Image courtesy of Images Money

The other day, I read this post about a photographer named Kris who posted a prize-winning photo of the shadow of Mt. Fuji on Reddit’s subreddit /r/pics only to find his joy for getting a huge amount of upvotes to be taken away by his photo being shared without his permission or attribution on various social media networks. I won’t get into the whole story since you can read about it on his post, but one of the comments on his blog regarding this story really stuck with me. The person wrote, “Your image was not “stolen” yet. Nobody is turning a profit on it.” There are two distinct things that came to mind after reading this:

  1. For most people, the inherent value in something is in what you can get in exchange for it.
  2. For most people, profit refers to monetary gain.

In this situation, the commenter believes that the photographer took the photo to make money. Since other people are not making money from it, there is no problem with those individuals sharing that photo as long as they are not making money from it. My problem with this is that the notion of value and profit are not just about physical items such as cars and computers, but intellectual properties such as writing and ideas.

Going back in history, people would grow food for their families and whatever was left over, they would sell. Their primary goal for growing was for the food itself, not so they could sell it. The value was in the sustenance it provided. In this situation, Kris takes photos for a living, but his value in photography is in the creation process. He sells photos to pay for the chance to continue what he is doing. If it didn’t, he likely would continue taking photos, but would take an additional job to pay the rent. He posted this image to get feedback on what he perceived to be a nice image. He is proud of what he has created and wants to share it. When others take his photo and share it without giving him the due he richly deserves, you are robbing him of that opportunity. This is where the idea of profit gets distorted. You don’t have to make money for something to be profitable. In the 80s, the decade of decadence, people were not satisfied with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, they wanted to outdo them. Money was king and in many ways it still is. However, things are changing in this networked world. It isn’t as easy to demonstrate your value by having a fancy car if no one can see you in it. Recognition has become the new currency. If you can create something ‘viral’ on the internet, you can take your place in the world. In situations like this, your car doesn’t get stolen, your content does. Take a look at sites like Buzzfeed and others who aggregate (often stolen) popular online items and post it so others will visit their site. When you read what happened with Kris’ image on Facebook, you get what I mean. I am not saying that Kris was striving for this form of profitability, but certainly others did profit from it.

How did we end up here? How did our understanding of value and profit become so distorted? I believe that our system of assessment in school is partly to blame. We are trained as students to believe we do work to get marks. High marks equals a better job which leads to a better life. That means the value of what we do for school, such as assignments, is in what we can get out of it, that is marks. The value in the process and the product itself is completely lost. Marks become our profit. We only have profitability if we have good marks.

What can we do about it? To start with, we need to make changes in how we create assignments. We need to focus the value on the process and the created product. Some teachers use blogs to share what students have created with the outside world. Others create magazines or videos that have meaning outside of evaluating their progress. Moving into the world of critical pedagogy, what we learn and create in the classroom changes the situation outside of the school for ourselves and others. These may be used for evaluative purposes, but the focus becomes the value and profit inherent in the process and product itself. Creative capital.

I had a fairly frank discussion the other day with a student who wanted to know how they were doing compared with the other students. This bothers me every time I hear it. It comes back to how we have made the classroom a competitive environment. We set value through badges, marks, and levels turning them into currency for profit. It’s not just students either. Parents, administration, governments, employers, and news outlets focus on grades as the new ‘fancy car’, showing your status in the world. The problem is it just drives people to lose the ability to value the process and the content. I wish I could come up with a way to do away with marks, grades, and levels, but I know it will never happen. I can only hope that my students begin to understand what is truly valuable, that is learning, which can give them real profit, understanding.

What can I do? I have been developing and using my first week lessons to focus on this idea of value and respect to have students think about what is really important. It is a work in progress, but I am already seeing the results from it. My students consistently mention to me and in my evaluations that I treat them as a ‘real person’ and with respect. Students feel comfortable enough to mention to me when they are not happy about something, but they do it respectfully, not just to complain. I take what they say to heart, and sometimes it hurts, but I need it to improve. To me, the value in my teaching is in seeing my students grow, and not just in their language ability.

To add one additional point related to above, I feel us as teachers on social media need to be careful not to participate in the same thing that happened to Kris and his photo. When we learn something from someone else on Facebook, Twitter, or in a blog post, we need to give credit to the person who shared it with us. I have seen people take information posted from myself and others and create something that gives them credit without mentioning where they got it from. Yes, the information is ‘out there’ for all to find and we are not legally obligated to credit it, but when we do this, we demonstrate to others how we feel about the two points I made above. In a sense you are ‘stealing’ their ‘profit’ by not allowing them to gain from it in the modern currency of recognition. It seems petty, but I feel it isn’t. We are respecting others enough to say, “Thank you” and giving room for others to do the same.

1 thought on “Profiting

  1. Another great post on the importance of respect. I love your elegant style and the parallel you draw between something happening outside the ELT world and the world itself. I like the fact that you don’t only criticize but offer a solution. Thanks for sharing this. Hana

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