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 Kottke.org 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?”)