The Castle Herald
Every Picture Tells A Story

Plagiarism, Part Four: Meeting with the Thieves of Creativity?

This is the fourth post in our series about plagiarism. Read previous entries:

On November 20th 1996, I was scheduled to attend a meeting chaired by Joey, the dean of the registration department. Others attending were my manager Ryan; Chuck Herzog, the college publicist; and Darcie Martin, the manager of the student study center. (All names except mine have been changed.)

As a classified state employee, I was included on the Retention Committee because the college touted diversity and inclusion at all levels of the institution. Administration paid lip service to the idea that all college employees, not just managers, should be involved in areas of decision-making.

At first glance, my college seemed to embrace the Jeffersonian ideal of equality. On closer examination, however, it was apparent that this notion was mostly fabricated. Most people knew that management had made its decision long before any classified employee sat in on a meeting.

The idea that classified employees took part in decision-making was a pleasant fiction, but it had its advantages. It required management to rub shoulders with employees and listen to other viewpoints. Sometimes classified staff could use those meetings as a stepping stone to a better career.

The reality was that the separation of classified employees, management and administration at my Colorado community college in the 1990s resembled the old British class system, especially at university. The attitude of management and administration at my college reminded me of how the administrators and Dons treated the servants (the “scouts”) in the 1936 Dorothy L. Sayers novel Gaudy Night, which is set in a women’s college at Oxford University.

At my college as at Sayers’ Oxford, an administrator’s sense of superiority came from their credentials and titles. At least the British had the excuse of hundreds of years reign by kings and queens. But America was based on the Declaration of Independence which stated that “all men are created equal”.  I believed in those words. I felt equal to people on all levels of society.

I was part of the American dream, but my college held to the Oxford model

Somewhere along the line elitists in the college and in the rest of the United States had lost sight of the fact that people have different types of knowledge, and that most of it is useful and necessary for the functioning of society. Elitists in America had allowed arrogance to blind them to the fact that America flourished not just on the accomplishments of the highly educated, but also on the knowledge and gifts of ordinary people.

America had always honored a wide variety of talents, including common sense and natural abilities. It was a country that had grown and progressed because it needed and valued both well-educated and self-made men.

Americans of legend — Lincoln, Twain, Edison, and Henry Ford — were some of the geniuses that helped create a great country. The respect given to the geniuses without degrees was based on the recognition of their talent and innate gifts. It was a belief that each person you met might be extraordinary; each person was someone that you could learn from.  America recognized that the ordinary was often extraordinary. That was the basis for the American dream; a dream that envisioned that all gifted, and hard working citizens, if they persevered, could become successful in America.

Untried ideas are scary

Before I worked at the college, my dream had been to become a successful author. My imagination fired on new ideas and possibilities for plots and new creations; I longed for success. In the Myers Briggs test, I identified as an INTP. An advantage of that personality type is the ability to understand systems, to see patterns, and to see how they connect. INTPs delight in new ideas and they want to see how those ideas can create new stories, or new systems and procedures.

My job classification was low on the college classified employee scale, but I had shown creativity in my job. I had the ability to conceive and present new ideas even in an environment that talked about thinking outside of the box, but seldom did it. I was an idea person, and that reputation had gained me admission to the committee.

The November 20th meeting was one of several held after the statewide retention conference. My colleges’ committee members understood the problem: instead of continually recruiting new students, colleges also must work harder to retain students. What solution could we discover and implement at our college? What solution would the college present in our report at the next statewide meeting?

After so many weeks, it was obvious that if anyone had come up with a retention idea, they were too chicken to mention it. Evidently, untried ideas were pretty scary items at state agency meetings. We were still discussing the status quo; it was safer that way.

I liked ideas. I loved the excitement as new thoughts and possibilities occurred to me. And I liked solving problems, but I liked solving them on my own. Creative ideas seldom flourished in a group. Co-workers found it safer to shoot down others ideas rather than to take a chance and offer one of their own.

I began to think about student retention on my own. Like the others on the committee, I’d watched students come to the registration window, fill out the drop form, and then walk out the door. As I thought through the drop process, I’d come up with a simple idea. I had worked out the design for a form and a plan of how it would work. I’d done this on my own, at home, completing the work the night before the meeting.

What I had created was a good and a creative design, but the next morning as I gathered my presentation materials, a wave of nausea washed over me. I stood holding on to the entryway table. My knees were shaking.

A community college couldn’t have that many thieves, could it?

“I’ve got to go to work, and I’ve got to attend that meeting. This is a good design. I need it to be successful if I’m ever going to get anywhere at the college,” I said to myself.

Finally, I gathered my purse, the presentation, my nerve, and my keys and headed to work. My mind raced as I drove. It was one of those scary trips where I arrived safely, but had been so intent on my hopes and my fears that I didn’t remember making the trip.

My fear for the Stop Form I’d designed was a rational fear. I had lost other ideas during my years at the college — most recently, an idea for a new degree program. Those department managers had used my idea to boost their own careers without giving me any credit. One day, there it was in the college newsletter: a new degree program, MY program, the one that I had presented in detail. It was attributed to one of the instructors on the committee I’d presented to. There was no mention of me as the program’s originator.

I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of my stupidity. That couldn’t happen again, could it?  A suburban community college couldn’t have that many thieves.

This time, I presented the Stop Form to a different committee and different managers. Darcie Martin and Chuck Herzog had both served on the other committee. Darcie, as far as I could tell, was honest.

In fact, I suspected that Darcie had placed the newsletter with the article about my stolen idea into my college mail. I was glad she would be at the meeting, but my confidence in college management was not high.

Don’t let them take my work

I stopped in the restroom on my way to the meeting, and locked myself into a stall. I tried to calm my racing heart while surrounded by the noise of running water, the roar of hand dryers, and students slamming stall doors.

“Dear God, don’t let them take my work,” I prayed.

No magic calm descended. The noise in the restroom forced the prayer out of my mind. I walked out into the hall, and on to the meeting.

The meeting began and dragged on. I listened to what the others had to say. I was afraid to look at anyone, afraid that someone had finally come up with a new idea and that their presentation would ruin my chance.  But there still weren’t new ideas, and finally the meeting was ended.

This was my moment. As people began to shift away from the table, I found my voice.

“Dean Joey, do you remember the question I asked you at our last meeting?”

“No, Linda, I don’t,” she said.

The dean was busy gathering her notes. She was ready to leave and didn’t bother to look up.

“When I met with you and Ryan, I asked what we can do to stop students from dropping classes, and what can we do while the student is still standing at the registration counter.”

The dean sighed. I flushed. Darcie Martin looked embarrassed.

For a moment my confidence failed me.

“Well? What can we do?” Dean Joey asked impatiently.

Condescension and arrogance always get my Irish up.

“I decided that we needed to stop the student right before he filled out the drop form. I have designed a prototype. It’s called the Stop Form.”

I passed the design for the Stop Form down the table to her.

I explained that the Stop Form was intended to help the college get the student to think about what he was doing by dropping a class or by dropping out of college. I explained that the student was to fill out the Stop Form before they filled out the drop form. The Stop Form gave the student other options and ways to get help to continue his education, instead of dropping his classes. If the student did drop the class, the Stop Form would make it easier for college advisors or the registration department to reconnect with the student about returning to school.

The dean wasn’t looking at me, but she was listening. Finally, she looked at the Stop Form and froze in place.  For a few minutes she studied the form, and then she said quietly, “This is good. This is very, very good.”

Dean Joey turned and gave me her full attention. She handed the form around the table. It traveled from manager to manager, until they had all seen it.

“Linda, you deserve a raise,” Darcie Martin said, glancing up from the form.

“I think so too, Darcie,” I said.

The tight knot in my stomach relaxed and hope began to replace fear. Things were going as I planned. I could receive recognition; maybe a change in job classification or a raise. If the Stop Form was sold as a product, I might earn an extra income.

“When…” my boss Ryan began. He stopped to think, cleared his throat, and began again.

“Where did you do this work?” he asked.

“I know you don’t want me to do work for other college events in the office. I did this last night at home,” I replied.

Ryan worked hard at not looking belligerent, but it was difficult. He frowned and lapsed into silence.

There were a few more comments, and after question or two, the Stop Form was passed back to me and the meeting ended.

I went back to my office. I had handled that meeting so that no one else could claim that they had any part in designing the form. Whatever happened next, at least the form couldn’t be stolen.

Within five minutes, Ryan was standing at my desk.

“Could I see the form? Chuck Herzog thinks that he can improve the artwork for the stop sign.”

Was his manner less hostile? I handed him the form and he left without another word. My first hope was to transfer away from his aggressive management style.

Everything was going as planned.

“I’ve had some heavy losses here, but I think that this time I have a winner,” I thought.