Monthly Archives: January 2007

Half Right

According to Shapiro and Varian’s Information Rules, “Technology changes. Economic laws do not” (2).

Well, they’re half right.

The “laws” are not laws. They’re observations about how people act. And as Shapiro and Varian’s text itself demonstrates, people act differently under different circumstances. Shapiro and Varian’s assertion about unchanging economic laws is a foolish and mistaken attempt to bluster out an assertive and authoritative ethos in the face of the fact that economies and cultures change. It strikes me as something akin to Covey’s claims about the Seven Habits: a rhetorical system composed not so much for the way it might produce knowledge as for the way it might sell books.

In fact, economic “laws” — or, more properly, observations about the ways economies work — change. In a culture driven by the engine of slave labor, understandings of scarcity, competition, and social welfare shape economic activity in ways profoundly different from the ways in which our contemporary understandings of the same phenomena — scarcity, competition, social welfare — shape economic activity.

And Shapiro and Varian’s suggestion of a constancy of economic principles is interesting in a volume that seeks to engage and understand the ways that economic change influences the way we produce, distribute, and use information. For example: they make the point that “production costs of an information good involves high fixed costs but low marginal costs. The cost of producing the first copy of an information good may be substantial, but the cost of producing (or reproducing) additional copies is negligible” (3). Sure; yes, we know this. But according to Shapiro and Varian, the capitalist must therefore “price your information goods according to consumer value, not according to your production cost” (3). OK: so when we produce an information good — a text — its value is reckoned out there in the world, and in terms of what it does for other people. And we know that information goods, especially as essays, carry higher value when they proliferate; when they’re non-scarce. In that sense, textual value is, to a degree, social and affective: when a hundred people read a personal essay, whether it’s poorly written or a polished piece, the value of that personal essay — because of the affective connection those readers are making to what the author’s saying — increases.

This understanding of textual value as social and affective might offer interesting ways for us to think about Lester Faigley’s worries in “Judging Writing, Judging Selves” that as writing teachers, we tend to like (value) the personal essay perhaps too much and for inappropriate reasons. (Yes, I admit that’s a crude and reductive summary of Faigley’s point.) But it should also point us toward the ways Amy Robillard uses Julie Lindquist’s College English essay on “Class Affects, Classroom Affectations” to re-think the affective value of student’s written labor/work, and remind us that student work is part of that immense below-the-waterline portion of the diverse economic iceberg described by J. K. Gibson-Graham following Duncan Ironmonger’s time-use studies demonstrating that less than half of gross domestic product consists of cash-commodified market transactions. It might even help to counter the arguments of those who see Peter Elbow’s points in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking” as somehow frivolous, uncritical, or silly, given that the behaviors Peter describes are, in fact, elements of the construction of one form of economic value as aspects of consumer choice — although, again, we should understand that that form of economic value is not the only one.

And this goes back to the concern Faigley raises and Robillard elaborates: it’s easy to see and acknowledge the affective value of the personal essay, but we’re not often inclined to admit the affective value of other genres, the affective value of other forms of intellectual labor. Which is foolish, because the ways that we like instances of those other genres is an affective relationship, as well, and those ways contribute to their increased value. This is the toughest move for me to make, though: I’m not sure how willing I am to admit that simply liking a circulating instance of intellectual labor/property is an economic act.

Shapiro and Varian help me out, though in some of the key strategies they offer for entrepreneurial success. Here are two:

  • Personalize your product and personalize your pricing. This is easier to do on the Internet than on virtually any other medium since you communicate with your customers on a one-to-one basis.
  • Know thy customer. You can learn about your customer demographics by registration and about their interests by tracking their clickstream and search behavior analysis. Analyze this information to see what your customers want. (43)

Information is social, we know, and they indicate that the ways we shape and circulate it are simultaneously personal and economic. Shapiro and Varian’s advice, while grounded in a market-based perspective, offers us some interesting ways of thinking about writing and its value. Certainly, it’s in one way the same old “know your audience” advice rhetors have been familiar with for 2000 years, but when we put it into the cycle of work, appropriation, ownership, and use, it takes on a different meaning. And I love that phrase “tracking their clickstream” and want to apply it to our discipline’s thoughts about process, reading, and citation, which I think I’ll try to do in my next post.

Until then, I’ll close and say that I very much like the following texts:

Elbow, Peter. “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English 55.2 (1993): 187-206.

Faigley, Lester. “Judging Writing, Judging Selves.” College Composition and Communication 40 (1989): 395-412. Rpt. Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing. Ed. Peter Elbow. Davis, CA: Hermagoras, 1994.

Ironmonger, Duncan. “Counting Outputs, Capital Inputs and Caring Labor: Estimating Gross Household Product.” Feminist Economics 2.3 (1996): 37-64.

Lindquist, Julie. “Class Affects, Classroom Affectations.” College English 67 (2004): 187-209.

Robillard, Amy. “Young Scholars Affecting Composition: A Challenge to Disciplinary Citation Practices.” College English 68.3 (2006): 253-70.

Shapiro, Carl, and Hal R. Varian. Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School, 1998.

An Ugly Metaphor

Here’s a cheesy graphic that looks like it belongs in Microsoft’s Clip Art portfolio. Unfortunately, I’m afraid, it’s also my attempt to think about (1) how economic activity works qua writing and (2) how writing works within our discipline as economic activity.

work leads to appropriation leads to ownership leads to use and again back to work.

Sure: another simplistic attempt to represent how writing happens; an obvious, boring, and self-evident attempt to talk about The Process. Well, OK, not so fast, pardner: there are economic points of intervention here. Locations of heterogeneous practice and valuation.

First, on Work: this is Bruce Horner’s nuanced definition of work. This is the understanding from Terms of Work for Composition that our discipline regards and values Work in different ways, as scholarship, as pedagogy, and as the quotidian student activity of the classroom.

The value of each of those forms of work is somehow appropriated, and appropriated — according to Gibson-Graham and Resnick and Wolff — by different parties at different points in the progression from production to distribution. At the point of production, value can be appropriated in slave relations wherein the producer has no control over the conditions under which he produces (prison labor; the work of intellectuals under Stalin), feudal relations, market relations (you publish an article in order to put it on your cv and be promotable), gift relations, independent relations (you appropriate the value of your own labor), and others. I don’t have a sufficient grasp on rhetoric and the economics of distribution to be able to talk about those practices of appropriation here, but folks like Jim Ridolfo and Amy Robillard are doing smart and admirable work in that area.

Appropriation, as unavoidable economic practice, leads to various forms of textual ownership. Capitalism, as a mode of thought, concerns itself with private ownership. Socialism, as a mode of thought, concerns itself with state ownership. Communism is a mode of thought that inadequately addresses and fails to encompass public ownership, and I don’t think we yet have a term that is more adequate to that task. And as a term that addresses or attempts to address non-ownership, “The Commons” is certainly fraught with difficulties, as is “The Public Domain.” Nevertheless: work’s value is appropriated and becomes property, non-property, or something in between.

And we build upon that which has gone before; that which any entity owns. The verb that relates this act to property is “use,” and I don’t have a vocabulary for it, but “use” clearly takes us back to “work.”

I need to show this, I think, in projects — both students’ and my own — and then connect this cycle to my critique of how comp’s discourse has failed to engage a vocabulary of economy, and offer some concrete examples of work > appropriation > ownership > use > work et cetera. But that circuit, so far, is the happiest definition I have for what “economy” means in composition.

Does it work for you, or have I missed or ignored key considerations?

Reading Adam Smith, Part 1

Here is the first sentence of The Wealth of Nations:

The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations. (Smith lix)

Edwin Cannan footnotes the second word, “annual,” in the following way:

This word, with “annually” just below, at once marks the transition from the older British economist’s ordinary practice of regarding the wealth of a nation as an accumulated fund. Following the physiocrats, Smith sees that the important thing is how much can be produced in a given time. (Smith lix)

From Smith and Cannan, it’s quite clear: we must understand value as existing in and delimited by time. (This is why economic productivity, as a sort of value judgment about the quality and intensity of a nation’s workers, is measured over time.) So how do writing teachers talk about time? One obvious way, of course, is in our talk about process. Some of us even incorporate something like a Labor Theory of Value into the way we evaluate student writing, proposing to students that the work they put into composing stands in some relation of value to their performance in the course and the ultimate gradebook worth of their compositions. For writing teachers who base their pedagogies upon the process model, the Labor Theory of Value — for all its problems — is an economic reality in institutions that require grade-based valuation.

We’re familiar with the problems presented by the Labor Theory of Value. We know that Adam Smith tried to get away from it, David Ricardo promulgated it, and Karl Marx tried to re-think it. We know that contemporary mainstream economics has discarded it as thoroughly flawed and problematic, choosing to focus instead on the notion of marginality and how producers and consumers react to fluctuations in supply and demand at the marginal frontier. But I’d contend that the categories of “producer” and “consumer” are themselves too-easy oversimplifications in today’s information economy, and contend further that the notions of supply and demand are wholly inadequate in addressing the things that we can best characterize in economic terms as non-rivalrous experience goods: which is to say, essays.

I understand and largely agree with the critiques that have been made of the Labor Theory of Value, and I have strong reservations about how to enact the difference Marx draws between necessary and surplus labor. At the same time, though, understanding Time as the space in which Labor takes place seems to me an essential component of thinking about how the Value of that Labor gets used or appropriated. So here’s a question: if you’re a writing teacher, does part of your grading involve the Labor Theory of Value? Do you give students credit for the Time they take to do drafts, to do revision? And — if so — why? (I’ve got a tentative answer, but I’m curious to hear yours.)

Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations. Ed. Edwin Cannan. New York: Random House, 1994.

Spies Wanted

I’ve been going through this year’s CCCC program, and there are way too many things that I really want to go to: sixteen panels, two SIGs, one workshop, and one caucus. And that doesn’t even include the panels whose times interfere with one another.

Which is the reason for this post. With my scholarly interests, there’s no way I can not go and see session C.26 on “Textual Transgressions Online: Plagiarism and Fraud in Weblogs and Wikis,” but my colleagues (two Majors and a Lieutenant Colonel) are presenting at the same time at session C.11 on “The Role of Discourse Communities in the Composition Classroom at the United States Military Academy,” which — while I can easily ask them about their presentations — I’d be curious to hear what sort of questions get asked, given the preconceptions many academics have about the military. And I’d be even more curious to hear what Daisy Miller has to say about our Cadets at session C.14, as would my colleagues. (Why would the two panels that deal with my specific institution be scheduled at the same time?)

So if you have any interest in either of the latter two panels, I’d be grateful to hear whatever impressions you might have of them in a couple months. I’m very much looking forward to (once again) posting my notes and impressions of the sessions I’m able to attend.

Of Possible Librarian Interest

The new issue of Kairos is out, and it’s a good one. Of particular interest to some of my librarian peers, for whom I have much respect and whose scholarship I wish my discipline would more fully engage in conversation, might be James Purdy and Joyce Walker’s remarkable and compelling essay, “Digital Breadcrumbs: Case Studies of Online Research.”

Good stuff from my perspective, and I’m curious to hear what those respected expert peers might say.

Writing’s Economic Phenomenology

Scholars have trajectories, traced by the contrail arcs of their intellectual projects. As a newly minted professor, I’ve been thinking about what mine might be: how do I characterize what I’ve been working on and what I want to continue to work on as a line across the sky of my discipline?

What I’m doing, I think, is trying to develop an economic phenomenology of student writing, and with it a language of value that can talk about why people want to write that moves beyond the instrumental. Instrumentality we know quite well: do X and get Y. Barter and exchange: simple transactions. The richer field, though, is the motivation that inheres within the moment, the act of writing for writing qua writing. So I’m putting together unlikely bedfellows — Elbow and the so-called expressivist compositionists with Gibson-Graham and the so-called Marxian economists — but with a specific attention to moment, to the temporally present acts of writerly production, circulation, and distribution. I’m not much interested in questions of history — “Where did this come from?” and “What will this lead to?” — except as phenomenologically enacted: “What is this doing now?” This isn’t to say that I support any sort of ahistoricity: it’s just that economic analysis as applied to composition pedagogy too easily lends itself, as we see in the literature, to an abnegation of responsibility; to the sometimes irresponsible assertions that current problems are best thought about in terms of their past causes or future consequences, rather than considering — as Elbow, Emig, and others show us — possible immediate interventions.

J. K. Gibson-Graham describes some problematic tendencies in economic thought that I see some of the literature in composition as still taking for granted as foundational assumptions: “the tendency to represent economy as a space of invariant logics and automatic unfolding that offered no field for intervention; [and] the tendency to constitute ‘the’ economy as a singular capitalist system or space rather than as a zone of cohabitation and contestation among multiple economic forms” (xxi). (See, as an outstanding example, Giroux’s recent JAC piece.) As writing teachers, I believe we understand that such ways of thinking are inadequate, and yet the vocabulary with which we have been left to understand economic concerns is so fundamentally incommensurate with our understanding of day-to-day pedagogical practice — with the daily fact of being and teaching and writing in the classroom — that we simply don’t talk about economy except as something taking place outside the classroom. Our economic attitudes remove us from the classroom scene and moment of the creation of intellectual and affectual value.

That’s, as I see it, my contrail. It starts in definitional concerns and the idea of an economic vocabulary for composition, develops into notions about the multiplicity of valuations for writing, and attempts to begin to address the place of open source economic concepts in the the classroom. Beyond that, I’m not sure what it might look like, other than a thin and incomplete white line across a wide blue sky.

Instructional Technology

The institutional powers at my school are terrified of the Web. All of the useful online tools — grade books, attendance records, even Blackboard — are only accessible via a school-issued computer and Virtual Private Network. Course web sites have to go through various layers of approval and changes have to be sent through an extradepartmental authority.

In some ways, I understand why: here, we’re a .mil as wel as a .edu, and there have been considerable .mil hacking embarassments in the past, including one incident last semester that DoD responded to in typical fashion by shutting down practically everything on the .mil network for two days; the proverbial locking the barn door after the horse is gone.

But still: making a course LMS unavailable except via VPN that one can only access via one’s work computer with smart card properly inserted? That’s paranoia past the edge of ridiculousness. Are we somehow worried that the Chinese are going to hack Blackboard and insert subtle anti-Taiwanese and pro-planned-economy rhetoric into my lesson plan on film, Istanbul, stereotypes, and composing cultural alterity? Is Al-Qaeda going to weaken my students’ moral fiber by making them think that plagiarism is more complex and sophisticated an issue than the MPAA’s anti-theft intellectual propery rhetoric suggests? (Oh, no. Wait. I already do that.)

One challenge I’m continuing to run into is the hierarchical and monolithic nature of IT here: the Army gives all the students and all the faculty their computers, and only certain programs and practices are approved. I can’t count on students accessing the course web site via Firefox on their Ubuntu laptop at the local coffee shop: here, it’s IE, Windows Vista, and 802.11i (!) all the way, no matter what. So I can encourage them to use Open software, but really, when Uncle Sam gives you all the corporate stuff for free, incentives and evangelizing become a bit more difficult. And I can’t exactly fight Uncle Sam on this stuff.

But still. It’d be so, so nice to have simple, secure FTP access to courseware of my choice on campus websites. To have a path to Perl and my own /cgi-bin.

For Daniel

My friend Daniel, in his military career, spent two nights in an Israeli prison for attempting to buy guns on the black market, as he’d been tasked to do by his Special Forces unit.

There are other things, worse things, that happened to Daniel beyond the weapons market. And as much as I like this poem that makes me think about him, it isn’t so good in the middle part: it hectors, Daniel would have said. That stuff about the American death, blue uniforms, barrels, hands: too easy, facile, and the title as well. Cheap, almost.

The Al Harishma Weapons Market

At midnight, steel shutters
slide down tight. Feral cats slink
in the periphery of the streetlamp’s
dim cone of light. Inside, like a musician
swaddling a silver-plated trumpet,
Akbar wraps an AK-47 in cloth.
Grease guns, pistols, RPGs –
he slides them all under the countertop.
Black marketeer or insurgent –
an American death puts food on the table,
more cash than most men earn in an entire year.
He won’t let himself think of his childhood friends –
those who wear the blue uniforms
which bring death, dying from barrels
he may have oiled in his own hands.
Akbar stirs the chai,
then carries his sleeping four-year-old,
Habib, to bed under glow-in-the-dark
stars arranged on the ceiling. Late at night
when gunfire frightens them both,
Habib cries for his father, who tells him
It’s just the drums, a new music,
and the tracery of lights in the sky
he retraces on the ceiling, showing the boy
how each bright star travels
from this dark place, to the other.

And then there’s that ending, with the stars. That wasn’t Daniel’s ending, but I want to hope that maybe it was his sister’s. He worried about her, about her boyfriends, about their parents. Worried about whether she was pregnant.

Daniel never caught a break. He ate a bullet in a New Mexico hotel room.

[Edited after the fact: the poem is by former Sergeant Brian Turner, from his exceptional collection, Here, Bullet.]


No matter what my job as a scholar and pedagogue employed by the federal government might mean legally speaking, for my writing here at Vitia, it’s high time I performed/acknowledged/declared this rhetorical release, given what I believe about the uses of openness and (f)re(e)mix culture:

All original material posted hereafter, aside from comments owned by their respective commenters, is hereby released into the public domain.

Given that I’ve published here early versions of things that have made it into Pedagogy and JAC, I know that writing such a statement of release may in the future give me difficulties. And, well, that’s kind of a big part of the intent, dear reader: to let it go, and in so doing, to open it up to complication.

Top Rhet/Comp Schools?

A military colleague asked me today for advice about doctoral programs in composition and rhetoric. This colleague has a M.A. in English and several years of experience teaching and administrating writing courses, and is thinking about taking early retirement from the military and wondering where to go and what factors to consider. Of course it depends what areas you’re interested in, I said, and noted that it’s generally not a good idea to pursue a PhD without full funding from the institution (ideally with a 1/1 load for the TAship and the opportunity to teach and design a variety of courses) and health insurance, and it’s awfully nice (from my experience) to have a TA union, and so on. But programs themselves? Well, there are published and online guides, I know, but my colleague got me thinking, and so I’m curious as to what the proverbial word on the street might be:

What, in your opinion, are the ten best PhD programs in rhetoric and composition?

Of course, the criteria themselves for ‘best’ are open to debate, and again, it depends on what one’s scholarly interests are. I’d certainly expect to see Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, UT Austin, Michigan State, Carnegie Mellon, and Syracuse at or near the top of a lot of lists, and I’ve got strong feelings about the excellence of other programs as well — Pitt for its unique and compelling cultural studies approach, and UMass and UNH for their deep (and evolving) historical investment in the process approach — so I’ll ask: what do you think? What would your top 10 be, and what would you say their particular areas of excellence are?

Where do you admire?