Month: January 2006


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.)

Wrong answer.

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.)

Campus Visits

It’s campus visit season for job seekers, so I’ve been busy with travel, writing and presenting job talks, and attempting to be dazzling for nine hours at a stretch. I got turned down for my dream job, which is a disappointment, but it was a bit of a reach for someone in my situation. Still, I really, really like the institutions with which I’ve been lucky enough to have visits — each, in their way, nationally known — but for very different reasons. Everybody always says the visits are grueling, which I guess they are, but there’s also something genuinely pleasant about talking to a bunch of super-intelligent people about the dissertation upon which you’ve been chipping away in solitude for so long.

(He says, crossing his fingers, knocking on wood, hoping they liked him.)

Wealth Bondage Ended?

It looks like The Happy Tutor and crew have decided to hang things up. It’s too bad: Wealth Bondage was the best damn satirical website out there, bar none; at once funny and brilliant and provocative, with the smartest bunch of commenters since The Invisible Adjunct shut down. You’ll be much missed, Phil.

Best. Spam. Evar.

In my inbox today: a beyond-the-grave email from none other than the eminent Austrian himself.

FROM: Freud

What did the good doctor want? Why, to sell me some VIAGRA FOR AS LOW AS $1.62 A DOSE, of course, because I apparently NEED 15 MINUTES TO BE READY FOR ACTION. Who knew?

Pfizer couldn’t ask for a better spokesman, I suppose. One blue pill, and — well — the ego is not master in its own house?

Miss Manners and Me

Judith Martin, AKA Miss Manners, delighted me on Christmas Day, even beyond her wonderful response to the reader who ignored his mis-set dessert spoon and scandalized his dinner party’s hostess by sipping his soup from the bowl (“It sounds to Miss Manners like a successful dinner party,” she wrote, since “It is so hard to shock people nowadays”). Ms. Martin, in fact, offered me a reason for happily deleting my Amazon wish list, the act of which I’ll do my best here to extend into a theoretical rationale concerning commodities and value.

Do you remember that Onion story about the guy with “Tuesdays with Morrie” on his wishlist, and how people kept buying him copies of it even though its placement on his wishlist was an act of consumptive identity-creation? I’ve lately run into a similar difficulty with someone new to the internets who seemed to think that the goal was to be the person who made sure the most wishlist items got bought. While I’m grateful for the gifts, I’ll here risk the appearance of ingratitude by proposing that such reactions destroy the crafted persona-construction of the wishlist, which in odd ways combines a deferral of desire with a statement about self-identity. When you obliterate someone’s wishlist through expenditures of cash, you’re in some ways also obliterating that person’s representation of self, and on the internets, the consumptive self is a rhetorical construct.

Miss Manners proposes that “By coming up with the cash gift, the gift certificate and the gift registry, […] [a]ll the work of giving was eliminated, leaving only the expense,” which is sort of what UC Irvine anthropologist Bill Maurer is getting at in his essay “Uncanny Exchanges” (Society and Space 21) when he asks, “Does the ability of money to render the qualitative into the quantitative flatten social relations” (317)? Cash makes immaterial — it abstracts — concrete and experiential relations between people. If the gift is a social and immediate act of knowing another person, the Amazon wishlist negotiates that knowledge in sometimes vexed or uncanny ways: as characterized above, it can be an aspect of rhetorical self-representation, but to those who already know you, it can also short-circuit the affective weight of the social bonds that the gift is ordinarily supposed to reinforce. Miss Manners makes an essential point:

there can be a deeper joy in receiving than in just getting the goods. That is where thought comes in. Sure, it is great to receive something you have always wanted. But to receive something that someone guessed that you always wanted is a double thrill. Knowing that someone has studied you carefully enough to know what will please you is a priceless present in itself. Even the near guesses and wrong guesses are endearing if they show thought. Thought doesn’t just count — it is the point of the custom.

So what does all this have to do with teaching writing? Well, not so much, unless we think about the value of writing (and how we value the labor that produces that writing) in ways that go beyond the mere exchange value of a grade or the bluntly instrumental value of intellectual work (“It’ll help you do better in other classes” and/or “It’ll help you get a better job”). Writing exists to be read, and as such is always inherently social — which, of course, is completely obvious, but when I think about Steven Gudeman’s assertion in Postmodern Gifts that “making a gift secures, probes, and expands the borders of a group” (3), something clicks there for me.

Under market-based commodity capitalism, cash sometimes takes the place of human interaction. But in the economy of acknowledgement that is an integral part of the FLOSS Movement and that I want to adapt to the composition classroom, embodied and material human relationships operate concretely, without the short-circuiting abstraction of cash or the short-cut of the wishlist. Sure, it’s more work, and as such, it’s difficult — but, y’know, I’m a big fan of the value of difficulty.