Thinking about Authorship—Again

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I recently had the great pleasure of visiting Sarah Ruffing Robbins’s Authorship Seminar at TCU, where the students were not only reading about theories of authorship, and about collaborative authorship in particular, but also taking the opportunity to collaborate themselves and to view collaboration as an act rather than simply an object of study. The inimitable Carrie Leverenz joined in as well for one of the most lively and informative discussions I’ve had in a long time.

Attending this seminar gave me a chance to relive my own long history with what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar call the “anxiety of authorship” that is particular to women, beginning with Lisa Ede’s and my decision to co-author an essay in honor of our mutual mentor, Edward P.J. Corbett, early in our careers—and the push-back and outright resistance we got to this idea from colleagues and department administrators as well as from Corbett himself. That response led us to theorize collaboration as a form of resistance and as a feminist undertaking, and led to a series of articles and two books on these issues.

Today, questions of authorship and collaboration are more fraught, and more exciting, than ever as new technologies allow not only for larger and larger collaborations—for the kind of “authorless prose” characteristic of, say, Wikipedia—but also for questions about machine authorship. Such questions also resonate with works such as Clint Smith’s award-winning How the Word is Passed, which students in the seminar I attended are reading. The oral history project that Smith details in this absolutely compelling story represents another form of collaboration, one that brings forth voices and stories long ignored or forgotten.    

Professor Robbins also shared their Cultural Stewardship Authoring Project, an assignment that invites students in the class to gather several current “covid era” artifacts (from March 2020 to March 2022) and develop labeling, description, and commentary on them for possible inclusion in the TCU archives. Professor Robbins calls it a multilayered aesthetic/historical collaboration.  This is a multi-part project that includes, in addition to the writing up of the artifacts and their historical context, reflections on the students’ own authorial processes, on what they have learned about the complex concept of “authorship,” and on what implications this learning has for highlighting cultural diversity in the archives. During class, they talked about the ways in which “covid culture” was so often intersectional, noting that for women the pandemic cut across so many aspects of their lives in ways that called for enormous reserves of energy. The class spent some time talking through these intersections in their own lives and about the artifacts they were thinking of choosing—everything from a vaccination card to a poem discovered during the pandemic to the page of a diary or a photo of a “quarantine room.”  Students will present artifacts in a future class, along with their interpretation of and reflections on them, a session I am very much hoping to attend so that I can thank these students and Professors Robbins and Leverenz for this deeply engaging experience.

The project students are working on is, of course, deeply collaborative, and one that also raises issues of authorship, co- or multiple-authorship, and intellectual property or ownership issues. I can imagine a similar assignment in a first-year writing classroom, and I expect that if students curated such an archival project, their university library might be very interested in displaying it or in adding it to their own archives. All food for thought—and an encouragement to keep creating assignments that call for creative collaboration.

Image Credit: Photo 824 by CreateHERStock, used under a Public Domain license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.