Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're the 'Wrong' Professor

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Image: Karen McArthur.

I—November 29, 2011

At 7:30 on a Tuesday, right after supper, Karen McArthur had just started to wind down for the night. Her three kids were in their pajamas, reading in front of the fireplace, and her husband Jim was cleaning up the kitchen.

McArthur, an adjunct professor of art history at Austin Peay State University, flipped open her laptop to see if any students had questions about their class assignments. Instead, she was shocked by an email from Alexandra Blau, a colleague she’d never met.

Blau wrote to ask if McArthur had designed a full-semester online class on art appreciation that she could copy. “I had a summer one I copied from someone else (it was your class),” she said, “but I thought it may be better to start from scratch with a normal semester-length class.”

A summer one I copied (it was your class). McArthur wondered: Was Blau really teaching a course she had created? If so, why didn’t she know about it? McArthur had, in fact, spent two years developing and refining an art-appreciation curriculum, but she had never authorized other professors to use it. Was it possible that her colleagues were pretending to be her in other virtual classrooms?

For adjuncts like McArthur, those questions can be deeply troubling. Teaching is a core part of their academic identity—in many cases, it’s the only thing they’re evaluated and compensated for. Indeed, McArthur considered the creation of her courses to be an original, creative act, just like research.

But unlike scholarship, teaching isn’t always protected by a widespread consensus on intellectual-property rights. And when it comes to teaching, some scholars say that there’s a rich academic tradition in which professors frequently borrow, trade, and even steal content without attribution. As higher-learning rapidly moves from bricks and mortar to cyberspace, and the use and reuse of “shell” courses grows more common, academics have reason to wonder which parts of creating and teaching online courses count as their own—and what, if any, recourse there is for lecturers who feel their content is being used by others without permission or payment.

It’s perfectly common for professors to borrow ideas without attribution, said James M. Lang, a professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, but the advent of online courses taught by adjunct professors has changed the equation. “We are going to have to think more carefully about what kinds of things can be borrowed from colleagues and what kinds of things should count as intellectual property,” says Lang.

II – Winter Semester, 2004

Karen McArthur first thought about those issues in 2004, a year after she began teaching at Austin Peay, a campus near the Fort Campbell military base on the border between Hopkinsville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee.

McArthur, who was being paid around $2,000 per course, was asked by her department chair, Dixie Webb, now dean of the university’s College of Arts and Letters, to develop a web-based art-appreciation “shell course”—a generic template, in other words, that every instructor teaching that course could use.

A shell course needs to be adaptable to each professor’s area of expertise. “If you’re an art historian, you lean on history when you teach. If you’re a painter, you might assign more art projects,” McArthur said. “The chair asked me to develop this course because there were no other art historians in the department.”

McArthur said that Webb offered to pay her around $2,500 to create the shell course. (Webb declined to comment and said she was instructed to direct me to media relations.) The funds never materialized, though, so the professor moved on and continued designing and teaching her course, which became the basis for a book project. “This course was my intellectual property. I signed a contract with a literary agent,” McArthur said.

In 2008, McArthur heard from a learning-management specialist at Austin Peay, requesting permission to copy her course for a professor named Bruce Childs. “Professor Childs mentioned that he had been speaking with you about working together, and he thought you wouldn’t mind if I copied your course,” the specialist wrote in an email. “But I really felt the need to check with you to see if this is okay.”

McArthur fired back an email with the subject line, “do not copy!”

“No, he cannot use my course; no one has permission to use my course,” she said in the email. “I have never and will never give permission for other professors to use my course shell. Sounds harsh but that’s that.”

After that email exchange, McArthur said she considered the matter closed, until she received Alex Blau’s email years later.

III – November 30, 2011

The day after McArthur received Blau’s email, she drove to campus to visit Danielle Dickson, a technologist who worked in the distance-education department. Dickson confirmed that Blau had copied her course from another adjunct professor, Robb Fladry, a former student of McArthur who is now an assistant professor of graphic design and department chair at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.

McArthur noticed that Blau and Fladry had used her course to teach 175 students in seven sections. “All they did was delete my name and email address and fill in the blanks with their own personal information,” she said.

To McArthur, this was appalling. She felt that Blau and Fladry had passed off the personal stories that peppered her lectures as their own. There was the trip she took to the Tate Gallery in London in 1992, when she was a senior in college, which prompted her to change her mind about becoming an art historian instead of a lawyer. There was the trip to Rome where she saw Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.” (She told students in her written lecture that she had gotten a nasty virus and had to be hospitalized.)

McArthur said she included these stories because she wanted students to appreciate the difference between seeing a famous artwork in a book and experiencing it in person.

And in the screenshots that Dickson gathered for her, McArthur saw some of Blau and Fladry’s students respond positively to her personal anecdotes. A student named Kyle Davis, for example, wrote of the lecture on “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”: “The description given in the lecture … made me really want to see it in person.” Based on the screenshots, McArthur worried that Blau and Fladry never corrected any student’s assumption that they had written the course: “They pretended to be me in order to make a few thousand extra dollars.”

Fladry and Blau dispute that account. Blau said her 2011 email to McArthur was a collegial attempt to get answers about the course she was given to teach from what she understood to be a template. The allegation that she was a knowing accomplice to plagiarism is “deeply upsetting,” she said.

“I obviously had no idea that she had not given the OK to use it.” Fladry said in an email. “I guess you can use that word plagiarize for anything these days.”

He said he notified students that McArthur developed the course content. “I made no claims that these were my experiences,” he said.

Fladry said the department chair gave him McArthur’s shell course with the understanding that it’s common practice for a “subject-matter expert” to develop the course material and projects, with another hired instructor facilitating, grading, and interacting with students.

And at Austin Peay, as at many institutions with heavy online course loads, that is a standard practice. Bill Persinger, director of public relations and marketing, said in an email that it is common for faculty who teach online courses at Austin Peay and at other universities to share content, though it is the university’s practice to ask permission from the professor who develops the course.

In McArthur’s case, that appears not to have happened. In February 2013, the university admitted wrongdoing. In a settlement agreement signed by McArthur and former Austin Peay president Tim Hall, the university acknowledged that the online course materials McArthur developed “were and are her intellectual property” and that the sections Blau and Fladry taught were wrongfully used. The university compensated her $17,200 for her troubles.

Hall said he couldn’t vividly recall all the details of the case, but “it ought not be the case that someone who has prepared a course should have their work taken over and distributed to other people.”

IV – Does the Person Matter?

This should have settled the matter. But the relationship between McArthur and Austin Peay had soured. McArthur said she found herself fighting for classes—going from teaching seven to 10 courses per academic year down to only two. After 12 years of teaching at the university, her contract was not renewed this semester. “I’ve been cut off,” McArthur said.

Persinger said that has nothing to do with the struggle over McArthur’s shell course. Courses for adjuncts have been scarcer since the university created new faculty lines—including two in the art department for 2011-12—to reduce dependence on part-time lecturers.

According to Persinger, Blau is still teaching the art appreciation course. McArthur questioned why the university would maintain a copyist to teach the class instead of her.

But in the eyes of some professors and education experts, authorship is almost beside the point. Fladry said he didn’t develop original content—or omit McArthur’s references to specific experiences—because every student taking an Austin Peay course in art appreciation should get the same content, no matter whose class they’re in.

“Using the accepted course shell prevents any discrepancy in material,” he said. “I didn’t change the details because that would change the integrity of the class.”

Susan Gautsch, director of online learning at the University of Southern California, said she wasn’t surprised to hear about how McArthur’s content and personal stories were used. “If I was a student and had the option of an adjunct professor with very little experience or stories of their own to tell versus an adjunct professor who was able to re-appropriate other people’s experiences by pushing a button or copying and pasting it,” she said, “I wouldn’t care if the stories were theirs or not.”

“Was I entertained and captivated? Did this course keep me engaged? I don’t care about the person. I care about my learning around these stories.”

Gautsch and Lang, of Assumption College, both note that shell courses—and adjuncts teaching others’ material—have become commonplace. But Lang issued strong warnings about the practice.

“That’s a potential trend in online education that we have to be wary of,” he said. “It depersonalizes everything. In the Austin Peay situation, the depersonalization process seemed to reach its nadir.”

The obvious loss, Lang said, is that shell courses don’t give instructors an incentive to create their own courses—or to actually teach. A templated course, he added, can all too frequently end up being taught by a professor without real expertise in the topic at hand.

To some students, at least, expertise still matters. Richard McLain, one of the students Fladry taught using McArthur’s shell, said he enjoyed taking the course while he was deployed in Afghanistan. Fladry was responsive to his questions, he said, unlike some other online professors who sometimes take up to a week to respond to students.

Still, McLain said he was disappointed to learn that Fladry had used another professor’s content. “I’m upset. I’d like to know the professor who developed the class. She sounds really passionate about art, and you get that from the course content.”

“I’m no special snowflake in class,” he said, “but I think that a professor who takes the time to develop and perfect a class ought to be the one giving it.”

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