- February 03, 2016
Note: The style of this article is satirical.
Over the years, many a younger scholar has turned to me and asked, “How can I make an original contribution to my field when so much has already been written about it?” With the same urgency but with different intent, many an older colleague has asked, “How can I write something that can make me rich and famous?”
The answer to both these questions can be found in a 1932 film, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” In the movie, Academy Award nominee Paul Muni plays a decent man who is wrongly imprisoned and, after escaping from a brutal chain gang, is forced to live the rest of his life on the run. In the final scene, when asked by his former girlfriend how he survives, from out of the darkness Muni hauntingly replies, “I steal.”
That, my younger and older colleagues, is the answer you have been seeking.
The first step is, of course, research. Scour the shelves of your university library, poring over dusty journals in your field or books with older bindings, looking for that often elusive volume that contains an unusual and overlooked take on a familiar topic. For the more squeamish, there are databases. Dead authors are best to choose since they’re unlikely to read your piece when it’s published and then annoy you with petty complaints about the priority of their discoveries. But even newer works will do as long as they were published by minor publishers whose small size and budgets precluded giving their authors the visibility they deserved and would otherwise have received in a more just universe.
Once you’ve settled on the topic you’ll write on, you need to buttress your argument with copious endnotes to suggest you’ve done your homework and are thoroughly familiar with the literature that relates to your subject. Remember: you are simply borrowing an idea (how many original ideas are there really?) and using it as a stimulus for your own creative imagination and a boost for your lagging career (another effect of an unjust universe). If you already have an established reputation, no one will question the legitimacy of your work since you will have already demonstrated your bona fides. Should the editors at a journal catch you at your game, simply say you must have “missed” the source that preempted your findings and then go on to resubmit your paper to another journal with less perspicacious outside readers.
If you’ve chosen to produce a book and the topic is relatively specialized, the harried and underpaid acquisitions editor at the publishing house will probably be unable to judge if your work has merit. When he or she then asks you to suggest the names of potential readers, be sure to recommend a couple of your friends (with the favor of course to be returned when they submit their manuscripts). Ditto for the blurbs on the jacket when your book is published.
The shorter people's memories are and the longer the time that has elapsed since the earlier work on the same subject appeared (or, better yet, went out of print), the greater the chance your new article or book will be not only be published but even greeted with loud critical acclaim by respected critics who invariably have short memories and have long since forgotten the earlier work, assuming they ever read it in the first place.
The author, Dr. Stephen Bertman, is Professor Emeritus of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Canada’s University of Windsor. His books include Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed and Cultural Amnesia: America’s Future and the Crisis of Memory. His original ideas have been ignored and stolen with impunity numerous times.
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