In my dissertation’s Chapter 4, I’m arguing that the classroom work of students may be seen as carrying economic value beyond that of the commodity, particularly in the production and digital circulation and reproduction of student writing: in short, students are not the “preeconomic” beings Susan Miller describes. In order to make that argument, I’m looking at two spheres — the classroom and the economy — not as the generalized abstracted spaces of pedagogical and economic discourse, but as specific, embodied, heterogeneous, and material spaces.
In Terms of Work for Composition, Bruce Horner makes a distinction between work and labor: in our discourse, he suggests, “work” is immaterial, scholarly, commodified; “labor” is material, pedagogical, and more resistant to commodification — and so also less valuable than “work.” (As is typical of composition’s discourse on economy, Horner’s analytical focus here is on the work of teachers.) According to Horner, the materiality of scholarly writing (as opposed to teaching) is often obscured, and the more that materiality is obscured, the more the scholarly work is made to seem an individual autonomous intellectual product performed independently of any interaction with other intellectuals — and therefore more ownable (6-7). By implication (and, yes, I’m aware that this is a familiar point), composition’s focus on teaching is expected to be more material and less commodifiable, and therefore less valuable in its non-ownability.
But if we understand the distinctions Horner makes as taking place in specific, embodied, heterogeneous, and material spaces, rather than as the generalized and abstracted objects of discourse, the barrier between classroom and economy collapses. They are, together, an overlapping space, and in that space, writing has economic value. Of course, this has been understood in American history since Article I Section 8 of the Constitution and the Copyright Act of 1790. Despite this understanding, though, Miller’s characterization of the “preeconomic” student is the one that has dominated representations of the higher education classroom, even though the intent of the Copyright Act of 1790 — an explicitly economic document — is characterized in its very first line as “the encouragement of learning.” In this light, the words declaring the intent of the Constitution’s Article I Section 8 bear revisiting: “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” There’s a tension there, between the phrases “exclusive right” and “limited times.” “Exclusive right” carries a synchronic concern and an attention to the economics of the present moment, while “limited times” makes clear a diachronic concern with economic change and an attention to the future. And the conventional representation of the purposes of the composition classroom is diachronic: it looks to economic change in the future, and at its most crass, suggests that the dominant purpose of education should be to help students be competitive in a global information economy. On the other hand, scholarship — Horner’s “work” — is understood synchronically, in its concern with the present production of knowledge.
Neoclassical economics, with its essential assumption of scarcity, and its assumptions about how the tastes and values of individuals shape economic activity, is largely synchronic in character. It’s concerned with the present. Marxian economics, with its goals of economic change, is largely diachronic in character. It’s concerned with the future. Neoclassical economics, however, has lately been much vexed by the ways in which the information economy disrupts conventional assumptions of scarcity. As Lawrence Lessig often points out, some resources — like information — take on more value the more people use them, and the less commodified or expensive they are, the more people will use them. (Note that I’m using the meanings of value and price as distinctly independent of one another here.)
These ideas about work and labor, present and future, scarcity and value, are at the core of my dissertation’s Chapter 4, but as is likely apparent, they’ve also had some influence on my teaching lately. When we understand that there are values other than that of the dollar, Siva Vaidhyanathan assertion that copyright “is supposed to be an economic incentive for the next producer, not a guarantee for the established one” takes on some interesting implications for the writing students produce in the classroom.