Note: I’ve somewhat revised this rather overstated post in response to Kelly Ritter’s generous comment, although I’ve left what I originally wrote intact and visible for honesty’s sake, since I think it’d be unethical for me to here do any retroactive erasing of my mistakes.
Clancy points to a new article on online paper mills from Kelly Ritter, an article that covers much of the same ground and invokes much of the same ideologies as Ritter’s original CCC article. I was intrigued by Ritter’s first article because of the way in which its use of the term “economics” stands as usefully characteristic of composition’s conception of economic concerns: for Ritter, and for most scholars in composition, economy is discursively equated to cash-based market commerce.
(A wonderful exception to this is Amy Robillard’s brilliant January 2006 College English piece, which I hope to have more to say about soon, particularly in terms of the ways it draws together notions of affectual immaterial labor with theories of economy and class.)
Ritter proposes that “the advent of digital technologies that allow access to completed papers… has created valid concern among faculty, especially among those involved in the teaching of writing” (25), constructing digital reproducibility as the lightning to Walter Benjamin’s Dr. Frankenstein, with the monster being Plagiarism Itself. The problem, however, lies not merely with the technology: rather, “student patronage of [online] paper mills is reinforced… by students’ disengagement from academic definitions of authorship” and by “their overreliance on consumerist notions of ownership, especially in Internet commerce” (26). For Ritter, the brain of Frankenstein’s Monster, and its destructive potential, is embodied in the “consumerist” economic ideologies of today’s students.
But what are “students’ definitions of authorship”? Are today’s first-year composition students, in their literate practices, as venal and avaricious as Ritter makes them out to be?
I don’t think so. Look at (as Danielle Nicole DeVoss has done) the hundreds of revisions of the Star Wars Kid video; look at (as Casey Burton has done) collaboratively-authored fanfic and commons-based peer icon creation; look at, again, Robillard’s recent examination of Young Scholars. As much as I admire the rigor of Ritter’s work, it seems
immediately apparent to me — particularly given her prominent citation of Bartholomae — that she has no desire or intent to inhabit the emerging perspective of today’s student. (Added after her comment — see below: Kelly does, in fact, clearly seek to understand the emerging perspective of today’s student, such being the purpose of the assignment she proposes. In fact, Kelly Ritter, you’ve been generation-gapped. Today’s information economies of individuated production and consumption, and their constituent students as economic agents, have left you fulminating without a target in their wake. (Added after her comment — see below: OK, that direct address really came across as being in full-on attack mode. And it’s unfortunately vague, as well.)
For Ritter, the student’s values must bend to the will of the academy, and the academy can apparently never shift to accomodate alterations in societal values brought about by technological and economic change: the culture of the academy always drives change in the culture of the student, and never the other way around. This, in itself, is an ideology of mass capitalism; a superannuated ideology — and is it any wonder that the students Ritter writes about so wholly reject an ideology that makes no attempt whatsoever to engage their (Lessig, Barbrook, Benkler) values?
In fact, Ritter’s repeated assertions that first-year composition lacks a subject might surprise teachers and scholars in nationally-recognized writing programs who have long argued with force and rigor that the subject of the first-year composition course is, in fact, writing. But perhaps that is illustrative of the values Ritter brings to her pedagogy — which is, after all, the subject of her essay. I might suggest that a teacher who thinks her course doesn’t have a subject will likely send a strong message to students about the value of the work in that course. (Added after her comment — see below: I stand corrected.)
But what is the value of that course? What’s it for? Ritter describes “the highly valued commodity of academic agency that academia seeks to bestow on students and employers” (47), and makes the problem quite clear: she constructs academic agency as a commodity for exchange, rather than seeing students as literate agents already critically producing culture. Ritter’s economic ideology — that the only value for the product of the labor of writing is its exchange value — is, in fact, precisely the thing that creates the problem she seeks to critique. When she argues that “Our task as writing faculty is to strike a balance between helping students to become literate professionals and shaping their writing consciousness in ways still palatable to our own ethics” (32), she presumes that students have no ethical agency of their own. (Added after her comment — see below: OK, I overstated that some, although it still seems to me that there’s an opposition being drawn, with the old-school ethical stance of faculty being privileged over students’ emerging ethics of the remix culture and the economy of individuated production and consumption.)
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: students are political, economic, and ethical beings, and they don’t shed that status when they cross the transom into the classroom.
Kelly Ritter would do well to recognize that. (Added after her comment — see below: she does recognize it, and in fact she suggests that it’s strongly implied by her argument.)