Monthly Archives: November 2005

Present and Future, Scarcity and Value

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.

Thankful

For the company who shared my table tonight, and for friends and family and colleagues.

I was worried when my oven broke a few days ago. My landlords, though, when they couldn’t get it fixed in time, gave me the key to the restaurant they run downstairs, and let me use the kitchen there. So I’m thankful to them, as well.

We inaugurated my mom’s china and silver — since I have it now, there seems to me no sense in not using it on special occasions — and the food, cooked collaboratively, came out well.

the dinner table at Thanksgiving 2005

There’s the cut-up turkey, roasted and then stewed for the last 40 minutes in the manner of doro w’et; the giblet gravy; ayib be gomen, an Ethiopian side dish with chopped collard greens and spiced cottage cheese; the turkey stuffing; the mashed potatoes; and a salad of lamb’s lettuce, tangerine slices, roasted pistachios, and pomegranate seeds, with a vinaigrette made from orange juice, rice vinegar, shallots, and pistachio oil. Not pictured: for dessert, a honey-pecan tart with bittersweet chocolate glaze.

Reader, I hope your Thanksgiving was fine, as well.

Remixing Composition

A bit past our semester halfway point, I asked students to (anonymously, if they chose, as many did) evaluate the course: what they were or weren’t getting out of the class, which types of work were most and least useful to them, which aspects of my teaching practices were least or most productive. The results were informative and helpful, and also fairly consistent. What was most helpful were their perspectives on what types of writing they already felt fairly comfortable with, and what types of writing they felt hadn’t yet been adequately addressed in the class.

As I recently described, Essay 1 asks students to choose a personal context, to examine their own relation to that context, and to draw some conclusions about that relationship, supported by examples from experience. Essay 2 asks students to engage with a difficult text in the sophisticated ways that academia expects, to understand and then move beyond its argument and draw broader conclusions, and to support those conclusions using accepted forms of citing textual evidence. Essay 3 asks students to chart the complex rhetorical and logical interrelationships among a group of texts on a given topic, to analyze those relationships, and then to make an argument to a specific audience based on that analysis, supporting their arguments with examples appropriate to their audiences. Essay 5 will ask students to perform an analysis of their own writing both within and beyond the context of the course, looking not only at their own writing since September, but also to the past and future and synthesizing possible trends and tendencies. Looking at those assignments, and at my students’ progress, I anticipated (correctly) that they’d probably be burnt out on citation-format stuff by this point in the semester, and also that there might be a desire for more engagement with the nuances of style and questions of genre, since they seem to be doing quite well in terms of their writing’s content and structure. (More evidence that they really are a bright bunch this semester: in semesters past, working with students on structural concerns in their essays has sometimes felt like the teacherly equivalent of pulling teeth.)

And I was right. Their written responses to the mid-semester evaluations indicated a strong interest in tone and style and the authorial motivations for deploying certain stylistic strategies, an interest in the rhetorical strategies associated with other genres (including, from several students, concerns with film and visual literacies), an interest in textual juxtaposition, and from an overwhelming majority of students, an interest in doing “creative” work. This last interest is somewhat problematic, for two reasons: first, to be blunt, College Writing is a course in the essay. But that first reason supposes that essays are somehow less creative than other genres — which is, of course, the second problem.

And so their responses — along with some insights from Joanna, Amber Engelson, and Amanda Carr — led to my new Essay 4 assignment, where I ask students to remix a text.

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The Serch

The guys at the always brilliant Penny Arcade propose “The Merch” as a critique of the system of capitalist circulation that operates within their field.

I’m thinking I’d like to write a grant to get some money to hire Gabe and Tycho. We’d draft some CVs, some teaching philosophies, some writing samples. We’d get them on the MLA job list. And, yeah, we’d do the October and November thing. We’d hit MLA in December.

To what end, you ask?

Easy enough: I’d love to see how Penny Arcade might do “The Serch.”

O the fun we could have.

Contemporaneity

In sending out variously tailored job letters and cvs (hm: would that be curricula vitarum?), I’ve realized that I’ve been lucky in the diversity of courses I’ve had the opportunity to construct and teach. Like most folks in my position, I’ve taught the first-year writing staff syllabus at my various institutions, but up to now, I hadn’t understood how few institutions encourage deviation from that staff syllabus. In my MFA and PhD careers, I think I’ve been fortunate to have been given free rein (after a trial run with the staff syllabus) to develop my own ideas about how first-year writing should be taught, and also — by participating in curriculum design committees — to have those ideas affect institutional values. And it’s good, as well, to look at my cv and see that I’ve done things beyond comp; that I’ve designed 200-level experimental writing courses, themed introductory literature courses, 300-level cultural studies examinations of the effects of digital technologies on English studies, and creative writing workshops.

But comp is where I live and my first love. Whatever else I might do, it always comes back to the classroom, and to the theory and practice of teaching first-year writing.

Which is what’s nice about the institution where I’m currently teaching and finishing my dissertation. There’s a strong programmatic attention here to developing good teachers, and part of that attention shows up in the fact that the program’s staff syllabus leaves Unit 4 open to the individual teacher. Unit 1 asks students to make connections between individual experience and societal context, to develop an attention to the recursive nature of writing and response, to critically analyze the particulars of personal experience that are often taken for granted, and to maintain a careful attention to the ways in which audiences might respond to representations of personal experience. Unit 2 asks students to engage with difficult academic texts and analyze the ways in which those texts respond to readerly expectations, and to cite such texts via quotation and paraphrase in service of an original argument that goes beyond the argument of the texts. Unit 3 asks students to examine the overlapping textual conversations on a variety of contemporary topics and then to choose their own topics and use library research to chart and evaluate the parameters of the discourse on that topic in order to secure a position from which they might originally and productively add to that conversation.

And now I’m at Unit 4, and for the first time since 1998, I don’t know what to do. On the part of the program, the openness is an excellent teacher-training move, but for me — with a brilliant bunch of students this semester — I’m having a hard time with figuring out what type of assignment would be most useful to them. As a class, their most significant struggles have been with logical transitions between paragraphs (i.e., carefully using connectors like “however” and “therefore” rather than just repeating words or phrases) and with stylistic innovation (i.e., not sounding purposefully bland), but those are both concerns that we’ve lately addressed in conferences. Furthermore, they’ve demonstrated considerable facility in working with library sources, and a few of them have said they’re tired of doing stuff that they’ve shown they already know how to do.

So if you were me, how would you challenge such a smart bunch? What necessary pedagogical goals for a composition class do you see as missing from my second paragraph, above? (Following this unit, unit 5 is a reflective essay that asks students to perform a retrospective evaluation of their writing over the course of the semester.) What does my syllabus fail to ask them to do that they need to be able to do? What might you suggest for possible Essay 4 assignments?

Here are some from my fine colleagues –

– but none, to me, quite fit my students. They’re brilliant, critical, and ahead of the cultural curve; they’re pop culture before pop culture happens, and at the same time deeply critical of cultural moments five minutes in the past — and, finally, they’re deeply self-conscious of their own quality of contemporaneity.

How might I ask them to critically revise or remix that sense of contemporaneity?

And Plagiarize We Did

I’m grateful for the enthusiastic feedback on my proposed lesson plan. Our class exercise in pre-emptive plagiarism seems to have worked rather well.

Some further background: my Essay 3 unit is an assignment that asks students to familiarize themselves with the range of discourse, rhetorical positions, and possible arguments on a topic of their choice; to use library research to examine the parameters of the contemporary conversation on that topic; and then to build upon that research and add their own fresh perspective to that conversation in an essay directed at a specific audience of their choosing. (Please don’t call it a “research paper”: that term implies to me a certain vague purposelessness.) On Tuesday, I briefly described how we started, by examining a couple brief and diverse samplings of already-ongoing conversations and talking about the range of ideologies and rhetorical strategies apparent in those samplings.

After that introduction and some work proposing and focusing various possible topics, I gave the instant plagiarism assignment. Students had about 10 minutes to Google their topics or search the plagiarism-facilitating site of their choice, paste the most useful sections into a word-processing document, and then another 15 minutes to massage the text, shifting sections around, making notes on transitions, “making it flow.” Presto. Instant plagiarized draft. They saved their work to the lab machines, and their homework was to (1) read a sample student essay in the same genre (and on the same topic as one of the conversations they’d already examined) from the Writing Program’s Best Essays Anthology from a previous year, and (2) write a quick one-page no-sources assertion outline draft of their essay, to bring with them to class.

So the idea this far is to get them to do some initial focusing research while also making a point about plagiarism, and then to scaffold upon that initial research, getting them to put together an argument and structure in their own words without relying on any sources.

We began today with them writing some quick reactions to the sample student essay they’d read, with a particular focus on the author’s assumptions in relation to other possible positions, and on the author’s stance in relation to audience.

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Let’s Plagiarize!

I’m stealing an idea from The Happy Tutor here (though I can’t find the comment where he originally suggested it — help me with the cite, Phil?), and I hope it might make for a nice introduction to our first-year writing documented essay / research paper assignment.

Some background: as many writing teachers know, the documented essay on the topic of the student’s choosing (i.e., figure out what you want to write about, research it at the library, and support your argument with library sources) is often the easiest essay to plagiarize. In some syllabi, such a writing assignment is often placed unfortunately close to midterm exams, or — worse yet — at the end of the semester, offering stressed and desperate students yet more incentive to find ways to minimize their work. And yet it’s a genre that students need to learn if they’re to succeed academically.

Here’s one way to start. I ask students to read a couple brief sets of articles from a variety of rhetorical perspectives on a topic of of interest — topics this semester were school violence and standardized assessment — and talk about them as (Burkean) conversations. So they juxtapose Charlton Heston’s Denver NRA address with Gloria Steinem’s “Supremacy Crimes” with an article from an abnormal psychology journal on school violence in the context of Columbine, and evaluate the stances and rhetorical strategies of the articles; what gets said, who says it, and what’s not said. Then, the mission I ask them to undertake is to enter a conversation of their choosing, and to use library research to productively extend that conversation. Discussion of possible topics and angles follows, along with students’ preliminary writing charting the parameters of the already-existing discourse on the topic.

Here’s where it gets fun: after students’ small groups put some thoughts up on the board, we read through the Writing Program’s Statement on Plagiarism out loud, and discuss it, making sure everything’s clear about the policy.

And then I hold a plagiarism contest. I give students exactly five minutes to plagiarize their chosen topics as a wholly stolen essay using Google. (Yes, this is a computer lab assignment, but easily transferred to homework.) The assignment works like this: you’ve got five minutes to steal the first draft of your essay. Using Google, find and steal the three URLs (or, if you’re good, more) and copy and paste the relevant section of the document after the URL. Paste them all together into something that looks like a semi-logical sequence. Save your plagiarized first draft when I call time. For the last portion of class, perhaps twenty minutes or so, I ask students to massage what they plagiarized into semi-coherent essays, though those essays are obviously still not of their own composition.

In the following day’s class, I’ll ask them to revisit their pseudo-plagiarized texts, compose statements of how their own perspectives go beyond that of the texts, and work on using their own ideas and examples as transitions between the portions of supposed plagiarism, as well as putting together subordinating and connecting conjunctions for quotations. And from that, they’ve got the beginnings of an essay, as soon as they put in the citations, from which we’ll begin a discussion of academic originality.

What do you think?

What happens if you demand that students do the work of plagiarism up front, and then self-consciously foreground it?