way.

*

While waiting in the airport terminal a few minutes ago, a demolition project began outside. I watched out the window as a small, golf-cart-ish thing rammed into the concrete exterior wall of the terminal and shook with anger as it (I assume?) drilled cracks into the area marked for destruction. It looked like a small animal who was positive that it could knock over a skyscraper, if only it rammed and shook it hard enough.

But the quality of the sound had none of the cute, unassuming nature of the vehicle’s appearance. It was like a giant with metal teeth was chewing concrete for breakfast, like a jackhammer underground was coming at a square of sidewalk from below and I happened to be standing on it, like a memory being forcibly removed from my head instead of being allowed to fade into smells and images and sounds in the gentle way they’re supposed to go.

I moved to the other side of the circular terminal, but even there, it seemed just as loud. I couldn’t escape from it, regardless of how hard I tried, unless I wanted to leave security and come back in later. I looked up at the circular, 60s-ish ceiling of the old terminal and tried to focus on what I was seeing instead of what I was hearing.

*

David Burrows, in Sound, Space, and Music, writes, “Noise is a concept rooted in the domain of sound rather than sight, because the promiscuity with which sound addresses itself to appropriate and inappropriate receptors alike means that we must so often hear things we do not want to hear, whereas we can look the other way, or close our eyes, when we see something unpleasant or superfluous. Our auditory defenselessness casts us often in the role of victim, our privacy invaded by someone else’s stereo or car horn” (24-25).

*

I’m on the plane now, finishing this post in the loud, fuel-tinged air of the next-to-last seat in the cabin, so unlike the space in Union Station I wandered through so recently.

I’m hoping for a good glimpse of the National Mall as I leave, even as I know I can hardly bear it. It’s that pain you get when you have braces and you bite down on your aching teeth, and it’s good and hard at the same time.

Leaving the conference was cleaner, if more awkward. There were so many people I wanted to properly say goodbye to, who have begun to matter to both my professional and personal lives. But instead, I waved at the people I saw, hugged a couple, and slipped out the back door of the Syme Hall basement.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

More on Digital Copyright

The other day I wrote about my first copyright dispute, over a 1931 classical recording that I (legally) posted to Soundcloud. I promised to give an update, but it’s not very exciting: within 24 hours I got a very simple email from Soundcloud saying that they had allowed me to post the track. Yay for Soundcloud! But not yay for Drama.

So it’s up. It’s not even a very exciting clip of music, but it’s up:

Seems like a lot of fuss over a quiet, scratchy minute of 1931 sound.

Even more, I decided not to use the sound clip as posted. If you remember, my reason for uploading it was to use it as a “sonic epigraph” in the introduction of my dissertation, to make a point about the nature of hearing sound as opposed to talking about it. Instead of embedding the sound into the Word file, I thought I’d just host it on Soundcloud and give a link to it there. But for the conclusion of the dissertation, I wanted to share the last minute of the same piece, but this time from a recent recording–which means a recording very much still protected by copyright. But after going through the “defending myself” thing, I don’t want to upload that other clip to Soundcloud, and I don’t want to send readers to one online space for one sonic epigraph and then another space for another sonic epigraph, so I just put them both online somewhere else that wasn’t Soundcloud.

The thing is, I think I’m within my fair use rights to share that final minute (of a fourteen-minute copyrighted recording) in the conclusion of my diss, in the same way that I’m within my fair use rights to share quotations (within reason) in my academic publications. The paradox of fair use is that it’s both awesome and crazy-frustrating that there is no absolute way to know if a use is fair or not until a judge says so. The best we can do is work our way through the four-part test included in U.S. copyright law, perhaps with the help of an awesome tool like the University of Minnesota Libraries’ “Thinking though Fair Use” tool. 

But even with the tool, whether or not I can fairly use that last minute of the track is sometimes really hard to tell. Here are a few checkmarks that I wasn’t sure how to check:

  • “Criticism or commentary”: I decided not to check this one, as I’m not criticizing the work or the recording itself. In fact, I’m saying, “Hey, let this work do to you exactly what it’s meant to do!” That is, listen to it.
  • “Transformative use”: I’ve heard this phrase tossed around in different ways, which has left me unsure when something is transformative or not. The checklist’s description is “creates a new work with a new purpose,” which seems to describe someone singing a cover song on YouTube (more on that below), but doesn’t seem to describe the transformative use implied by my using audio editing software to grab a clip. What if I had added fades? Sped the whole thing up a bit? (How much?) How transformative is transformative?
  • “Decorative or other non-critical, non-commentary use”: In some ways, I absolutely want this to be decorative music. But on the other hand, I want it to inspire self-commentary, complex meaning-making. In my dissertation’s conclusion, I ask people to “Listen to it with the weight of this project weighing on it.” That’s kind of critical, kind of not.
  • “User owns lawful copy of the work (bought or otherwise legitimately acquired”: I’ve never heard of this as a factor before. (They list it under the 4th factor, “Effect on the potential market value of the work.”) In this case, they’ve got me: I streamed the track through Spotify and used Audacity to snatch the audio straight from my sound card. Sneaky, yes–but if someone has a definitively fair use reason, isn’t circumvention like this justified? For instance, the DMCA allows professors to break DVD copy protection to grab clips of movies to show in class (at least it did the last time I checked). That means that those professors are using all sorts of sneaky software for sneaky actions that in some circumstances would be mad illegal–but which are totally fair in that case. In another situation, I published an audio essay once that used a couple clips from the score to the 1927 silent film Metropolis. The version of the score I listen to was ripped directly from a DVD by some dude who knows how to do that, and thus it includes tracks that aren’t available on the commercial release of the score. Does the availability or unavailability of a track give me more or less moral ground when using that music for another purpose? I didn’t worry about it for the audio essay because I felt very strongly that I was within fair use (for lots of reasons)–but if I hadn’t been, would the source of the music have mattered?

Above, I mentioned YouTube cover songs, particularly because I just read a stellar piece from Wired on the subject: Andy Baio’s “Criminal Creativity: Untangling Cover Song Licensing on YouTube.” (If you haven’t read Baio’s account of the copyright kerfuffle over the cover image for his 8-bit cover album of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, you need to get over there and read it stat. Seriously, why read my blog when you can read his?)

In the Wired piece, Baio describes the crazy difficulty of trying to figure out exactly when a cover song on YouTube is illegal–that is, if I’m allowed to pull out my guitar and record myself singing “Cherub Rock” or not. He points out the trouble behind how we treat creative people who are skirting the edges of current copyright law:

But there’s something strange about this begging-for-forgiveness approach to copyright. It’s like driving without traffic signs, only finding out you broke the law when you’re pulled over.

That’s exactly how I felt with the copyright dispute on my Strauss clip: that I hadn’t been speeding, but I was pulled over anyway and had to explain myself. And now, I think I’m still in my fair use rights to upload my second sound clip to Soundcloud, especially since I can list it as private so that no one will stumble upon the link unless they have a direct link to the file, which they would only get from my dissertation. But I don’t want to explain myself to any more cops.

Baio also gives us the real solution to these issues:

The best solution is the hardest one: To reform copyright law to legalize the distribution of free, non-commercial cover songs.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized