In Terms of Work for Composition, Bruce Horner notes that “one argument made against teaching ‘on-line’ is that the process of placing coursework on-line not only restructures that work, allowing for greater control and scrutiny of faculty performance and course content and intensifying the work of teaching, but it also better enables institutions to claim ownership of those materials and take possession of faculty’s knowledge and course design skill embodied in the course materials” (6). There’s a lot embedded in this quotation: Walter Benjamin’s argument about reproducibility restructuring schemata of value, relationships of exploitation in academia, and concerns of ownership. But the most important argument here is one that’s familiar to any scholar familiar with the work of Lawrence Lessig: the digital technology of copying — of reproducibility — profoundly alters relationships between creator and consumer, between maker and remaker, between the original source, the mix, and the remix — and its subsequent derivations. It makes the individual and personal expertise of the teacher public and claimable.
Contrast this to the conventional classroom situation in which, according to Horner, “the student’s self [...] is imagined as fixed, uniform, and autonomous, even when it remains inaccessible to the student, rather than being seen as socially produced, the site of struggle between official and practical consciousness played out in the material process of writing” (40). Here, in the first context Horner describes, the classroom “is imagined” as a neutral, abstract space, as is the persona of the student. The second context Horner describes is an attempt to imagine that classroom context for the embodied student as more material and concrete. What happens, though, when we attempt to apply either context to the “online” scenario described above? For Horner, in either case, the (necessarily material, particular, and concrete) act of placing a text (a class, an essay) online seems to result in its increasing abstraction. The text, in Horner’s eyes, enters the online equivalent of the utopian no-space Joseph Harris critiques as the uselessly abstracted “discourse community.” And here I return to the point I recently made: that abstracted online utopian no-space, in the discourse of composition, is figured both as “the economy” and as “the classroom.” The three are not congruent, certainly — but in the shape of the discourse that embodies them, they are unignorably isomorphic.
The problem with this, of course, is that we know from Harris, Lu, and others that the classroom is hardly an immaterial and abstracted space. The same holds true for the economy, as Gibson-Graham, Ironmonger, and others demonstrate. Why, then, does Horner suggest that the simple act of moving a text from the classroom to the Web somehow makes that text more abstracted, immaterial, and commodifiable? Is publishing the equivalent of commercialization; does placing more eyes on a text make it necessarily less material, less concrete, and therefore more easily subject to commodified market-based exchange? I don’t think so, and I think Clancy Ratliff’s research stands as strong evidence why not: from my scant understanding of some of the projects she’s worked on, Clancy’s work investigates the abstracted representations of gender roles assigned to online discourse, and proposes that such representations are largely mistaken in light of the concrete evidence of female bloggers: to be crudely reductive, Clancy proposes that in many women’s public blogging practices, the personal is indeed political (and, I’d add, material and embodied) when it goes online. The blogosphere, contra Horner, is a concretized and personal space for its users, and in its materiality and engagement is deeply and necessarily political.
My goal here is to perform the analytical about-face, and take Clancy’s insight concerning the blogosphere and apply it to the overlapping representations of the classroom and the economy. More on this soon: yes, I’m back to my practice of working through dissertation chapters on the blog, and I’m happy with where Chapter 4 is going.