Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Write on, right on

Posted by metaphorical on 1 May 2007

I’ve just downloaded Near the Lewis & Clark Trail, a master’s thesis “Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of the Requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts in The Department of English by Chad Husted” back in December 2001.

Here’s another one, God Knows What’s in These Weeds a collection of poems by Kristin Lynn Abraham, who was graduated by West Virginia University in the spring of 2006.

As I sit and write this, two copies of my master’s thesis sit on my desk at work, having been velo-bound at a local Kinko’s. One copy is destined for the school library, the other stays with the Creative Writing department. Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll leave work early, drop it off at the department office, then go over to an apartment on Charles Street, where one of my fellow students is having an open house to celebrate.

Most of us there, fiction writers, non-fiction writers like myself, poets, and the handful of people in the writing-for-children program, will then start submitting chapters from our theses, or variations of them, to literary and commercial magazines. For almost all of us, the thesis represents the bulk of what we’ve produced for the past two years, and for many of us, these will be the first short stories, personal essays, poems, and books that we will get published.

That’s how it will go for those of us at New School University, but for Chad and Kristin and many other students in creative writing programs around the country, it didn’t, and won’t, go that way. Their schools have what’s called an ETD (electronic thesis and dissertation) requirement.

At schools with ETD policies, each and every dissertation and thesis goes up on the Web, rendering them unsubmittable for further publication. As Beth Kaufka and Jennifer Bryan write in “The Case Against Electronic Theses,” published in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers,

When a writer’s work is made available in electronic form to the public, it is considered published.

(Poets & Writers doesn’t put up its articles on its website; here’s a link to the abstract.)

Opponents of the ETD policy believe it renders creative writing in a thesis relatively useless for publication by forcing authors to relinquish first electronic rights, which most commercial and literary publishers demand.

Kaufka and Bryan are MFA students in fiction at Bowling Green State University, which publishes the prestigious literary journal, Mid-American Review. (The New School publishes a literary journal too, LIT. It’s less prestigious, but it did have a bit part in the recent movie, “Words & Music.”) Like me, they’ll be graduating later this month.

The two authors and their classmates dodged a bullet when the Bowling Green students, and eventually the writing department faculty, convinced the school’s Faculty Senate that the ETD policy should exclude MFA theses. A 5-year delay exists now, and it may be made 10 years.

Other schools have in-between policies. Some do ETD by default but let students opt out. Some, such as the University of Central Florida, wait one year and then put theses and dissertations on-line.

Kaufka and Bryan argue that that’s not enough. In fact, they argue that Bowling Green’s 10-year delay isn’t enough.

According to records of students who graduated from BGSU in the past thirty-eight years, 64 percent of graduates published their first book after more than five years, while 43 percent took more than ten years. If the ETD policy remained, the majority of graduates would miss out on such book contracts.

Kaufka and Bryan acknowledge the benefits of ETD, especially in the sciences, and even the existence of some benefits for creative writing students, but think the differences outweigh any similarities.

Other disciplines work toward the dissemination of knowledge and greater research possibilities, writers produce artwork.

They quote Jeanne Leiby, a professor at the University of Central Florida and editor of its Florida Review literary magazine, as saying,

The university doesn’t take the canvases of their painters upon graduation. Why would they take the “canvases” of its creative writers?

For my part, over the next month, I’ll be sending out two chapters to literary magazines. I’m glad the New School hasn’t gone the ETD route, and wish the best of luck to my fellow MFA students in their fight against a rule that seems to have been implemented with no regard for its unintended consequences.

8 Responses to “Write on, right on”

  1. Thank you for writing about this… time to right this as well. I’ve considered a longer article about it. The political backdrop to ETDs has its own cloak and daggery; it’s wrapped up in several issues, not the least of which is an inflexible commitment to “open access.” I collected a lot of research about this for an internal position paper, and I’m thinking about an article, or at least a lengthy blog post.

    My first publication will be this coming December, a full year after graduation. One year wouldn’t be enough. As the author, my feeling is that I should have the work for the length of the copyright.

    (Hey, did I look at 1,000 WordPress themes and end up with yours?!)

    Oh, and a big hearty congratulations! Feels good, eh?

  2. Feels great.

    And yes, on the WP template, I guess great minds think alike. I even switched to that very green of yours for one day (March 17th!).

  3. Ah, yes, on Talk Like a Leprechaun Day!

  4. […] I’m hustling off the grid for the rest of today to work on my review of Everything is Miscellaneous–quick preview: miscell-delicious!– but wanted to note an important warning to MFA students in a post at Politics, Technology, and Language. […]

  5. Oh, and another point: it’s possible to have an ETD policy that respects copyright and keeps student work off the global Web. But more about that later when I write about how to make a draconian policy fair and reasonable.

  6. I’m sympathetic, especially for the creative-writing people. But I also applaud the goal of ETD, which is to get more scholarly work – and especially cutting-edge work, or obscure stuff that wouldn’t otherwise be published – available to the scholarly community.

    I think the move toward electronic publishing of scholarly journals (very small, still, but growing) is an excellent thing, and any other move that diminishes the need for physical access to an academic library in order to read scholarly publications is good. I agree that the grad students are getting reamed, here, and there must be better ways to work this out, but there also have to be ways to let the public have access to the work that experts and elit(ist/e)s are using to make decisions and set policy for them, and which in large degree they themselves have paid for with tax money.

  7. Misha said

    I’m curious about this “on the web” availability – at Michigan, to get to my dissertation online, you need to be an authorized umich.edu user. It’s not freely available to everyone, despite a strict ETD policy. I think there may be a baby/bathwater issue here.

    (I’m also curious, professionally, as to what the markup used by the ETD programs looks like these days, having provided access to two of the dissertations used in an early UM study of the original ETD DTD (hi, Will!))

  8. Misha said

    Also, OMGWTF with the Snap previews on the links? My eyes! MY EYES!

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