Stream of blogciousness

Aqua Fauna by Britt Mikkelsen, taken at the 2017 Cottesloe Sculptures by the Sea

It’s Friday. The day I’ve told myself I will post a blog piece each week. Often I have the post written by Wednesday. Or I sit with a wine on Thursday night and work through it, luxuriating in the writing, getting the post ready so that it can sit quietly in hiding, ready for posting the next day. Sometimes it’s times like now – once the kids are in bed on a Friday night – that I finally sit down with my laptop and begin my tap tap tapping. Brain and keyboard reconnecting. Sometimes I agonise and go tentatively. Sometimes the words explode in a cacophony of keystrokes.

Occasionally, I skip a post, despite this being like the sound of fingernails down the blackboard to my perfectionist tendencies. Who cares if you don’t post? says the sane voice in my head. If you shout into the blogging void and no-one listens, it’s like it never really happened, whispers another. Why have a self-imposed deadline if you can’t break it? mutters the voice of reason.

This post, tonight, is a bridge between not-posting and posting-to-deadline, Writing about writing. Blogging about blogging. Guilt blogging. Words on the screen. A deadline met.

It’s not that I’ve been dragging my feet. In the last week I have written four blog posts, two for this blog—on International Women’s Day and on E4L in Australia—and also two for my school’s blog. I had a co-authored paper published in the International Journal of Research and Method in Education (Wahoo!). I had one child with a broken arm, the other with a virus. Sleep hasn’t been great. I presented at an evening leadership event that I organised with a colleague for the leaders in our school. I held a 5th birthday party with a Star Wars theme, including making the cake from scratch (another self-imposed rule of mine). I attended two grown-up birthday parties. I danced. I worked full time. I missed two calls from my sister and have not managed to call her back. I attended parent teacher interviews for my two kids. I packed lunches for school and also boxes of belongings because I’m moving house soon. I have plenty more to pack. Plus forty Year 12 English essays to mark. Plus plus plus.

Star Wars cake for Mr 5

So I can probably just have a glass of wine and relax. Skip the blog. I doubt very much that my small readership wait with baited breath for my posts to ding into their WordPress reader or inbox each Friday. So why do I feel compelled to stick to my deadline?

I wonder if it is a fear that if I let my own schedule slip then it’ll be a slippery slope to the occasional lonely tumbleweed post blowing through an empty desert of a blog. Or an abandoned wasteland of once-prolific posts, words dried out like carcasses in a summer drought. That my writing muscles will atrophy. That I won’t make the time to use this blog space to think through the things that get stuck in my head. Those thoughts that need to be teased out like fine silk threads or rolled around and around in meditative contemplation. Those dilemmas that need thrashing out and that burn in my mind until I assault my keyboard to get them out.

Today I had a bunch of partly formed blog ideas. Mostly things in my work or research that I’m thinking about and around. But this is the post I have written. I can only assume that this is the post that I needed to write. Maybe it’s my way of giving myself a break.

On writing: Is it dense to be complex?

writing is power (my image, of course!)

writing is power (my image, of course!)

Writing can be bold and dangerous and disruptive. It can be quiet and still and sneaky. It can be melodious and rhythmic and beautiful. It can be subversive and challenging and difficult to read. As a reader and a teacher of English and Literature, I am a believer in the power of language, of words, of literature, of story and of writing. To educate and to soothe. To challenge and to change. It’s why writing is so important for everyone. Writing – and being able to enact authorial intent, to release thought and emotion through words on a page or screen or device – is power.

I teach my students of English to write for audience and purpose. For whom are they writing? What is their purpose? To persuade, to shock, to inform, to inspire, to call to action, to explain, to intrigue? As authors, once they have identified for whom and why they are writing, they can make choices of form, structure and language. I teach them the ‘rules’ of various genres and forms so that they know how to use them, and how to deliberately break them. The same goes for any writer: know your game, how to play and conform, and how to challenge or subvert.

I find blogging an interesting form in the sense that the audience is sometimes unclear. In some ways I write it for myself – as a web log of reflections. Yet I write around particular topics, and I know that I have a readership of individuals and groups who are (it seems!) interested in what I have to say. In some ways I write to share my story so that others might glean something from it, in part because I get so much from others blogging their journeys or writing ‘aloud’ their thoughts and theories as they form. I like even more the collaborative nature of blogging; when it opens up conversation, in comments, on social media or in new blog posts. As Pat Thomson writes, writing can be identity work; it can be a way into being and into connection. And as author and self-publisher, a blogger is free to write how and about what they choose. It’s a kind of free writing.

Academic writing is a different beast. Some academic writers work to make their writing accessible to a broader audience than the academe or a narrow field of scholars. Sometimes I use my thesaurus in reverse (‘What’s a simpler way of saying this?’). But often, as Greg Thompson and Linda Graham have suggested recently, academese can be complex, esoteric and hard to decode precisely because of the densities and intricacies of the ideas being tussled with. Readers and writers of academic prose need to work hard, grappling with words and concepts. Sometimes it seems that every third academic writer invents a new word just to sound more obtuse and scholarly than the next. Yet these discourse-specific terms can be the result of the sweat and tears of theorisation; ‘How do I best communicate this theory?’ Like literature, often celebrated for its multi-levelled complexity, academic texts often need to be read and re-read in order to be understood, and on different levels. Academic allegory. A journey into knowing.

One’s own writing, too, can involve struggle. Using big words isn’t necessarily gratuitous chest-beating in order to show off or project cleverness; it can be the result of ideas and words wrestled with, toiled over, written and re-written. Boundaries pushed at persistently. Knowledge formed or reimagined. I am a neophyte in the world of academia, but my PhD has taught me that writing in academia can mean taking one step forward to take ten steps back. Often I write my way into understanding, like Naomi Barnes who sees writing as inquiry and blogging as process.

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

my crude Venn diagram of the writing-reading process

Meaning is made at the junction between text (as performed by the writer) and reader. The writer brings themselves to the text, with all their own context, authorial processes, beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, gaps in knowledge and writerly decisions. The reader, too brings their self, context, beliefs, values, and skills of interpretation to the written piece. It’s in that zinging middle space – like in the tension between the fingers of Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – that meaning is made. It’s why no reading of a text is ever the same, and why there can never be a ‘right’ interpretation, only perhaps a dominant one.

In today’s world there are a range of places and forms in which authors can communicate their work, theorise, research, think and write. Writers make decisions based on what they want to communicate and who they are reaching out to (or away from). They can choose big words, small words, combative words, inclusive words. They can simplify or complicate. They might write to situate themselves in a particular discourse, within a particular conversation, or with a particular group.

Readers, too, make choices. To read, engage, re-read, give up, struggle through. Or to respond and engage by writing, writing, writing.

Blogging and learning are versions of reality inseparable from our emotional state

The world is your exercise book, the pages on which you do your sums. It is not reality, though you may express reality there if you wish. You are also free to write lies, or nonsense, or to tear the pages. ~ Richard Bach, Illusions

I'm grateful to be nominated in this category of the #Eddies15

I’m grateful to be nominated in this category of the #Eddies15

As I crawl over the finish line of the school year in Australia, I’ve had the lovely news that this blog has been nominated for the ‘Best Individual Blog’ edublog award in 2015. I am grateful for the nomination, and if you fancy voting for me or anyone else, you can vote here.

As I’ve reflected on this nomination, I’ve been wondering about my choices as a learner and blogger. This week, as part of our end-of-year staff planning and PD days, four hours was set aside for an activity, self-chosen from a list of options, in which we would experience being a novice learner. This was followed by reflections on that experience and its possibilities for learning and assessment in our classrooms. Options included Zumba, water skiing, life drawing, ukulele making, tennis, coding and stage combat.

It was interesting to see the criteria people used to make their choice. Some chose something they knew they were good at, based on personal criteria of having fun and achieving success, at a time of year when many are tired and emotionally vulnerable. Some chose something that would really challenge them and during which they would feel the discomfort of the novice learner, putting themselves in the position many of our students are in every day. I was somewhere in the middle. With a Fine Art degree, I’ve done my share of drawing, so I didn’t choose that, an activity in which I would feel quite at home. But I also didn’t choose something like stage combat, which I thought might be a really great challenge, but in which I had the equal possibility of being exhilarated by conquering the task, or feeling frustration, discomfort and disappointment (or both!). In making my decision, I considered the school’s intentions and instructions, as well as my own emotional wellbeing and what it was I wanted to achieve from the day. It reminded me that each of my students enters my class in a particular internal place, of which I might not be aware. 

my ukulele from kit to finished product

my ukulele from kit to finished product

I self-selected the ukulele making challenge. I figured this was both fun and something I hadn’t done before. Despite my comfort with discomfort as a place of learning and transformation, it was a safe choice. And I kind of wanted a ukulele, so I was seduced by the possibility of having a product at the end. There also seemed something lyrical about the uke itself, played as it is by Hawaiian musicians such as  Israel Kamakawiwo`ole (hear his beautiful rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ here).

As it turns out, this activity was an opportunity to work with people from across the school, many of whom I don’t often get the chance to work with or learn from. It was a wonderful chance to be ‘in flow’ in a workshop, gluing sanding, designing, decorating. I experienced firsthand why my students might want to stay in the woodwork workshop rather than packing away to come to my English class! It reminded me of our Year 10 English Term 4 unit, in which there are no marks or grades; both teacher and student were liberated from measuring success and failure. It was really up to the learners to decide how hard they wanted to work, how important the task was to them and what level of challenge was appropriate for them. Many, including our colleague who was our teacher for the day, worked through their lunchbreak. As well as intrinsic motivation, there was plenty of interdependence, as colleagues sought each other out for help and collaborative learning along the way. Barely any of us used the written instructions as our preferred way of learning.

What I loved was the way that, even though we all started with the same Wolfelele kit, the resultant products bore the marks and personalities of their makers. 

some of the range of ukuleles made during our activity

some of the range of ukuleles made during our activity

With this blog I also make choices about the marks I make, the stories I share, and the things I choose to leave off or leave out. While this blog isn’t quite my highlight reel, I do tend to privilege positive stories, rather than those times in which I am feeling stuck or vulnerable. The more uncomfortable posts tend to be around intellectual disequilibrirum (a word I’m borrowing from Costa and Garmston). There is interdepence, too, in the way many posts are inspired by, or in conversation with, others.

The #Eddies15 edublog nomination is affirming, in that it reflects that the writing I send out into the blogosphere touches someone somewhere. I’m also aware that, like any text, it presents versions of reality, time-frozen snapshots. It reflects my choices, my self as an author, my connections with others in the blogging community, and my state of self at ay given moment.

Postscript: This blog was voted fourth best individual blog in the 2015 edublog awards. You can see the winners list here.

‘WRITE ME’: Writing to be, writing to know, writing to connect

Round the keyboard was a paper label, with the words ‘WRITE ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters. Alice ventured to touch the keys, and, finding the sensation to be addictive and quite wonderful in its staccato rhythm, very soon found she had written a page! Three pages! “What a curious feeling!” said Alice, “I must be becoming a writer.” And so it was indeed, for there were words on the screen and the pads of her fingers were singing with a kind of joy.

~ adapted from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland



It is coming to the end of #AcWriMo, ‘Academic Writing Month’, when, for the duration of November, academic writers take to social media with valiant goals of words written and writing tasks completed. I know how good it feels to watch the words grow. But writing is more than increasing words. It is reading. It is cutting out words. It is drafting words upon words that don’t work; words which are the evidence of problem-solving processes, etched onto white screens or into notebooks; for erasure or storage in shadowy places, not for publication.

In my PhD, and in this blog, I use writing as a medium of reflective and analytic thinking. ‘Writing aloud’ or ‘free writing’ is one way in which I sometimes see where the words take me and which surprising and non-linear burrows I might be catapulted through.

This post emerges out of a blog and Twitter conversation with three academics around writing and autoethnography: Helen Kara (who writes here about ‘showing her workings’ and revealing the personal), Naomi Barnes (who muses here about autoethnography as a vehicle between the personal and theoretical) and Katie Collins (who responds here with her thoughts about writing as thinking, as filter on reality and as power). Here, I offer my own thoughts to this conversation.

I was ushered into this conversation by Helen, but was already familiar with Katie’s work. Once Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was enmeshed into the fibres of my PhD thesis, I went looking for someone else who had done something similar (because surely I couldn’t be the first), and came across Katie’s then-recently-published dissertation. We had done different things with Alice, but the novel clearly resonated for both of us.

While I didn’t use Deleuzian theory in my PhD, Deleuze’s 1990 Logic of Sense reflects some of my thinking of Alice as a novel of identity contestation, fluid becoming and un-becoming, through language. Carroll’s fantastical, imaginative world questions adult realities and plays with the power and (non)sense of words. Deleuze positions Alice at the borders. As a neophyte researcher who has made some non-traditional choices, I have felt that I have operated in some ways at the borders, questioning and pushing at the edge of where I am expected to be, what I’m expected to do and how I’m expected to do it. Being at once curious about, filled with wonder for, and at odds with, the world is an affinity I feel with Alice. (This week I will present on my use of the Alice metaphor in my PhD, at the Australian Association for Research in Education conference.)

crudely sketching Alice

crudely sketching Alice in my notebook

While for my PhD I didn’t adopt autoethnography per se, I did use the autoethnographer’s lens as part of my conceptual bricolage. That is, I saw myself as research instrument, self-conscious participant and immersed, self-identified insider member of my study. Michael Schwalbe’s 1996 metaphor resonated: reflections on my self were both door and mirror; a way in to others and a way back to self.

My PhD thesis self-story (I was interviewed as one of my own participants; but that’s another tale) had the purpose of making transparent my own worldview (along the lines of Helen’s ‘showing my workings’), but it also had another function: to help me know myself. As I worked to find the words to explore and articulate my own lived experiences of the phenomena I was studying, I found, as others have, that I wrote my way into knowing, wrote my world into a version of its reality and constructed my own story in new ways, through the talk-aloud experience of the interviews and the process of forming and finding the words to frame my narrative.

I wrote at one point about writing a PhD as like freeing a sculpture from stone, but I wonder if the process of writing is one in which we free what already exists within, or if it is more than this. Creation? Collage? Weaving? Moulding? None of these seems to adequately embody the process of writing which seems to come simultaneously from within and without; from past, present and future; from materials tangible and intangible. It is deliberate and intuitive; visible and invisible.

And so, I continue to welcome opportunities to write my way into being, to write my way into understanding and to connect my words and thoughts with those of others.

I came across this 'Pour Me' cocktail the night of this Twitter conversation. Coincidence?

I came across this ‘Pour Me’ cocktail the night of this Twitter conversation. Coincidence?

What I now know about the doctorate: Illuminating the PhDarkness

I was delighted to be invited to present on my research (which is, in part, around coaching in a school context) at yesterday’s inaugural Australian Coaching in Education Research Seminar. My presentation – to a room of academics, educators, doctoral candidates and prospective doctoral candidates – looked at sharing both my own study and my post-submission understanding of doctoral research. In this post I use some of the slides from that presentation to look at the latter part: what I now know about the PhD.

the outline of my #EdCoachRES presentation

the outline of my #EdCoachRES presentation

I saw the PhD, some times and in some ways, as a long dark tunnel or rabbit burrow. That is, when we are standing at the mouth of the tunnel it is dark and unilluminated. And sometimes we have to dig. As I had never been a doctoral researcher, I didn’t know what doctoral research looked like. I didn’t know what a good PhD looked like. I didn’t know what the process looked like. These are things we can’t really know until the end.

That said, while my supervisors were not experts in my particular fields or methodology, they were experts in the doctoral process and in supervision. This is reminiscent of my work in coaching at my school. There, coaches aren’t experts in all pedagogy in all areas; they are teachers who are experts in being coaches, in having professional conversations in which the coachee’s thinking is teased out and shifted to different levels of abstraction, in ways to use the Danielson Framework for Teaching to refine teachers’ reflections on their practice. My supervisors were a lot like coaches, in that they facilitated my thinking about my research and writing, and helped me grow into a less-neophyte more-autonomous researcher. But they were also experts and mentors who sometimes chose to give me directive advice, or asked me to develop a clearer rationale for something I wanted to try (like using illustrations in the PhD thesis – who does that?). They helped me to keep focused, especially when I got excited about alternate pathways or theories.

Put your PhD blinkers on

Put your PhD blinkers on

The PhD is a tightly focused study. No matter how curious or impassioned we are, a single three-year-equivalent study can’t be all encompassing. We can’t cover everything that interests us or explore every avenue which takes our fancy. Like the racehorse, we need to put our blinkers on in order to make it to the finish line. Those really intriguing tangential ideas and large chunks of deleted text (for instance, I axed 20,000 words between the first full draft and the final draft) can be put into a folder for another time, another project, another paper. Of course, research studies are iterative, so we need to be flexible and open to changing course, but as Tara Brabazon says in this 2010 Times article:

the best doctorates are small. They are tightly constituted and justify students’ choice of one community of scholars over others while demonstrating that they have read enough to make the decision on academic rather than time-management grounds.

by @debsnet

Bearing in mind that PhDs are tightly focused and that all research has limitations, these were the questions I thought were most important for any doctoral researcher to ask themselves:

  • How will my research add to scholarly conversations?
  • What question/s or problem/s of theory or practice might I hope to answer?
  • What will my method offer? What might it eclipse (limitations)?

That is, what can or will this research do? What can’t or won’t it do? We need to be ok with what a particular study, from a particular worldview, using a particular method, can do. And what it can’t. We need to own the limitations of our work.

my go-to online advisors

my go-to online advisors

I shared some of those academics-who-blog who have been particularly influential for me in my PhD writing and understanding. These are those whose generosity of knowledge helped me to understand the process of knowing the PhD, doing the PhD and being the PhD. Their work helped to illuminate the PhDarkness for me. An example was Pat Thomson’s help in the writing of my discussion chapter at a time when I was asking myself what a discussion chapter was, and trying to figure out how to best approach and develop mine. The academic bloggers named in this slide have reams of useful posts about endless aspects of the PhD, academic writing and getting published. Additionally, Helen Kara is writing short eBooks for doctoral students, while Pat Thomson and Babara Kamler have the super-useful book, Helping Doctoral Students Write: Pedagogies for Supervision.

I have found the reflections of others useful and so I share some of my own story on this blog because perhaps my words will shine a light into the shadows for someone else looking for help in a time of doctoral uncertainty. My working-through-writing-frustrations blog posts might help others when they come to that point in their journey, by which time I may have happily forgotten about how hard it was for me at the time!  As sometimes the curse of expertise – thank you, How to Survive Your PhD MOOC for pointing me towards Pamela Hinds’ 1999 work on this – means that once we have learned something, we cannot always remember what it was like to not know it, making it difficult to teach or help someone. By (b)logging my writing memories as they happen, perhaps I can archive my not-so-good-at-academic-writing self. Reflecting-on-writing by writing-about-writing – in a kind of meta-writing – helps me to document my academic writing journey. While I don’t think I’ve been in the game long enough to automate too much, blogging helps me to have a Hansel-and-Gretel breadcrumb trail back to my less capable self, before certain things become ‘black boxed’.

putting the PhD in perspective

putting the PhD in perspective

Finally, (my own version of) the PhD is only something I understand (sort of) now that I am at its end. It is unknowable before then. Each step of the way felt like a step into the darkness. Sometimes I felt like I had a flashlight to light the immediate way or a lightsaber to slice confidently into the tunnel. Sometimes I felt that I was fumbling around in the dark and feeling my way. Sometimes I went the wrong way and had to go back. But as Matt Might shows in his illustrated guide to the PhD, and as Mullins and Kiley (2002) show in their paper ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize,’ the tightly-focused you-can’t-do-it-all parameters of a PhD mean that a PhD needs ‘only’ to add a miniscule aspect to the world’s knowledge; it’s a small blip in a larger conversation. Let yours be like a tiny jewel: small, intense, luminous.

Webs & chrysalises: Metaphors for learning & connection

Naomi Barnes, in her recent article in the digital journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, writes that “we need to start paying more attention to the random thoughts because when learning is conceptualised as a web, rather than a line, randomness becomes more meaningful.” She refers to the unanticipated blogging conversation, sparked by Steve Wheeler’s #blimage (blog+ image) challenge, that she, Helen Kara and I became involved in as we voluntarily responded to each other, layering our ideas and connecting our words.

My own experience of learning is non-linear and rhizomatic. The findings of my PhD were that this is an experience shared by individuals, groups and organisations; learning happens in surprising ways, in unexpected places. I agree with Naomi that embracing non-linear randomness might lead us to interesting places of knowledge collaboration, reimagining and production (although I do think we should acknowledge our sources of inspiration).

I mentioned in my blog post (part of the above-mentioned blogversation) on the spider-web connectivity of networked learning that metaphors, including of the spider’s web, emerged from my participants as ways to explain and explore their understanding of their professional selves, roles and relationships.

As it edges towards summer here in Australia, at home I recently found a redback spider (latrodectus hasseltii for the arachnid nerds), an Australian relative of the American black widow spider. The redback female is venomous, formidable and self-sufficient. Her web is messy. Males live on the periphery, eating her scraps. And after mating, she eats them, storing the sperm for later.

I’ve felt a little recently like a web-weaving spider. My PhD thesis is submitted, and suddenly, papers, journal articles and conference presentations are materialising. My PhD work has formed a web which widens and thickens, and in which these prey are being caught. The learning I’ve been doing from the network of scholars with whom I connect on Twitter and in the blogosphere has continued to take me to new thinking and into interesting conversations.

Now, I don’t see myself as a poisonous, man-eating widow spider, but I like that the redback is autonomous, a beacon of feminine power. I like that her web is messy and functional, not pretty and symmetrical. As well as the weaving of the physical web, the species itself has spread its tendrils out from Australia to reach New Zealand, Japan and Belgium. She has even made it into two DC comics as a supervillain who fights Robin. Unexpected places. Unpredictable influence.

The other insect creature I’ve recently been reflecting upon is the chrysalised caterpillar-butterfly. After I submitted my thesis, I wrote the following title in a Word document and saved it: “Emerging from the chrysalis: PhD as transformative learning.” It was a blog idea for later, after proper completion, maybe. I was remembering a post I had read which argued that the PhD is not a transformative experience, but a thing to be done, a process to be completed, a means to an end. This wasn’t my experience so I thought it might be worth writing about.

And then I set the November #HDRblog15 challenge, and Kathryn Davies wrote this post about the life of a butterfly as a metaphor for the cycle of the PhD. Kathryn explores the chrysalis-PhD metaphor so thoroughly and thoughtfully, my own post idea seemed redundant. Yet my experience was affirmed by reading Kathryn’s. For me the PhD was transformative. I began my doctorate as someone who hadn’t written an academic paper or dissertation for 14 years. I was a vulnerable, soft-bellied slow-moving academic creature, my newness shiny and green. Over the course of the PhD, it has changed the way I think, the way I write and the way I read. It has changed how I perceive my identity, how I behave and how I respond. Some of these feelings I’ve written about, including a crisis of scholarly confidence, taking flight in the discussion chapter, and on being (or identifying as) a writer. And while I’ve recently said that I feel frozen in examination limbo, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I’m quietly growing, wriggling inside and pushing at the edges of my PhChrysalis, still a neophyte but transformed by my PhD journey.

So, I offer out to the blogoverse another post, another moment of my thinking suspended in time, another layer, another thread, another voice, another tendril reaching out to others. To be ignored, observed or grasped.

Appropriation vs. attribution. What’s ok in our digital world?

is online appropriation repurposing & piracy cause for alarm? (yes - I took this photo - does that mean it's your for the taking?)

Is online appropriation, repurposing & piracy cause for alarm? (I took this photo. Does that mean it’s yours for the taking?)

The Internet has been a blessing and a curse. The curse we know: A lot of people appropriating your intellectual property without paying for it. But I think it’s important to realise the blessing of the Internet, which is that everybody has a voice and you can break through. ~ Gloria Estafan

Ownership in the digital world is a slippery issue. In academia, the parameters are straightforward; if you are repeating or even building upon the ideas or words of someone else, you cite them. Period. Yet this same practice does not consistently apply in the blogosphere, Twitterverse, or classroom. I have found my original photos, from my blog, on others’ blogs, without attribution (after requests from me, these have been attributed). There are regular comments on social media like ‘I’m stealing that’. In a recent MOOC in which I am participating, one person made a meme from another person’s words, without attributing them. If I tweet or blog out some words, are they part of the public domain, and there for the taking?

I was recently pointed toward a post by Seán McHugh on his feelings about Creative Commons, especially in a teaching context. In fact, the tweet which pointed me towards Seán’s post said “Maybe y’all would be interested in learning about ‘constructive plagiarism’ from @proteanteacher”. Learning about constructive plagiarism? The English teacher and PhD researcher in me shuddered at the thought of how one might ‘constructively’ plagiarise. In what possible ways might taking someone else’s ideas or words or images without attribution be considered positively as ‘constructive’, I wondered.

In his post, Seán says, about using pictures from the web: “It’s theft? Nonsense. Can we please STOP lying to our kids? While a handful of CC activists relentlessly pursue their moral crusade, the rest of us in the real world will need to figure out how best to work within a web where ‘piracy’ is rampant, symptomatic of deeper issues that are a great deal more complex than the simplistic arguments pushed by those who should know better.” He points out that piracy is not theft as the original still exists. Yet industries such as music and film have laws against the pirating of original works. While some online content isn’t directly related to people’s livelihood, sometimes it is. And should it matter whether someone is making money from their authorship? Does that give them more right to own their own work?

I agree with Seán that our level of attribution might depend on our purpose. If a teacher asks a high school student to search for an image to stimulate a piece of poetry writing, it might not need to be attributed. If the student is going to publish the poem with the image, then I would argue that it does. Part of teaching digital citizenship should be around what it is to be a responsible, considerate digital citizen who respects the intellectual and creative work of others.

‘Piracy’ and ‘pirating’ are terms that have become trendy in some education circles thanks to Dave Burgess’ ‘Teach Like a Pirate’ phenomenon. Pirates can be seen as an imaginative metaphor for excitement on the high seas, or for murderous violence, as Corinne Campbell explores as part of her response to the book Teach Like a Pirate. Corinne writes, “On a personal note, I find the PIRATE acronym unfortunate, and quite frankly, offensive. … When I think of pirates, I don’t think of Disney and Jack Sparrow. For me the word triggers thoughts of the very real, very dangerous pirates who take rob, murder, rape and take hostages in seas today. I ‘get’ that most people don’t feel that way and love to buy into the Disney version, so I tried hard to squash my objections, but anything that trivialises rape and murder while celebrating those who commit such crimes is going to get my hackles up.” (This is only one part of Corinne’s post; she also has good things to say, so see the full post for a fuller picture.)

Is saying we’re not stealing or plagiarising something, but ‘pirating’ it, better? Is it a more ‘fun’, imaginative form of plagiarism or taking from another person? Is it ok because we haven’t removed the original? Or is it immoral, discourteous, or at the very least, lazy, to take someone else’s creative or intellectual property, and present it as our own, or as author-less?

In his post, Seán McHugh writes that “when we’re watching someone’s amazing, riveting, bullet point riddled PowerPoint, I do not assume that any images contained therein are images they created themselves or ‘own’, in fact, like most people, I believe, we assume the opposite; the images they use to illustrate their work are not theirs unless they say otherwise.” There are interesting assumptions at work here. Why would we assume that what a person presents is not their work? When I present at conferences using PowerPoint, I always caption images with author and source, if they are not my own. On my blog, I use mostly my own photos, or if the images are not mine, I clearly acknowledge the creator and/or source. I recently wanted a glorious picture of an octopus for my ‘Why I Love Twitter’ blog post, and found a lovely illustration after some Google searching. I used the found image, attributed the creator and source of the work in the caption, and tweeted it out to the illustrator so that they knew their work had been used. I’ve been part of the wonderful #blimage (blog + image) challenge, but in that challenge, people were asked to attribute the images to their creators.

I agree with Seán that the use of others’ work is a moral issue. Like him, I operate from the perspective of “do as you would be done by”, but that seems to mean different things to him as to me. I don’t use Creative Commons but I do feel a moral obligation to recognise and attribute the work of others. For me it is about courtesy, professionalism, respect and integrity.

In a recent Brand Newsroom podcast – at about the 19 minute mark – Sarah Mitchell, talking about Scott Stratten’s keynote at the annual Content Marketing World event says, “just because you can take something doesn’t mean you should take something”. She uses the analogy of fruit piled up outside a greengrocer; we wouldn’t take it just because it’s there. In an alternate view, author Neil Gaiman talks in this video about how he came to view piracy of his work as advertising, allowing an author to reach more people.

What do you think? Is using others’ images or words in your online content without attribution ok and an accepted part of being in a digitally connected world where no one owns anything? Is it lazy or inconsiderate content creation? Is it morally corrupt authorial practice? What kinds of explicit practices, agreements or common understandings might we need to help us navigate the terrain of ownership and attribution in our digital world?