3D Printing and Composition: A Question of Authorship

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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I have an admission to make. I was an English major in college, and minored in an obscure field of history. I became an editor working in the humanities because I love them. That’s not the admission, just the facts of my life. The admission is that I love science. I don’t always understand it, but little gets me more excited than the latest theories on vertical farming or Lockheed Martin’s new design for a compact fusion reactor that could turn a Cold War pipe-dream into a world-changing reality.

Which is why, when I stumbled upon a site describing all the exciting ways that 3-D printing can be used in the classroom, I was intrigued.  Energized.  Disappointed.  Not one possible usage for the composition classroom. And that’s fair enough. Words have long been the provenance of regular printing, no 3-D component necessary.

Still, why should our STEM brethren have all the multi-dimensional fun? What literature professor wouldn’t want to print out a miniature model of an Elizabethan playhouse to help bring Shakespeare to life, for instance? A fun application to be sure, but I was disappointed that nothing I came up with was more than a novelty, a feature of passing interest, but hardly a use critical enough to justify the purchase of one of these fancy devices.

So, as they say, to the Internets!

What I found was only slightly more encouraging. I wasn’t, of course, the only person thinking about these applications and some were far cooler and more helpful than anything I considered. My personal favorite was this paper by instructors at the University of Colorado, Boulder describing how 3D printing can be used to increase accessibility for middle school students with visual impairments, allowing them to read picture-book versions of the texts with which the rest of the class was engaging. An amazing, powerful application, but one that would seem to break down when it comes time to debate the stylistic differences between Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

The other piece that got me thinking was a proposal by instructors at Syracuse University called “Mapping the Material Effects of 21st Century Authorship.”  While only a tantalizing hint at the fascinating panel discussion that will ensue, it highlighted a place where I see the most useful crossover between this new technology and teaching composition: the question of authorship. Most of our textbooks, and most academic honor codes, come with sections on plagiarism and how it can best be avoided.  In practice, we know this to be a more complicated issue.

Quotations, summations, samples, fair use, open source. There are many and varied methods of incorporating another’s work into our own. The same is true of 3D printing. Does the designer own the item, simply because they crated the shape? Do 3D printers open up a whole new world of knockoff merchandise?  Who owns a text – or an object?  The author?  The printer? The consumer? The Internet?

For composition instructors, 3D printing creates not just objects, but in fact an object lesson on the intricacies of the ethics of authorship.  It is a question that the literary world has been facing for a long time, and one which students who have grown up Internet age of infinite content might not immediately relate to.  Everyone, however, knows that to take a physical object without permission is theft, so the 3D printer provides a unique bridge for solidifying the concept of ownership and authorship – even if you can’t actually have one in your classroom.

For far more practical ideas on utilizing technology in composition, I highly suggest checking out Andrea A. Lunsford's​ Multimodal Mondays posts on the Bedford Bits blog. She's got all the ideas you need to satisfy your science and technology interests while staying true to the goals of the composition classroom!

About the Author
A developmental editor at Macmillan Higher Education. I work in the English group.