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I am a postdoc and for the past several years I have been teaching a course for which I have designed all of the lectures, seminars, reading lists, etc. A new colleague joined our faculty last year as an adjunct. This colleague is very competitive and ambitious and, unfortunately, appears to see me as a rival for any future tenure-track jobs in our faculty.

Our university uses an online virtual learning environment where we are required to post all teaching materials (slides, recordings of classes, etc.). The platform also tracks the activities of enrolled instructors and students. Faculty staff can auto-enroll in a given course for admin reasons.

I noticed that I had a new enrollment mid-semester, the new colleague. I checked the activity records. That colleague has watched all of the lectures and downloaded all of the slides, reading materials, etc. I was informed by a friend in the faculty that this new colleague now claims to have designed a course on exactly the topic I teach. This is what this new colleague has told the Dean, who will be heading up the hiring committee for a tenure-track job soon (for which teaching this course is a requirement).

Should I report this to somebody? For example, the Dean? Can I even be justified in doing that? I feel that I do not have enough evidence, since I do not know for sure whether this colleague is using my materials or the extent to which they are modified. I do not want to confront the new colleague about it as, based on my very limited interactions, they are quite unpleasant to deal with and would surely twist the narrative somehow.

For context: At my university and in my country, we retain intellectual property over our own teaching materials. Especially for early career academics (most of whom teach, like me, on an hourly paid 'adjunct' basis), our teaching materials are regarded as an important part of our portfolio.

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    Do you have any evidence that they are actually using your slides at all? The title talks about them taking your slides, but there's nothing in the body that directly evidences that. Could they not, for example, have looked at your course to compare to their own and decide whether they thought their own was worth bringing up to the dean? Feb 26 at 9:26
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    You mention the fact that they designed a course on "exactly the topic you teach" as though it is something suspicious, but if I understand correctly teaching this course is a requirement to be considered for tenure. Wouldn't it be totally normal and expected for any potential candidate for this job to prepare a version of the course? Is there anything to suggest they've done anything beyond simply looking at your slides? Feb 26 at 13:52
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    In any event, keep as much of a record as possible- i.e. including screen snapshots etc.- of the fact that the colleague worked through your course in detail. Feb 27 at 8:39
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    Would you not check your teaching materials against the current standard? You might be right or wrong, but you definitely don't have enough information.
    – DonQuiKong
    Feb 28 at 17:46
  • These are all important notes to the question. As specified in the question, I don't have enough evidence or know for sure what the colleague is doing with the materials. @NuclearHoagie, based on your comment I added some extra contextual details to the question as follows: At my university and in my country, we retain intellectual property over our own teaching materials. Especially for early career academics (most of whom teach, like me, on an hourly paid 'adjunct' basis), our teaching materials are regarded as an important part of our portfolio. Feb 28 at 19:05

6 Answers 6

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Everyone's got a different take on politics, including office politics, so for what it's worth:

It's extremely common for members of the same department to share materials for a particular course. It is right to provide a brief acknowledgement during the lecture if one is reusing assets someone else made, but hard to track. You can email your "unpleasant" colleague and try to confirm they used your materials in their run of the course, but their response is likely to be meaningless. They say, "yes", and then what?

Instead: Presumably you report to a faculty member or the chair. If I were in your position, I'd arrange to talk with either your direct boss or the chair. Tell them that, as you think about your future job applications, having (re)designed this course from scratch will be a significant asset. Request an acknowledgement that you did so as part of an annual performance evaluation or some other official memo format.

This may be seen as a somewhat strange request, but I don't think acutely strange. Postdocs should always be thinking about how they're going to land their next job. Once you have this in hand, if you ever apply for other jobs at the place you currently work and are competing against your colleague, there will be little doubt about your contributions to the curriculum.

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    Agreed. It's unknown how this person is utilizing the OP's materials. The OP should ask them first.
    – Parrever
    Feb 26 at 0:29
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    It would be pre-emptive to do so now - maybe counterproductive too as it would look like 'getting your retaliation in first'. But if this matter arose during consideration for the staff appointment mentioned, then yes by all means add clarification on your own course and what may be borrowed from it.
    – Trunk
    Feb 26 at 14:59
  • I believe this is the best answer. It clarifies both that I do not have enough evidence to make any accusation of wrongdoing (if this could even be classed as wrongdoing) but also that I have to be careful with this particular colleague. For context (now added to the question), at my university/country, we retain intellectual property over our own teaching materials and for early career academics (most of whom teach on an hourly paid 'adjunct' basis), teaching materials are regarded as a part of our portfolio which we 'bring' to a permanent job ('my special course' NOT the department course). Feb 28 at 19:08
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While you can complain about it to the dean or others, I doubt that you will get much satisfaction except for one point described below.

The "work product" of an employee is often regarded as the property of the employer, and so specified in contracts, not the employee. That seems to be your situation. You were directed to prepare for and teach the course. It would be different if you were an outside consultant brought in to teach a course already developed by yourself. A complaint that the colleague shouldn't use your course materials would probably be a mark against yourself, not them.

The one troubling aspect however, is your statement seeming to imply that they have claimed to have developed this course themself, along with its materials. This would be clearly dishonest and easily disproven. However, redesigning a course based on existing materials is pretty common and accepted. In some fields some courses need redesign constantly.

And, if the colleague were scheduled to teach the course in the future, it would be natural for them to sit in and look at what is available (your work) as part of their preparation.

You seem to be fighting the wrong fight. If you make it clear that you developed the materials and, thus, contributed to the university and its students, that should be a strong point in your favor going forward whether there or elsewhere. Saying it is yours and only yours gives the opposite impression. You aren't a university of one.

If you seem selfish and self-centered to those doing hiring it won't be helpful. If you are generous with your contributions it will be helpful.

I haven't considered copyright in the above, but, employers generally claim copyright and even patent rights (for such things) for work product of their employees. Your contract may have a clause about this, in fact. Most universities won't complain if you take a course elsewhere, I expect. But if you try to put your own copyright on a work product, I expect the university to complain if it comes to their attention.

Writing a book that might be used in a course is a different matter as the university didn't direct that the book be written, nor do they consider it work product, so the author(s) hold copyright.

Plagiarism would only occur if they took your creative ideas and claimed them as their own. That would assume some things such as that the ideas (not just the materials) were initially yours. That is seldom the case in course materials. Most course ideas have been in existence for a while even when newer pedagogy is used.

You could, of course, properly ask for credit be given to your work in things derived from it. Few would object to that, I think. It would make things cleaner, even in the case of work product done for an employer.

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    From the OP: "For context: At my university and in my country, we retain intellectual property over our own teaching materials. Especially for early career academics (most of whom teach, like me, on an hourly paid 'adjunct' basis), our teaching materials are regarded as an important part of our portfolio." Your answer doesn't seem to be consistent with the OP's statement re: ownership of the materials in question. Feb 27 at 16:49
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    @Sharpenologist, the information you note was added after I made this answer. And for adjuncts, who are treated somewhat like consultants, I'd agree that the rules might not be the same as for regular faculty.
    – Buffy
    Feb 27 at 16:51
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Copycats exist and abound. Unlike research, plagiarism is not so much a topic in teaching, as much of the material is not considered original or rich in fresh ideas.

That is not to say (!) that it is ok to use other people's lecture design without attribution. It just means that there is far less enforcement of citation standards.

You could add a slide to your material stating that you are the author of the material and its design, with the year it was made, similar to copyright. The idea is not to enforce, but to document. Not that it will help much with a truly dishonest colleague (we do not know if this is the case), but it creates a kind of scaffold from which you can work.

Your colleague is competitive. So be it. You do not compete with them, just use the opportunity to reflect if your own self-promotion strategies are up to scratch. Probably they need revamping. People need to know what you are doing and achieving.

When you are in a running competition, it is good to be aware of your surrounding and the runners around you, but it will seriously hamper your performance if you keep nervously looking to the side to see where they are. As in that competition, in the end, you should focus on running your own sprint.

As in the running competition, though, it will be good to have some situational awareness; it will not hurt to be a bit circumspect with your research, strategy, etc., since your colleague's ambition may not be limited to copying your teaching.

This is not invitation to paranoia, but to develop a balance of focus vs. general awareness.

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I was informed by a friend in the faculty that this new colleague now claims to have designed a course on exactly the topic I teach.

Can you please try to establish the veracity of this "claim"?

I mean, has the colleague put his/her new course design on the online virtual environment as you have done? If so, then the Chair of your department can easily determine for themselves what is original about the new course and what isn't ! I'd expect that the new colleague would have made a good few cosmetic changes and a small number of content changes. It's hard to change the true thrust of a coherent course without fundamentally re-envisioning everything. And if re-envisioning everything one might be better off not to look at the work of others.

This is what this new colleague has told the Dean, who will be heading up the hiring committee for a tenure-track job soon (for which teaching this course is a requirement).

How the hell would you know what the new colleague said to the Dean unless you were there at the time - and therefore in a position to casually mention your own work on that very subject, work that you have noticed your new colleague has been studying intently online . . .

If it's simply the word of someone else, do be careful: you may be being set up by the rumor-monger.

Be very careful here.

You've done what you have done on this course - for several years - and you've got a good idea what hangs and what doesn't with students on this course. I am sure you learned a bit along the way and made changes to content, emphasis and manner of delivery of this course. It cannot be perfect but it likely has been more than adequate.

Do not download any course the new colleague puts online and then adopt any of his "bright new ideas".

Just keep your nerve, stick to your own guns and let the powers that be decide for themselves. They'd be fools to choose a bird in the bush over a real bird in the hand. And if they do, you are well out of that department.

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I doubt you'll find any satisfaction pursuing this. In fact, when your chair approaches you and lets you know that a new person will be teaching a course you've taught in the past, and directly asks you to make your teaching materials available to that person, the answer is usually, "yes, of course". This is pretty much true regardless of academic rank

A department has resources, and it uses those resources to accomplish its mission. You are one of those resources, by virtue of your teaching (not necessarily a "typical" postdoc responsibility, but that's beside the point), and a new faculty member would be one of those resources. Not sharing teaching materials when teaching assignments are shifted is simply a waste of resources, and impedes the mission of educating students.

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    I agree with this comment and your sentiment. I would like to note a cultural difference for my context, which I will add to my question. At my university and in my country, we retain intellectual property over our own teaching materials. Especially for early career academics (most of whom teach, like me, on an hourly paid 'adjunct' basis), our teaching materials are regarded as an important part of our portfolio. Feb 27 at 9:36
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If you retain ownership in the intellectual property, I'm hoping that means that you included explicit copyright statements on the documents. If that's the case, then it seems like even a casual observer could notice that the course materials were yours and not the other instructor's. Removing the copyright notice to obscure authorship would be plagiarism and likely a violation of copyright law. Using your work as a basis for their own may also classify as creating a "derivative work" in some cases and jurisdictions, which can run afoul of copyright law unless you've given them an explicit license to do so.

These things apply even if you didn't include explicit copyright notices, but explicit notices make it much easier to prove.

If this instructor can see your course materials then I'm assuming that you can see his. Take a look through his courses and if you see something of yours, have a quick chat with him. Nothing confrontational, just a friendly offer to help them do things the right way. Perhaps something like: "just so you know, the university gets very serious about copyright. If you want to use my materials, we'll have to work out some sort of licensing agreement to ensure we both cover all our bases." You can use that license to require him to acknowledge your work in a way that would eliminate the issues that you are concerned about. If they continue to use your materials without permission, then I would take up the matter with whichever office handles copyright issues at your institution.

I wouldn't be too worried about this other person trying to use your materials to compete against you for a tenured position. It would be pretty obvious when two candidates present the same material. Your content management system has all the logs and timestamps that you need to prove that you created it, in some cases before the other instructor was even hired.

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