Month: October 2004

Elbow’s Economics

For argument’s sake, I want to return to the reductive old liberal education versus vocational education binary. On the one side, we hear that higher education is credentialing and job training; that the mission of someone who teachers first-year writing in college is to prepare students for writing research reports in their future courses and for careers of memo-writing. Composition and the university exist to help the student serve the economy. On the other side, we hear that higher education is self-development, a fostering of critical consciousness, a preparation for individual political action and self-actualization; that the mission of someone who teaches first-year writing in college is to help students to realize their potential, to help students become better people, to help students understand how they might change the world around them.

Not bad for a prose caricature, right? It’s good fun to try to funnel disputes in composition into this hopper and see how they line up, even if we all know that It’s Not That Simple. But there are still important concerns to take from that reductive binary, and the most significant one is the structuring of economic activity as somehow societal versus cultural activity as somehow individual. The (largely structuralist) vocationalists tend to take an assimilationist view, asking how students might change themselves to fit into the hierarchies of the university and the job market, whereas the (largely romantic) liberal-education folks tend to take an accomodationist view, asking how students might better themselves in order to maximize what they get out of their surroundings. (Obviously, some citations here might serve to strengthen my argument, but I’m a lazy, lazy boy, dear reader, so let me offer you some names and ask you to peg them into the appropriate holes: David Bartholomae, Lisa Delpit, Janet Emig, Linda Brodkey, James Kinneavy, Kenneth Bruffee, Linda Flower. Responses / thoughts / observations?) If the student is to work for the world, she must first change herself according to its dictates; if the student is to change the world, she must first understand herself on her own terms within the world.

Such binaries may be why many composition teachers include both personal essays and research essays in their syllabi. But what I’m getting at is that there are hidden messages sent: many composition teachers want to say “Write for yourself” when they assign the personal essay, and “Write for the world” when they assign the research essay. The thing is, writing for the world is often the only assignment that is understood to have some future productive economic value. In the contemporary mainstream economic understanding, “being yourself” is a consumptive practice. Economic production (unless you’re a member of the celebrity class) requires an abnegation of self.
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And You Feel Like Dancin’

I recently found a cache of old mix tapes I’d made in high school. Lots of hiss and lousy recordings — I think some of them were third- or fourth-generation cassette-to-cassette dubs — but they brought back some memories, and I finally caved in and did some searching at Apple’s online iTunes Music Store, and, well, I splurged a little. Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, Black Flag, Government Issue, Circle Jerks, and of course the Dead Kennedys:

So it’s Halloween
And you feel like dancin’
And you feel like shinin’
And you feel like letting loose

Whatcha gonna be
Babe, you better know
And you better plan
Better plan all day

Better plan all week
Better plan all month
Better plan all year

You’re dressed up like a clown
Putting on your act
It’s the only time all year
You’ll ever admit that

I can see your eyes
I can see your brain
Baby, nothing’s changed

You’re still hiding in a mask
You take your fun seriously
No, don’t blow this year’s chance
Tomorrow your mold goes back on

After Halloween
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Zuboff, Maxmin, and Elbow

In The Support Economy, Zuboff and Maxmin offer “metaprinciples” for what they call the new “distributed capitalism.” I’ll quote some of the more interesting ones here.

  • All value resides in individuals. […] Individuals [rather than enterprises] are recognized as the source of all value and all cash flow. […] Distributed capitalism thus entails a shift in commercial logic from consumer to individual, as momentous as the eighteenth-century shift in political logic from subject to citizen.
  • Distributed value necessitates distributed structures among all aspects of the enterprise. Value is distributed, lodged in individuals in individual space. This is the common origin for corresponding distributed structures in every aspect of the enterprise. It necessitates distributed production, distributed ownership, and distributed control.
  • Relationship economics is the framework for wealth creation. Distributed capitalism creates new wealth from the essential building blocks of relationships with [perhaps ‘among’?] individuals. Using the new framework of relationship economics, enterprises […] invest in commitment and trust in order to maximize realized relationship value.
  • All commercial practices are aligned with the individual. Under distributed capitalism, commercial practices are aligned with the interests of individuals […] . This is operationalized by a strict dictate that cannot be compromised: no cash is released […] until the individual pays. […] Cash flow is thus the essential measure of value realization.
  • New valuation methods reflect the primacy of individual space. New approaches to valuation emphasize the intellectual, emotional, behavioral, and digital assets that enable infinite configuration, sustain alliances among enterprises, and nourish relations of deep support with individuals. (321-323)

Now, some of this sounds like the bad old new-economy cheerleading, and I wonder how much of that comes out of Maxmin’s corporate background (founder and Chairman of Global Brand Development, former CEO of Volvo UK and Laura Ashley, et cetera) — but if you read closely, there’s some genuinely revolutionary stuff in there.
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Economics & 2-Year Colleges

I’m wondering tonight about connections between the changing face of the economy and the changing face of higher education. Howard Tinberg writes, “With a student body roughly split between those who intend to transfer to four-year institutions and those who plan to go directly into the workplace, and with a faculty whose background reflects both academic training and workplace experience, the community college cannot afford to ignore the critical question, What kinds of knowledge do we want our students to leave us with? [. . .] Am I endowing my students with insights into historical methods? Or am I providing them with more generalizable skills, appropriate for the workplace?” (I don’t have the page number handy, but I finished his book, and the stuff that actually deals with the specifics of community college education is fascinating, and somewhat more engaging than the stuff that rehearses composition’s understanding of itself as a field and a practice.) The workplace skills question is something I keep coming back to, perhaps because it’s the most obvious link between education and economy, and I want to firmly fix it in place in order to allow myself to navigate other perhaps more subtle links.

This is because I believe that our so-called information economy is far more dependent on education than any previous economic system, and also because there’s a growing inversion of roles, where economic concerns have an ever-increasing stake and involvement in the day-to-day practices of higher education. I’m well aware of the dangers of mistaking correlation for causation, but I think the way the economy is changing is deeply linked to the way education is changing — and I want to believe that, as an educator, my practices might help to make a difference (however small) in helping to lessen economic inequality. Here’s how Shosha Zuboff and James Maxmin view the changing economy: “managerial capitalism and its handmaiden, transaction economics, have sown a harvest they cannot reap. They helped to set into motion the large-scale historical forces of mass literacy, extended education, mass consumption, increased health, universal communication, and unlimited information access that propelled people toward lives of greater richness, diversity, longevity, and ultimately individuality” — however, “the enterprises of managerial capitalism could go no further. Their allegiance to the confining precepts of transaction economics, their pernicious inward focus, and their intractable contempt for individual end consumers render them institutionally incapable of reaping the new wealth that arises from this changing structure of consumption” (Zuboff 286). Zuboff teaches at Harvard, and I think the Ivies are going to be the last institutions to perceive the increasing effects that economic concerns have on higher education: they’re protected by massive endowments, and class privilege creates a certain willful blindness. From my own experience at a state university that has suffered immense budget cuts, however, I might argue that state-dependent public institutions, either two-year or four-year, are going to be the ones much more attuned to how economic concerns affect them.

So now I wonder: can the history of the two-year college tell us anything about economic change?
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The Comment Spam Flood

Like other folks, I’ve been inundated with comment spam over the past weeks: since my last post, I’ve added over a hundred URLs to my blacklist, and have deleted over six hundred comment spams. Is it time to ditch Movable Type? Hm. I’ve got a workable Drupal install and a workable WordPress install, but I’m not sure. I’m using Jay Allen’s most excellent MT-Blacklist plugin, which is a community-based solution that hits back against comment spammers by blacklisting them, rather than ducking the spammers by presenting a small target, as Drupal and WordPress do. (I don’t want to make potential commenters register: to do so, I think, would curtail some of the more spontaneous and interactive qualities of weblogs.) Maybe it’s an Army thing, but I’m much happier calling in fire on the people who are shooting at me than I am just ducking their fire.

Anyway: sorry for the hiatus. Went down to DC for my cousin’s wedding this past weekend (having one’s clan out on the dance floor and all singing along to Hank Junior’s “Family Tradition” is a fine thing; a raw bar at the reception with oysters and clams on the half-shell is even finer) and got to hear all sorts of wonderful gossip about the misdeeds of the children of national political figures past and present (c’mon, I’m dying to share: email me for the dirt on whose kids did what), and then this week was midterms week with student conferences, and, uh, well: How ’bout them Red Sox?

Yes, on Thursday, there were some class attendance issues. The students who actually made it to class related stories of trees set on fire, swimming in the nasty campus goose-poop pond, being strafed by police capsaicin bullets, and running from police helicopters. Ah, college life.

I’ve taken all my weblog entries, edited out the irrelevant stuff, and tried to hang them — sequentially — on the bones of the prospectus. It took a while, and I’m pretty happy with the results: so far, I have 75 single-spaced pages of good dissertation material, for which I need to fill in the gaps. Somebody give me a high five, wouldja?

And, yes, finally, the girls have settled down.

Screaming Cat Freak-Out

So Tink was out on the deck today, sniffing around around in the leaves, and she finds this one spot she got really curious about. Lots of up-close sniffing, whiskers a-twitching, the tail going and everything. There’s been a fat squirrel raiding the birdfeeders, and I think that’s who she smelled — but unfortunately, Zeugma came up right beside her just when she was sniffing this odd scent, and startled her terribly, so much so that Tink hissed at Zeugma and bolted inside. Zeugma, apparently thinking it was a game, gave chase, and before I could follow, there arose from the living room an absolutely unholy commotion: not just yowling or growling or spitting, but screams like I’ve never heard cats make, like as loud as people screams. The screams were still going on when I got in there, Tink with her ears flat back against her head and her tail all bottle-brushy, and Zeugma — having realized that it wasn’t a game — spitting back with the Halloween-cat arch and bristle. They tore off into another couple circuits around the apartment until I was able to scoop up Zeugma and close her in the bedroom. Tink was hiding under the kitchen table, and she started screaming at me — really, it was scary how loud she got — as soon as I came in the room, so I backed off, and she dashed behind the dryer, where she hid all afternoon, growling when I got too close.
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Jacques Derrida Est Mort

Hang your head and put on your black beret: the infuriating, impish, and dazzling Jacques Derrida has passed away.

His was the first really tough and rewarding writing I encountered in graduate school, and like a lot of other people, I think I really learned how to read from him. I’m sure there’ll be many remembrances and encomia in the next few days; I just think of that passage about “the shadow of the book, the third party between the hands holding the book.”

Clancy’s Birthday

It may be that she’s trying to keep it quiet, since she’s (ahem) passing a significant milestone, but I hope you’ll go on over to Clancy’s site and wish her a happy birthday.

You didn’t really think you could keep it quiet, did you, Clancy? 😀

(p.s.: On that big milestone birthday, I’ll again offer the hope that folks might go out and rent the cheesy sci-fi classic Logan’s Run — but, hey, if not, cake’s a good thing too. Best wishes, Clancy!)

Asking for Essay Feedback

Since I’ve made such big changes to my syllabus, I decided to write Essay 1 along with my students, and I’m hoping for feedback from you, dear readers and colleagues.

The essay requirements posed to my students, further detailed here, are as follows: in a minimum of 750 words, and being (probably) a first-year student in a new environment, discuss how people perceive you here at UMass versus how you were perceived at home. Use the zip-code-generated demographic data from’s House and Home Web site to expand your discussion and talk some about consumptive practices. Get off campus and do some situated shopping-related ethnographic research. Read a short essay (either Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Science of Shopping,” about retail anthropology, or David Guterson’s “Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured,” a nice bit of reportage on the Mall of America), and connect it to your experience.

Draw some theoretical conclusions that frame the particulars of your lived experience. Your audience for this essay consists of your classmates; consider this essay as one way of introducing yourself to them, since they’ll be required to read it.

So: for my essay, I’d be grateful for critiques, feedback, criticism, and any ideas about how to improve it. Along with the process work (giving students points for revisions made between drafts), I’ve told students that I’m grading their essays on content, structure, style, and their mastery of both innovation and conventions. I hope you might offer me comments based on those criteria, or, also, comments that might suggest useful alternative critera for grading essays. (It’s 1,701 words, more than double the minimum I required from them: what could I cut?)

Here goes, and my thanks:

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