Generational Economics

We had a guest lecturer come and give a talk a couple weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to ask him a question about his work and its economic implications for the work performed by students in the writing classroom. His response — which eventually led to a comment on the work of James Berlin — really got me thinking. Basically, my comment was that — with a very few exceptions — the only way composition can address the economic aspects of class within the writing classroom is by talking about the class of teachers and their economic labor. In other words — and I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going somewhere different with it this time — compositionists (except John Trimbur and Bruce Horner) do not discuss the labor of student writing in economic terms. In my question, I tried to set this difficulty within the context of our economic shift from mass production and mass consumption to distributed or individuated production and consumption.

The respondent suggested that James Berlin, like himself and other prominent compositionists of their generation, spent most of their lives within an economy of mass consumption and mass production, an economy with three brands of car and three television networks, an economy wherein all economic transactions were monetized transactions. Hence the reason why the labor performed by the teacher in the classroom can be constructed as economic by members of that generation, while the labor performed by the student cannot: the labor of teaching is monetized.

Keynesian-neoclassical economics is the dominant economic paradigm of that generation, and no matter how Marxian a theorist James Berlin may have been, he had to struggle hugely (which, in his last book, he did) to get outside that monetized-exchange Keynesian-neoclassical economic frame. Once I look at the generational positions of all the class theorists I’ve been reading, it suddenly seems obvious: so much of the class talk in composition — even as it sometimes attempts to employ a Marxian perspective — is predicated upon mass consumption and mass production, on a neoclassical microeconomic theory by which tastes, preferences, and values drive all. For those who’ve so thoroughly lived and learned this perspective, the student in the writing classroom will always be first a consumer rather than a producer of education, with her labor never considered economic, because it’s not monetized.

This is kinda connected to the point I made recently about housework not being visible as economic labor until it was monetized by housekeeping services: Ward was always the economic producer, not June. And the same thing has happened lately with blogging: until started asking for money, it was just a nice hobby. It’s not work. And, yes, this relates as well to those academic bloggers whose colleagues think of as wasting their time on this online-diary stuff: you’re just noodling around, right, Mike? It can’t actually take any work — any intellectual labor — to produce that stuff. Many of those of Berlin’s generation don’t see an activity as economic unless money changes hands, which is a perspective that obscures up to half the economic activity in the United States, according to economist Duncan Ironmonger’s “Counting Outputs” study.

I’m not attempting to generation-gap anybody here — after all, it was somebody of Berlin’s generation who offered the insight — just, rather, offering a possible explanation as to why certain phenomena may be more visible to some people than to others. (As well as a possible explanation as to why one compositionist characterized to me the limits of Marxian economics within composition as follows: “Well, it just means you give out free textbooks, right?”)

Generational Economics

11 thoughts on “Generational Economics

  • April 25, 2005 at 9:50 am

    I’ve been interested in reading your views on economics, Mike, which have made me reconsider the way economic issues circulate in our field.

    Have you read Bousquet’s “The Informal Economy of the Information University” by chance? While he doesn’t deal directly with the teaching of writing, Bousquet is very much interested in understanding students as workers. His former grad student, Laura Bartlett, is also working on a book that situates students as workers. (The Bousquet article is in Works & Days 41/42, volume 21.)

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the way in which process approaches to composition *do* treat writing as work: in some versions, as work that can be compartmentalized and managed. But what hasn’t really been theorized, to my mind, is the time involved in all this, the way that students (esp. students who work for money to go to school–most students these days) are asked to take on and be assessed for more and more time-consuming tasks as writers even as they take on more and more labor outside of school. Also what hasn’t been theorized are the ways in which we treat students as laborers (under the surveillance of the teacher-manager) without attention to that management-labor subjectivity into which we and they are being interpellated.

    Another note: I once heard Wendy Hesford give a talk in which she critiqued some versions of service learning as providing “free labor” to corporations. I don’t know if she ever published that talk, but service learning seems to me to be another site where students as workers haven’t been given much critical attention.

  • April 25, 2005 at 10:14 pm

    Donna, you’re right that Bousquet’s essay — in its conclusions — begins to see student labor in the classroom as economic labor, and for that reason, I’m very interested in his perspective. But he also takes pains to declare that this is “not-capitalism,” and I disagree. Bousquet, of course, is coming from a socialist perspective and wanting to claim students as socialists, and I think his reason for wanting to call it “not-capitalism” is because, again, it’s not monetized — which is mistaken, because there are many non-market, non-monetized transactions within capitalism. Bousquet’s Marxism/socialism is a perspective that wants to see capitalism as monolithic, and so there can only be capitalism and not-capitalism, with the goal of not-capitalism being the systematic overthrow of the capitalist system in favor of another system. There are other ways of seeing capitalism: as diverse, contradictory, riddled with spaces of non-market, non-monetized, non-exploitative economic transactions, transactions that students can be seen as engaging in without making it necessary to see them as hopelessly exploited or vocationalized.

    It may be that I’m trying to perform the same sort of uncovering that strikes me as so valuable in your work on “The Managerial Unconscious,” a making-visible of student labor within the writing classroom that moves away from the (frequently masculine) ‘teacher as laboring hero at the center of the classroom’ trope so prominent in much of the discourse associated with working class concerns in composition studies. If I’ve read your work correctly, you’re arguing that teacher-talk can obscure the economic concerns associated with management; my argument would be that it can also obscure the economic concerns associated with the work students perform within the classroom.

    I was going to try to put together a longer post on this topic tonight, but you’ve usefully complicated my thinking, so I think that longer post might have to wait until I puzzle things out a little further. But thanks for the reminder about Bousquet’s argument, and for pushing my thinking about this. I’m going to have to go back to Berlin’s last book, too. And Chapter 2 suddenly looks like it might get a good bit longer. . . . 🙂

  • April 26, 2005 at 9:48 am

    While I don’t think that compositionists perceive the labor of students to be “monetized,” I think that many of our students very much see their work in the classroom as having the kind of economic power you describe. In particular, working-class students and other students who (increasingly–as Bousquet’s and Bartlet’s work shows) work full time. So-called instrumentalist motives for going to college lead, I think, to a conception of school work as production. A student working fifty hours a week and raising two children and taking nine credit hours oftentime sees the boundaries of her “work life” blur. Bousquet’s (and other who publish in Workplace) work forces us to think about the economy of the university–grad student labor, professorial labor, the labor of unclassified and classified staff, AND the labor of students, on and off campus. What is and isn’t “monetized” blurs when we perform the kinds of analysis Bousquet et al advocate. I like how you frame the literature as being generational–a useful way to think about the shifting rhetorics of class in our field.

  • April 26, 2005 at 11:49 am

    Well, what I’m arguing is that student labor within the writing classroom can be seen as being economic without being a monetized transaction. Furthermore, I’d suggest to the contrary that non-instrumentalist motivations for going to college lead to understanding school work as the non-exploitative production (i.e., the student’s appropriation of her own surplus labor) of knowledge and education, whereas what instrumentalist motivations lead to are the reproduction of knowledge and hierarchy and the exploitative (tuition > evaluation > certification > paycheck) commodification of learning. Furthermore, this isn’t just about working-class students; it’s about all students. Focusing on working-class students, while important, leads to a myopia that sees only the economic conditions operating prior to, outside of, and successive to the classroom, because the classroom gets constructed as some liminal extraeconomic space — and so, in such circumstances, our perceptions of the transactions we call “economic” remain largely restricted to transactions that are in some way monetized, whether it’s mom & dad’s working-class jobs, the student’s full-time job, or the instrumentalist motivation of a post-college job. I’m not really talking about any of those things as economic, because it’s obvious that they are so, just as the monetized transactions of university employees (professors, adjuncts, grad students, staff, administrators) are economic in ways that are obvious to all of us. But the point that’s really hard to get a handle on is that within capitalism there are many types of economic transaction that do not involve money or commodification (see Collin Williams, “A Critical Evaluation of the Commodification Thesis”, and the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham), despite the post-1970s efforts of the Chicago school to center all neoclassical economic discourse around money, and despite the still overwhelming urge among many Marxian economists to center their discourse around commodification. And these diverse economic transactions within capitalism that go beyond monetization or commodification represent opportunities — both theoretical and practical — for the work that we and our students do that offer ways out of our currently anemic, atrophied, and attenuated conceptions of class.

  • April 26, 2005 at 3:29 pm

    Really smart stuff. Thanks for further clarifying an interesting (and important) analysis of the scholarly conversation. I’m hung up on what I see as an imperative to foreground the monetized transactions-as a means to keeping front and center the material circumstances of all agents involved in the work of higher education-but you’re helping me see the materiality of transactions that transcend monetized transactions and commification. As the term comes to a close, I’m trying to imagine what’s going on in my classes through this lens–thanks so much. The economic dimension is theoretically “obvious,” as you say, and yet our scholarly constructions of students, of ourselves, of administrative/wpa work, etc., etc. too often ignore the commodifications (which, yes, are problematic, but still need to occupy that front-and-center position in our consciousness). I agree it’s not just about working-class students and yet I think the naming is important–precisely because the implications are different for working-class students. And I think focusing on working-class students doesn’t have to lead to the kinds of myopia you mention (though you’re right–freqnetly it does!)–I see class as an identity marker that affects how we see “the economic conditions operating prior to, outside of, and successive to the classroom” AS WELL AS the economic conditions inside of the classroom. Sorry if this is fragmented…thanks again for these thoughtful posts–you’re pushing hard at how issues of class circulate in the field, which I really appreciate.

  • April 26, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    You’re right, Bill; in my dissertation tunnel vision, I’m often forgetting that the issues that are front-and-center to my research are not front-and-center for other folks — and you’re also right that I should have tempered my language somewhat about the focus on working-class students: there’s certainly good stuff that doesn’t execute that myopic move that I’ve just admitted to making myself; it’s just that — in talking about working-class issues — it’s so, so easy to slip into a certain kind of discourse that I find deeply frustrating. But thanks likewise for helping push my thinking on this, and helping me to rein it in, as well, when I start making big, sweeping claims.

  • April 30, 2005 at 12:56 pm

    Great post, Mike (and comments, Donna & Bill). If:

    “This is kinda connected to the point I made recently about housework not being visible as economic labor until it was monetized by housekeeping services: Ward was always the economic producer, not June.”

    I wonder, then, if we could say the same about composition in light of the fear currently circulating about Internet plagiarism and paper mills, which actually do monetize the writing our students do. I’ve never really understood the depth of that fear, since paper mills always seemed roughly analogous to the legendary fraterntity/sorority file cabinets to me. That is, plagiarism wasn’t invented with the Internet 🙂 But one potential difference is this monetization–is plagiarism-for-hire somehow worse to us than plagiarism-for-friends? If so, then it suggests that we have a stake (whether conscious or not) in preserving that illusion of student work as extra-economic, I think…


  • May 1, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks, Collin. That was actually a big point my 4Cs presentation made: and make visible — via monetization — the economic aspect of student paper-writing labor. Is plagiarism-for-hire worse than plagiarism-for-friends? In the context of the writing classroom, I don’t think it makes a difference: the use value of an essay assignment inheres in its labor, and if the student doesn’t do that labor, the fact that she’s failed to learn from the assignment has nothing to do with whether or not money changed hands for the essay she turns in.

  • May 1, 2005 at 5:32 pm

    This has been a great thread–thanks, Mike, Bill, Collin. I’ve been out of town and off-blogging for several days and need to catch up. I’d like to say more, but am not sufficiently focused at the moment. So I’ll just ask a question: are you using Bourdieu at all, Mike? The argument about how we see as extra-economic all these transactions that are very much economic reminds me of arguments he makes in Practical Reason and elsewhere.

  • May 1, 2005 at 10:36 pm

    Yup. Bourdieu is my Chapter 4. Which is the hard chapter. Which is why I’ve been putting it off: as profoundly helpful as I find his theoretical work, I’m kinda dreading revisiting the rarefied abstractions of Distinction, Practical Reason, and Reproduction most of all. Which is weird, because I totally loved Academic Discourse: reading it, it was like a light went on in my head, like the same feeling I had first reading Derrida or Foucault and going, “Wow!”

    But I’m always grateful for any feedback, Donna — and I’d like to hear whether or not I have a fair handle on what you term the managerial unconscious, and how you see economic concerns playing out within the classroom.

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