Matthew Sparke sits at the head of a table in a first-floor classroom in the University of Washington’s Smith Hall on a May afternoon and asks the 15 students before him to contemplate a thought-provoking question: Why would an antipoverty project in Africa feel the need to trademark its work?

“Are you afraid someone might steal it?” the red-haired, British-born professor asks with a wry chuckle. Sparke, the winner of a 2007 distinguished teaching award from the University of Washington, displays humor and a boyish sincerity when engaging with his students.

Like many professors, he uses academic jargon like “meta-discourse” and “spatial...

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