Gone With Two Flashes

Risa Gorelick describes her nightmare upon the theft of her intellectual (and other) property.


August 20, 2007

We’ve all heard the stories of various professors who warned us of keeping extra copies of our dissertation drafts in a Ziploc bag in the freezer -- just in case something were to happen.

When I wrote my dissertation a few years ago, I never resorted to the frozen dissertation. Instead, I kept one copy on my home computer, another on my laptop, a third on my office computer, and, thanks to the ease of sending files via e-mail, I dispatched a copy to my trusted, long distance friend; I think I had other copies on a local friend’s computer. Additionally, there were multiple disk copies on various (now obsolete) floppies and zip drives kept in a number of locations. I learned quickly to save files with dates embedded in the names so I could tell which version was the most current one. So if my house burned to the ground or my whole town was magnetically tangled in a weird sci-fi meltdown, there would be at least one surviving copy of that dissertation.

Once the dissertation was completed, defended and revised, the fear of losing it subsided. There is, after all, a copy on file with the Library of Congress, and I could always order a copy from UMI dissertation services. The paranoia eased as the nightmares of not really finishing the dissertation and having to start all over again with a new Chapter One began to be a thing of the past. While the dissertation still contains some unpublished chapters that every now and again get glanced at to see if they meet the criteria of a certain call for proposals, new research projects have replaced the one that hung over my head.

So I began to research and write on new items and topics, as most who have gone through the dissertation process will admit to having nervous twitches every time they hear a catchword or phrase from their former project and need to move on. For me, it was “community” (or “the ‘C’ word,” on days I couldn’t even bear to say the whole name). And while I’m still interested in various communities and their connection to writing, writing processes and writers, it was time to move on to bigger and better projects.

I was starting a new book-length project and already had an interested publisher in it. So, after teaching the first half of the summer, I had the rest of the summer mapped out for me. In addition to the book project, I planned on revising a conference paper to expand it to a full length article and send it out for publication. And a chapter of the dissertation was being reworked for a peer reviewed journal.

Once the dissertation was behind me, paranoia about my scholarly work subsided. After all, who besides me would be interested in it (with the exception of my department chair, dean, those who review my work for tenure, and the journals/publications to whom I send my work)? No need for Ziploc freezer bags except to save the blackberries growing in the backyard that I couldn’t eat fast enough before they went bad. No need for multiple copies all over the country on various computers in the age of flash drives, when one could save almost the entire content of one’s computer on a one inch stick of 2 gigabytes, right? Every now and again I could e-mail a copy to my campus PC to have an additional back up, but with a laptop and two flash drive back-ups, I thought I was being overzealous with my system. This way, I could bring a flash drive to the library or my boyfriend’s place and plug in there rather than lug the laptop with me. The ease and portability of flash drive technology must be saving lots of ABDs much anguish and worry over their dissertations and other projects.

But then it happened -- in a flash, so to speak -- and I couldn’t have been more wrong. I returned home from a night at my boyfriend’s place and noticed a light left on and an interior door left open. At first, I didn’t think much of it. I turned off the light and shut the door. Then there were some items knocked over in the bathroom that I picked up and wondered for a minute how it happened, but didn’t really stop to think too long about it. Instead, I returned some phone calls, made some strong coffee, and then decided it was time to get to some writing done. I walked into my home office to turn on my computer and stopped short.

Where’s my laptop??? While it was a functioning laptop, I hardly ever unplugged it from the wall and the DSL modem -- I used it mostly as a desktop, as it was much newer and faster than my dissertation desktop that runs at a dinosaur’s pace. I had sent an e-mail right before leaving the night before, so I know it was there on my desk when I left. But it wasn’t there now. And I stood there dumbfounded.

I grabbed the phone but wasn’t sure who to call. I finally managed to remember 911 and got a dispatcher, to whom I told what had happened. The dispatcher connected me to the local police, who asked a number of questions and then wanted to know if I was in the house. “Yes, I’m in the house,” I said— “Should I not be?” I was told I may wish to wait outside for the police to arrive. Given that I’d been in there an hour, if someone was still in the house, I think I would have noticed. Still, I opened up my front door and waited in front of my house for a few minutes until they got there. The two officers went through my house and thought it was odd that someone would come in only to take a laptop that was two years old. My two back-up flash drives were also missing as was the power supply to the laptop. But the person(s) who took my computer were kind to leave me the DSL and printer connections and the other items in my office.

I told the cops that I am an academic and that all of my research was on the computer and flash drives. They asked if someone in the office was “out to get me” or if I had a disgruntled co-worker or student. I had finished teaching two summer classes the week before and all of the students had passed, so I didn’t think a student would attempt to rob me. And if a colleague really wanted to get me, s/he would have his/her chance as I was up for my fourth-year tenure review in a few weeks. As one of two compositionists in my department, I doubt any of my colleagues would want to sabotage my research or career. They’re mostly concerned that I publish in blind peer-reviewed journals.

Upon further examination of my house, the robber(s) stole my checkbook, cash, traveler’s cheques, some small electronics, a majority of my jewelry and watches -- and a pillow case off of my bed to put the loot in as they left. What they didn’t take, they returned to the drawers and closets, so I guess I’m fortunate that I had relatively thoughtful and neat robbers. The police haven’t been very helpful, but I’ve learned that there had been more than 20 robberies in my neighborhood in the previous week or so. The police also told me that fewer than 13 percent of robbery victims ever get any items recovered. While I was devastated that my grandmother’s jewelry was gone, I was sickened that my scholarly research had disappeared without a trace.

In the sleepless weeks following the robbery, I have met more of my neighbors than I had in the previous three years of living here. Some are nice; some seem rather odd; all are scared about becoming the next victim of a burglary. My passport, Social Security card, and birth certificate are locked in a safety deposit box at a nearby bank, which means I can’t decide on a moment’s notice to grab a flight to Paris, but I can live with that. I’ve also had an alarm system installed and no longer think of opening up a window to let in some fresh air. I haven’t been able to sleep more than two or three hours a night—even after the alarm system was installed. I feel violated and angry, and wonder how much therapy it will take before I am able to sleep through the night at home.

It’s hard to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and start working on the book project and revisions again -- as much of what I did is gone and would have to be started anew. Looming deadlines float over my clouded head.

Perhaps those professors who put their dissertations in the freezer were on to something, though the police said that most thieves look in freezers and refrigerators for valuables. As a writing specialist, I have spent much time dealing with plagiarism. I never really considered someone physically stealing my computer, files -- my work -- as an act of plagiarism, but it is. I’m not sure where it’s safe to put one’s intellectual property. Laptops and flash drives are easy to steal. Thieves look in freezers for cash, jewelry and other valuables. Most non-college educated thieves would probably laugh at seeing an ABD’s dissertation chapters or an assistant professor’s articles under ice. If one can leave it on the university server, that is an option, but our server limits the amount of space available so large texts may not fit there. One can e-mail files to oneself, as I’ve done in the past, but then one must keep track of various drafts, e-mail accounts, and files, and deal with the limited space issue as well.

I’m not sure I have a better answer. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that someone would think to break into my house and rob me. (After all, I was in grad school for nine and a half years; what could I possibly have that someone would want?) The laptop and flash drives are long gone, I’m sure. I just hope whomever took them wiped out the drives, as there’s also a concern now not only of intellectual property loss but of identity theft. I will never attempt to do my own taxes online, as I did on my laptop this year. Credit bureaus have been notified and watches were issued to my accounts; new credit card numbers and bank accounts were also issued, too. There’s a lot of paperwork victims of robberies must muddle through. Trying to remember PINS and passwords to reset bills to internet services and EZ-PASS was a nightmare.

I can’t totally protect myself from becoming a victim of another crime.

So do I contemplate putting my research on ice? Maybe I should resort to an obsolete computer no one would want or—better yet—a typewriter may be worth considering. While I’m not the most technically advanced person in my field, I don’t think I’m ready to abandon technology—I cannot fathom revision without a computer. I like the idea of flash drives. Unless there’s a fire, flood, theft, or one manages to run it through the washer/dryer, flash drives offer portability, but as technology becomes smaller, it is easier to steal or misplace. Laptops are also convenient. But I will no longer resort to only having my research at one location—home, office, or elsewhere. E-mailing files is probably the best way to make sure one has access to them in a flash, so to speak, when one’s flash drive goes missing.


Risa P. Gorelick is an assistant professor of English at Monmouth University and co-chair of the Research Network Forum at the Conference on College Composition & Communication.


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