Month: July 2004

More Estate Business

Got stuff loaded up in DC two days ago, and the movers got up here to New England tonight. I’ve got a crowded apartment. Being the proud new owner of my mom’s dining room set, I guess I’ll be doing some entertaining in the future. Right now, it’s cutting the plastic and cardboard off of everything; I’m not even going to think about starting on the boxes until tomorrow. With the litigation, we were a bit rushed when we packed everything, and so many of the boxes are less than adequately labeled: as my aunt said, “It’ll be like Christmas. Lots of surprises.”

Anyway. The movers left about an hour ago — they took the stuff from Silver Spring to Annapolis, and then up here, and they’ve got the other half of the truck to unload in New Jersey tomorrow morning — and I’m relaxing for a moment and enjoying a beer. I’m sure that by tomorrow, I’ll be so tired of all this stuff that I’ll be eager to get some reading and writing done.

For now, though, I’m just happy to not have to make that nine-hour drive down Interstates 84, 81, and 83 for a while.

As Marxist as They Wanna Be

I’m about halfway through Zuboff and Maxmin’s The Support Economy now. They continue to point to how the nature of production has undergone major changes in recent years, and cite many statistics and studies to support their contention. For example: in 1997, “31 percent of employees said that they bring work home at least once a week, compared to 20 percent in 1977, while those who say they never bring work home decreased by 16 percent” (125). Furthermore, “68 percent of [The National Study of the Changing Workforce] respondents in 1997 agreed that their jobs require them to work very fast, compared to 55 percent in 1977; 88 percent agreed that their jobs required that their jobs require them to to work very hard, compared to 70 percent in 1977; and 60 percent agreed that there is never enough time to get everything done on the job, compared to 40 percent in 1977” (125).

They couple these observations to an argument that the nature of consumption is undergoing profound changes, as well, from a model of mass consumption to a model of individuated consumption. The Baffler has done brilliant work following, analyzing, and satirizing this shift: anyone who’s read the writing of Thomas Frank will find instantly familiar the results of a survey conducted by “a New York City market-research firm”; namely, that “teens said their most valued traits are ‘individuality’ and ‘uniqueness’ — ‘being truly uniquely themselves'” (169). Zuboff and Maxmin summarize their argument as follows: “In the twentieth century, managerial capitalism created unprecedented wealth with an enterprise logic invented for the dreams of a mass society. It emphasized consumption and mass production. Its success unleashed the large-scale forces associated with health, education, communication, mobility, and so on. These forces transformed populations. They engendered a psychological reformation that imbued many people around the world, and especially within its industrial core, with an abiding sense of individuality and a deep impulse toward psychological self-determination” (174). Now, I’m absolutely dying here to use this passage as the foundation for an economic reading of the expressivist and individualist pedagogies typically ascribed to Peter Elbow (heck, there’s probably a book-length project in there about how contemporary capitalism formed and informed the reflective personal essay assignment; something along the lines of Raymond Williams’s brilliant Culture and Society), but I’ll have to hold off until I think through it more adequately — and there’s also something in there about re-understanding Marx’s arguments that capitalism drives itself into perpetual crisis: the effects of mass production and mass consumption have ultimately begun to destroy mass production and mass consumption.
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Some History

Pending the resolution of my mother’s estate, I’ve been going through some scrapbooks. In the picture below, I’m sure you can guess the identity of the dashing young fellow in the sailboat sweater vest, thoughtfully stroking his chin. Or something.

And, in a later picture, there’s a skinny Brad Pitt on the left (yes, that’s David), and a skinny, uh, well, Uncle Fester on the right.

Maybe eyeliner might help?

Some Reminders

While the Zuboff and Maxmin book is fascinating and insightful, in reading it I sometimes find myself forgetting why I find economic concerns so essential to how I think about writing instruction and its intersection with technology. In a recent edition of James J. Murphy’s A Short History of Writing Instruction, I found some reminders. The book’s final chapter is by Catherine Hobbs and James Berlin, and deals with twentieth-century writing instruction. In the chapter’s second paragraph, Hobbs and Berlin write that “education in a democratic society is a site of contestation over the kind of economic, social, and political formations we want schools to endorse” (248): certainly a familiar argument, but one worth remembering. What I find more interesting (although it’s something I had begun to understand from the brilliant work of Raymond Williams) is their assertion that “The modern high school and the modern comprehensive university took their shapes as part of an economic shift from a laissez-faire market economy of unbridled individual competition to a managed economy of corporate and government alliances and planning” (249).
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Heuristic Response

John at Jocalo has posted a comprehensive and thought-provoking draft of a teaching heuristic as a means of working towards organizing his pedagogical thoughts and writings. I like the hierarchies and sequences he sets up: context and texts certainly seem to be appropriate starting points in the movements from the outside in and from beginning to end, said end — at least in the context of the semester — being evaluation and assessment. (Of course, teachers might hope that teaching and learning never actually end.) I might suggest that John’s category of technology is often difficult to separate from context, but then, that’s not really so much a difficulty with what John’s put together as it is a difficulty with taxonomies in general. (The professor who taught my qualitative research methods seminar noted that the first time you try to code your data, the kitchen sink category is always going to be the one with the most entries. Hence my “Asides” category.) What was more surprising to me, though, was the way that student writing seems to be tucked away into two bullets under “tasks”: I know that John and I teach at very different institutions, with very different types of courses, but student writing, to me, is one of those categories that drives all others when I think about teaching: what are the uses of students’ private writing? Their public writing? Who are their various audiences? How does their writing connect to texts and contexts? And I might ask John whether “collaboration” is precisely the same thing as “peer response,” and from that question I might extend a question about the place of teacher responses to student texts that occur prior to assessment.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t find what John’s done quite valuable. I look at his rubric and my questions, and I think about the recent Comment and Response section in College English (May 2004), where Sharon O’Dair fiercely and rightly upbraided Tim Mayers and Leann Bertoncini for misreading her essay, for missing her point, and for poor argumentation (my reasons for strongly disagreeing with her conclusions in the “Class Work” essay are different from those that Mayers and Bertoncini make, but I very much agree with her response to them), and where Joe Harris was much more (and perhaps excessively) gentle in his response to the strange comments Jennifer Beech and Bill Thelin make on his essay on “Revision as a Critical Practice.” Beech and Thelin seem to desire a course that focuses entirely upon certain elements of John’s “context” category, to the complete exclusion of the “texts” category, which Harris resists, although they completely mischaracterize him as focusing upon “texts” to the exclusion of “context”, absurdly conflating a “critical essay” with “literary criticism” (are essays written in critical pedagogy courses uncritical?).

Also, a common thread running through all of the essays, comments, and responses mentioned above is a concern with the identities and subjectivities of students and teachers. Perhaps that might be another way to extend John’s heuristic, either by setting up a new and separate category, or else by addressing concerns associated with the identities and subjectivities of students and teachers as a context within rather than beyond the classroom. Thanks for the helpful stuff, John: you’ve got me thinking.

Beyond Mass: Distributed

I recently wrote about Rostow’s teleological model of economic development, with its highest or end stage of high mass consumption plus high mass production. I’ve also talked some about how an economy creates subjects and subects constitute an economy (consider some sections of my recent conference presentations, as well as what I’ve been doing with Gibson-Graham.

Zuboff and Maxmin offer an interesting spin on the intersection of these things, suggesting that we’ve already begun to move past simple “mass” consumption and production, and pointing out what that move has to do with the way individuals work in a networked economy of consumption. “In an advanced industrial society,” they write, “consumption is a necessity, not a luxury. It is what people must do to survive. It is the way that individuals take care of themselves and their families, much as hunting and gathering or growing crops were for people of earlier societies. For today’s women and men, consumption decisions encompass everything from education to health care, insurance, transportation, and communication, as well as food, shelter, clothing, and luxuries. Through the consumption of experience — travel, shelter, college — people both achieve and express individual self-determination. No one can escape the centrality of consumption. There is no distinct class of consumers. Everyone is a consumer, no matter what their status or income level” (7). So first, there’s an interesting construction of class; second, while the construction of education as a consumable experience good strikes me as problematic (I still don’t have an adequate understanding of the ways in which students, teachers, institutions, societies, and economies interact to produce and consume education, which may simply indicate that the production/consumption binary cannot be adequately applied to education), I’m happy to see them noting the informatization of consumption in addition to Zuboff’s earlier attention to the informatization of production.
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I’m down in DC again, for my brother’s graduation. The ceremony was held outside today, on the lawn of the prison; David earned his Associate of Arts degree Magna Cum Laude, completed entirely while incarcerated. There were a good number of other inmates there earning their GEDs, and the co-valedictorians talked a lot about second chances. David has tutored many inmates working on their GEDs, and I’m pretty proud of him. (He also serves as recording secretary on the Inmate Advisory Council, and performs other coordinating administrative duties for inmate life, as well.) My friend Jason the brilliant high school teacher delighted David by sending him a fancy multicolored ’04 tassel for his cap and gown, in addition to the plain blue-and-white one the prison gave him.

After the morning ceremony, there was a picnic (each of the graduating inmates was permitted to invite two family members) where family members were allowed to bring in pre-packaged store-bought food. David was conscientious about asking us to bring in enough food to share with a few of his buddies who didn’t have family members coming to the ceremony. I got a lot of pictures; lots of nice people, and it was great to see so many people who conservatives say should be written off and forgotten about (the Department of Corrections educational budget was recently eviscerated) playing with one another’s kids and laughing with one another’s families. One of David’s friends had been in the graduation ceremony the year before: he had been completely illiterate upon entering the prison system, and had taught himself to read largely on his own, managing to do so earn and complete his GED — and he’s several years younger than David.

It was a good reminder to me of how easily education comes to some and not to others, and of the force of will that one doesn’t often see exhibited by more traditional students. It was a good day.

Taylor and Derrida

I’ve recently started Shoshana Zuboff’s The Support Economy (having read her watershed work In the Age of the Smart Machine in Charlie Moran’s seminar on Writing and Emerging Technologies), and in the first twenty-seven page chapter, I’ve already got ten different Post-It notes. This is good, because it’s really helping me think through my economic ideas; this is bad, because it means more notes and analysis to work through for the dissertation.

However. Before I get to go there, I have to sort out my thoughts on Mark C. Taylor. For me, most of Taylor’s book was pretty familiar stuff — I’d read John Casti’s Complexification for pleasure as a new graduate student, and caught on quickly to its intersections with Derrida’s Writing and Difference (although such ideas weren’t terribly helpful in my Chaucer seminar that year). In the last hundred pages of The Moment of Complexity, however, Taylor starts to do some stuff that I found really helpful and relevant to my dissertation work. I’ll quote at length here: “‘Thought,’ Derrida insists, is ‘a dimension that is not reducible to technique, nor to science, nor to philosophy.’ Insofar as it has a goal, the pursuit of thinking is intended to ‘remove the university from ‘useful programs and from professional ends,” and thereby subvert the ‘powers of caste, class, or corporation.’ Thinking, like art, resists technological and economic interests by following an inverse economic logic: to think is to engage in an activity that is useless or even wasteful” (Taylor 253; sorry for the nested quotations). So yes, of course I was grinning and nodding while reading this; Derrida effectively critiques many of the instrumental ways of thinking frequently offered as neoclassical economic rationales for higher education, and in so doing links — for me — the ideas of Feenberg with the ideas of Gibson-Graham and Aronowitz.
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Derailment Recovery

Maybe you’ve been able to tell from my postings (and lack thereof) that my dissertation work has derailed in the past few weeks. Mostly it’s the flippin estate lawsuit that’s burning up my attention and my money and my time, and I’ve lately been short-tempered and irritable and just plain frustrated that this thing’s still dragging along.

Which isn’t to say that I’ve been entirely neglecting my work. I finished Mark C. Taylor’s The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture a while ago, and was halfway through William Greider’s excellent The Soul of Capitalism when someone recalled it to the library. I’ve also just started Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin’s The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism, and the three books share many similar ideas about our economic future in an age of distributed interactions. All three books are hopeful, but in different ways: Taylor and Zuboff and Maxmin seem to be saying, “Here’s what’s going to happen,” while Greider is a little more cautionary, saying, “Here’s what needs to happen.”
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