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I teach English as a second language to pre-college adults in the U.S., and I'm interested in the idea of using essays from previous students as examples in a writing class. At a previous institution we used a permission form that students signed giving the university the right to reproduce or modify written work, in part or whole, and with identifying information removed.

However, as an adjunct who will likely work at multiple schools, I would like to have that permission myself as well.

  • What would be the legalities to consider doing such a thing?

  • If I have students' written permission, should I still have permission from the institution to do this?

  • Will a signed statement (in English), given by someone whose understanding of English is demonstrably weak, function the same as any other?

  • Is there a precedent for instructors to gain this permission? As opposed to the institution as a whole.

  • Would a blanket statement applying to all assignments work, or should it be for each individual assignment?

Edited to clarify: I'm interested in both positive and negative examples. Perhaps more so negative ones since the errors produced by international student populations would be more authentic and difficult for me, a native speaker, to reproduce.

I also have no intention of publishing them outside of classroom materials. Anonymous Mathematician made an excellent point that withdrawal of permission would be impossible if I did this. The only foreseeable publishing I can imagine would be as a course pack or teacher's guide given to the institution or other teachers, but I would still want to ask for additional permissions to do this.

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    Whose understanding of English is demonstrably weak? (Sorry.) – Pete L. Clark Dec 28 '14 at 17:09
  • The students' are only in the ESL classes based on a low test score in English language skills. While it doesn't prove that they would not understand the forms they sign, it could be a tricky part. Then again, they sign all sorts of documents with just about any college or university, so I'm not sure. I would probably want to make sure I state that translations could be made available if the English form is not clear. – William Denny Dec 28 '14 at 17:32
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Good question!

I ask students individually by e-mail if I can use their essays as examples for future classes. Almost always they are thrilled and happy. Then again, I only ask people who serve as positive examples. But I think if you explained to an ESL student that they have the bones of a good essay and that you would like to use it as a sample essay for future students to work on to help improve, I think they would be similarly pleased.

This would be more problematic if I wanted to use the examples in a textbook, used negative examples, or if I posted essays publicly on the internet. Then I might want a stronger version of a copyright waiver, such as what your previous school uses.

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    Thanks for your response. I clarified my post to address the issue of publishing and positive / negative examples. I would definitely need negative examples more than positive, but both would be preferable. – William Denny Dec 28 '14 at 17:26
  • I think it's all in the phrasing of how you ask them. If you've used student essays previously and have kept the tone positive and constructive even when dealing with a non-perfect one, then students will have faith that you won't be using their essay to make fun of them. I'd also stick to ones that are relatively impersonal (i.e., that don't discuss their personal/ethnic/religious background). Rather than a blanket request, I'd stick with targetted ones. – RoboKaren Dec 28 '14 at 20:16
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I'm not a lawyer and can't address the legalities, especially for students with a weak grasp of English. I'd imagine it would be best to write a clear, straightforward permission form that gives some explicit examples of what you have in mind in addition to an overall statement. I'd recommend the following principles as well:

  1. Students should be assured that they don't need to agree to this and can withdraw their consent at any time in the future by getting in touch with you. (The main drawback I see to this is that you wouldn't be able to use their work in published teaching materials, since that wouldn't be compatible with withdrawing consent in the future. However, if you have in mind large-scale public distribution or anything that hints of profit, you should really make this explicit anyway.)

  2. To avoid the appearance of coercion, it's best not to ask the students until after the course is over. That way, they won't worry that their decision could affect their grade.

  3. I'd mention this in advance to your department chair in e-mail, not necessarily to ask permission but just to make sure he/she is aware of it. That way you'll find out quickly if the chair considers it a problem, and you'll have the e-mail as documentation if you run into any difficulties later. (Adjunct positions can be precarious enough that it's not worth taking unnecessary risks.)

  4. If you request permission for a small number of carefully chosen essays, you can explain to the authors why each one would be a useful teaching tool. That would likely get a better response than just asking for blanket permission, although it would be more work and cut down on your flexibility.

  • Great response, and thank you. As far as publishing, I edited the original post to clarify my intentions toward publishing the the essays. I would likely include a notice on the bottom of any materials I make to remind myself and any colleagues I allow access that there are limits on usage. – William Denny Dec 28 '14 at 17:25
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A technical but not legal suggestion (as I'm not a lawyer). You can choose a license from Creative Commons and ask your students to release their work in such a license.

Given your needs, you could have something like a CC-BY-SA or CC-BY-NC-SA.

Pros:

  • these licenses are internationally recognized
  • there are many translations (so you can actually let the student understand the terms of the license)
  • you would be given the right to modify the text, print it, share it.

You would have though to release your material with the same license (and I see as a feature, not a bug, but that is a personal opinion): often this is seen as a limitation if you want to publish something, but as long as you don't want to incorporate these excerpts outside classroom materials it's not your problem.

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    This is asking students to grant an incredibly permissive license, far more so than is required for your purposes, so I'd strongly recommend against this unless you discuss the implications with them in detail. There's no way I would have agreed to this as a student. For example, a Creative Commons license would allow anyone to repost the essay on their website to make fun of it or humiliate the author. (Of course the chances of this happening are slim, but I don't think it's a good idea to ask ESL students to authorize anyone to do almost anything with their essay.) – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 2 '15 at 16:16
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    I think that you are right (theoretically), but the same could happen even with a full copyright. From a practical point of view, everyone with access to a text can copy it on the internet and do what they want (and this happens all the time). I'm assuming the teacher would not state the identity of authors, and I'm assuming a general "good faith environment". Copyright does not protect from bad faith or trolls. CC are at least translated in different languages, and this could be helpful. – Aubrey Jan 2 '15 at 16:23
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    Misuse only covers violations of the explicit license terms (such as not attributing it correctly or implying that the author has endorsed this use). You're right that in any case copyright can't prevent some forms of misuse in practice, but I still don't think it's appropriate to ask students to agree to a permanent license that has far-reaching terms they probably haven't thought about. Creative Commons licenses are a great solution when the author wants the work to be distributed as widely as possible and has thought about what that means, but ESL essays rarely fall into that category. – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 2 '15 at 19:02
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    Brilliant idea. I could potentially include a short lesson giving background on CC licenses during a plagiarism / copyright unit. With CC-BY-SA I would be able to compile them into a course workbook or teacher training guide if I or the college choose in the future; with reasonable restrictions. – William Denny Jan 2 '15 at 19:24
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    Secondly, I would definitely encourage students to request that their name be left out; which should remove most of the concern that Anonymous Mathematician brought up. Another one: would this prevent them from using their own work outside of the CC license in the future? Say, if they wanted to publish it or sell it for some reason? – William Denny Jan 2 '15 at 19:40

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