I’m Doing It Wrong

I’ve been going on a bit about writing as commodity/product, and how it circulates, and I just this afternoon got through Mankiw’s chapters on monopoly in Principles of Economics, and also read Torill Mortensen and Jill Walker’s wonderful chapter “Blogging Thoughts” (874K PDF) as helpfully recommended by teachtjm. (If it’s not already obvious from this research-dissertation-weblog project itself and the debt of inspiration it owes, I’ve been following Jill’s weblog for a long time, but hadn’t actually taken the time to check out many of her longer writings. Now I wish I’d done so earlier.) I think, taken together, Mankiw and Mortensen & Walker help me figure out some useful things, but also (argh!) add to my reading list.

According to Mankiw, authors are government-created monopolies. (Yes, I have some problems with this, the political and digital media stuff I’ve rehearsed in other posts, but let’s keep moving.) Here’s Mankiw at length:

“[W]hen a novelist finishes a book, she can copyright it. The copyright is a government guarantee that no one can print and sell the book without the author’s permission. The copyright makes the novelist a monopolist in the sale of her novel. . . Authors are allowed to be monopolists in the sale of their books to encourage them to write more and better books.” (318)

I think university plagiarism policies function as a form of copyright protection in the writing classroom. Imagine a hypothetical university that doesn’t punish plagiarism. If a student — let’s call her Jane — knows that she can put the effort into writing an ‘A’ paper that a classmate — Roger, say — can also steal for his own ‘A’ with impunity, that may affect Jane’s desire to write “more and better” papers in the future. The “may” is what’s important, because it’s a question of motivation. I think that if Jane is solely motivated by her desire to get a good education, and believes that she will learn by doing, then she won’t give a hoot what Roger does: dude’s turpitude is his own problem. On the other hand, if Jane is solely motivated by her desire for academic excellence as reflected in grades and class position, then Roger’s plagiarism is harmful to her: in the environment of this hypothetical university, Jane may wonder what the point is of actually writing the paper.

What this little thought exercise demonstrates is that in the production and consumption of writing in the classroom, there are at least two currencies or media of exchange: grades and education. This is why the economic perspective has bedeviled me so; it’s considerably more complicated than I thought it was. (And maybe even more complicated than Bruce Horner suggests.)

I suspect the currencies hardly ever exist exclusively of one another, and that they may apply to much of student writing, even this project right here. Certainly, the two motivations coexist in my reasons for keeping this weblog: my (currently somewhat distant) end goal here is a completed dissertation and thereby a Ph.D. and a job (he types with fingers crossed for luck); my process goal is writing to learn, writing to figure out what I think about what I’ve read, and it helps me to write more coherently if I know that one or two people might actually read some of the things I’m writing, and the reward factor in realizing that maybe this topic — this weird intersection of computers, composition, and class — might actually even be worth reading about is pretty big too. (I’m sure the reaction is common among new bloggers, but I was, like, so totally elated when I saw I actually had comments and readers. You so rock. Yes, you.)

This is where I find Torill and Jill’s thoughts about the complicated relationship among (1) cultural capital as “the currency of scholars”, (2) writing and thinking with computers, and (3) the social network of blogging to be so valuable. The only thing I would add (and I think it’s probably implicit in their chapter) is that social networks establish the value of cultural capital. (John Swales and Charles Bazerman on discourse communities are an informative perspective here.)

One last thing, before I get too tired to type: I was particularly impressed with what Torill and Jill did with Habermas in their chapter, and their mention of the classed nature of the public sphere made me realize I’m going to go beyond The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity in my Habermas readings, and actually pick up The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The reading list grows ever longer. My question would be, for the sake of multiple perspectives, can anyone point me towards some compelling arguments against what Habermas has to say in that text? No matter how much I like an author’s ideas, I always feel better knowing that I’ve at least considered alternative perspectives.

And I never got to the reason for my tongue-in-cheek title for this post. But it has to do with Torill and Jill’s frequent remarks in the chapter about “relatively short posts” and “brief nuggets of thought.”

I’m Doing It Wrong

6 thoughts on “I’m Doing It Wrong

  • June 17, 2003 at 5:09 am

    I haven’t really found any good arguments against Habermas either 🙂

    However, the one big argument against him is that there never really was a public sphere to begin with. The café and salon ideal he holds up as a contrast to the refuedalisation of modern media was never a free and open debate, as it demanded a level of liberty and resources which belonged to the groups who had the same resources as the nobility had in what he considers a different period. This means that there is not really a pendulum of publicity, but one continuous line from feudality to the modern day, only different names to the ruling/controlling classes.

    This also implies that the rationality of thought and conversation is a constant – or non-existant, and in general has a domino effect through all of Habermas’ arguments, pointing out that they are not based on facts, but on ideals, and that his entire discussion is normative.

    But I am not really a Habermas expert – good luck with your search!


  • June 17, 2003 at 10:31 pm

    mike – were you asking for alternatives to habermas’ public sphere? or to phil. dis. of modernity? if the first, then there is a freakin *huge* literature critiquing h’s p.s. the best place to start is with a collection called The Phantom Public Sphere published in 1993 as part of the UMinn Press cultural politics series. the fraser piece that kicks off the volume has become the standard – though to my mind not at all the best – critique. you have seen this, right?

    take care,

  • June 17, 2003 at 11:39 pm

    Torill & mcclain,

    Thanks both for the perspective — from what you say, Torill, the class aspect on both sides (Habermas vs. not-Habermas) sounds like it would be really helpful. mcclain, I’m not familiar with it, and will be at the library tomorrow morning checking it out — I’m a noob as far as Habermas goes, since the institutions I’ve been at have largely favored the composition half over the rhetoric half of rhet/comp, to the point where my most in-depth work with rhetoric has actually been with Classics folks. So, yeah, a couple thousand years’ of catching up to do; I’m thinking most of it will have to wait until after the dissertation.

  • June 19, 2003 at 8:07 am

    Hi Mike: Like Torill, I’d recommend Nancy Fraser as a good re-reading of the public sphere: her book, _Unruly Practices_ does a great job with not only Habermas but Foucualt and Rorty as well. Her newer one (1997), _Justice Interruptus I haven’t read yet but could be good too. Of course, it all depends on how far you want to go down this path. If you’re looking for discussions specific to comp. of Habermas, I’d check out Susan Wells’ article in CCC on the public sphere and/or Faigley’s _Fragments_ which has a whole chapter on him.


  • June 20, 2003 at 11:42 am


    I completed a comp/rhet dissertation at MSU last summer, observing students in another teacher’s class for research, while doing similar projects in my own. If you want to talk about prospectus, etc., and the problems I encounte
    red (and solutions) I would be glad to let you see what I have done.

  • June 22, 2003 at 12:09 am


    That would be terrific — I’d be most grateful for any guidance you could offer.


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