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.

James Berlin didn’t much care for the teachers who tell students, “Write for yourself.” In his famous essay “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” he performs a massive slam on “Expressionistic Rhetoric,” an “individualistic” rhetoric for which he argues that “the existent is located within the individual subject” (688). Walker Gibson, Donald Murray, and Peter Elbow are all landscaped by Berlin into this philosophy, which I find rather interesting, since all three have played significant roles in the evolution of the UMass Amherst Writing Program. In fact, having come here from Pitt wanting to better understand the Bartholomae-Elbow debate, I’d argue that the UMass Writing Program has a highly reflexive awareness of its own history, and despite the nil mortuis nisi bonum caution, I’ll say: Berlin gets it wrong. Any examination of Peter Elbow’s publication history will squarely debunk the way in which Berlin landscapes him.

Which isn’t to say that I entirely buy what Peter’s selling. He’s a kind and generous man, and anybody who’s met him or read enough of his work understands how insightful he is as a scholar and a teacher, and I love his essays — especially “Embracing Contraries” — but he sometimes does favor the romantic individualism stuff. He’s all about voice, about felt sense, authenticity, the way you feel a piece of writing, and me with my hyper-logical orientation, I quickly get impatient with that stuff. Until now, and until reading Zuboff and Maxmin. Check it out:

“The standard enterprise logic has difficulty embracing the management of intangibles because its assumptions about property rights were institutionalized when assets were mainly physical and financial. These ‘hard’ assets lend themselves to highly specifiable contracts and forms of measurement. In contrast, the intangibles that are the critical success factor for a federated support network [pardon their jargon: basically, they’re talking about their vision for the enterprise of the future] challenge once-settled notions of property rights. They are not only ‘produced’ by individual ’employees,’ but they arise from the ’employee’s’ own personal resources of intelligence, feeling, empathy, commitment, creativity, and so on. In other words, they are fabricated from an ’employee’s’ self.” (Zuboff & Maxmin 367)

Value is not instrumental here; it doesn’t come from the skills learned by the individual in order to assimilate into the job-chasing hierarchy: rather, it follows the individual. Now, I think Zuboff and Maxmin probably aren’t sufficiently interrogating the tastes-and-preferences-based logic of neoclassical economics, but still, it’s an immense step. Check out what else they have to say: “the traditions of property rights associated with the standard enterprise logic no longer adequately describe this new relationship [between participants in a business enterprise in the support economy]. In a distributed structure, authority follows responsibility. We have already seen that production, ownership, and control must be distributed when individuals-as-consumers own the sources of value” (Zuboff & Maxmin 369). Furthermore, “The idea that an ’employee’s’ selfhood is now an intrinsic factor in wealth creation is itself an inversion of the standard enterprise logic, in which the employee was not expected to be an individual at work, but rather a means to a specific and predetermined objective” (367) — or, in other words, an instrument. If Zuboff and Maxmin are right, then Peter Elbow’s romantic individualism has collided with the vocational model of education like one of those you-got-your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate-no-you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter commercials. Zuboff and Maxmin have translated romantic individualism into individuated consumption and used it to set up an economic model that completely overturns Berlin’s structuralist understanding of the economy.

The revolutionary step that Zuboff and Maxmin take is in their linking of the individual to the social, and — since these are the terms by which composition has operated for such a long time — if we admit that composition has an economic component, it’s gonna kick the discipline in the teeth. Consider writing and reading as production and consumption, and dig: “the new consumption wants assistance in the lifelong pursuit of psychological self-determination, as expressed in the needs for sanctuary, voice, and connection. In the support economy, the central product […] draws upon the intangible inputs of the advocacy relationship like integrity, empathy, authenticity, trust, creativity, dialogue, and collaboration — none of which can be specified a priori” (Zuboff & Maxmin 365).

Elbow’s Economics

One thought on “Elbow’s Economics

  • November 1, 2004 at 8:48 pm

    Love this reading, Mike. It may seem an odd move, but I want to draw your attention to Elliot Eisner’s Type III learning objectives. In the context of Skinnerian Behavioral Objectives and Bloom’s Cognitive Objectives, Eisner argues that in expressive learning (such as art and writing), one cannot specify the outcomes in advance. Rather, one can specify a set of conditions likely to produce good outcomes, some of which may be better than the teacher/curriculum planner anticipated.

    This takes us beyond the limitations of structuralism, with its assumption that all components (say of the writing process) could be specified and addressed. It is humanistic, though not especially romantic, in my view.

    I have consciously organized my FYC course along these lines, claiming to my students that the work they do will prepare them for academic, professional and civic literacy demands, arguing against a self (expressionist) and public (structuralist) dichotomy, and rather have them produce texts along this continuum: self, other, group. In this context, the self never goes away, but it can be submerged or foregrounded according to purpose and audience. Kinda like blog-writing. : )

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