CCCC07 B.30: My Presentation

I think I’m beginning to learn how to give a good conference presentation.

Or maybe at least the kind of conference presentation from which I tend to learn the most. I know I don’t learn well when people read papers, no matter how eloquently they’re written: written prose, when performed, has a fundamentally different quality. We see things in drama that the page does not show, and vice versa. But the model of the talk guided by slides doesn’t work well for me either: it feels too paratactic, too off-the-cuff, a series of impressions. Lawrence Lessig’s CCCC presentation seemed to me an ideal middle ground, and I’ve lately seen Collin and Clancy taking similar approaches, and so I tried this year to do something similar. I think the resulting presentation was the best I’ve so far done.

I first wrote a long paper, maybe 20 pages double-spaced, that worked through my argument. It’s something that I’m going to be trying to expand into a journal article over the next few months. I then went through and cut, cut, cut it down to somewhere near conference length: nine pages, double-spaced. After that, I put together a slide show to go with key terms and phrases and concepts in the paper, in imitation of Lessig, and also following the excellent format that I’ve seen Clancy and Collin start to turn toward. After some coaching and feedback from friends and colleagues, I cut it down further, and turned my writerly prose into bullet points from which to read, so as to avoid the deep hypotaxis that becomes so difficult to follow when listening to someone read a written paper: basically, I index-carded it.

I was happy with the result. I got out from behind the speakers’ table, walked around, used my wireless clicker to advance the slides, and talked it. I’d be curious to hear what the audience thought, because for me, it was the most energetic and engaged presentation I’ve done: it was fun, impassioned, and — to me — far more lucid and to-the-point than other presentations I’ve given.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the technology to record as I presented, so what I’ve got to share here is the presentation’s static counterpart: my written talk; the extended prose that I cooked down to bullet points.

If you’re interested, though, you’re also welcome to take a look at the slide show and the bullet point script that I used to talk through that slide show.

slide show (1.1 MB, .ppt file)

bullet point script (55 KB, .doc file)

I’m especially grateful to my colleague Karen Peirce for her feedback and suggestions for revision.

Presentation prose follows.

My argument in this presentation is as follows: first, most discussions of economic concerns in the discourse of composition play out as discussions of class concerns, and primarily as discussions of working class concerns. These discussions take as fundamental the assumptions that economic scarcity is a fact of capitalism, and that commodified, market-based capitalist exchange constitutes the economy. With some exceptions, scholarship focused on the working class tends to fetishize working class identity in the context of capitalist exchange, and this fetishization works to place the possibility for progressive economic change outside the composition classroom. I make an argument for rethinking class and for rethinking the motivations for which people engage in economic activity, in order to see the classroom itself as an economic space in the context of the emerging network economy, wherein immaterial labor (including, for example, student writing) constitutes an important and growing category of economic activity. From such a perspective, the writing classroom becomes a space for economic possibility and change.

1. Scarcity as straitjacket

I want to begin this presentation with a familiar quotation from Adam Smith.

The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it alone, and without any assistance, is not only capable of carrying the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations. (Smith 581)

For many, the emphasis in this quotation falls on that “natural effort of every individual to better his own condition.” This is the conventional construction of an individual and selfish homo economicus looking to his own interests in a world of scarce resources. Mainstream economics takes that individual and the choices he makes as its foundational assumption, and builds around him an apparatus of supply and demand with an impulse towards accumulation, because scarcity is assumed to be a fundamental fact of life under the regime of capitalism, which itself is assumed to function according to unquestionable economic rules that determine all activity.

These assumptions about accumulation, scarcity and the hegemony of capitalism play out in composition’s discourse on class: class identities are determined by what you have and what you lack. Many representations of working class identity are deeply concerned with scarcity and lack and how the individual — as victim of free market competitive forces — takes on an identity constituted by various forms of lack, with that identity then brought into the classroom. The presence of that working class identity requires some form of pedagogical adjustment to its history of lack, whether that adjustment is in terms as basic as access to material resources, or in terms of access to technology, manners, restraint, or felt power and control. All of these conceptions construct class as pre-existing motivator for interventions that must occur in the classroom to remedy the injuries of class. In this way, class is almost always constructed as happening prior to and outside of the classroom.

Such a focus on capitalism’s injuries carries problems for pedagogy. The working class student’s subjection to hierarchies of unequal access to material resources cannot be remedied by simply handing them those material resources, so she must be taught the habits and the technological and critical and communicative skills that will allow her to later succeed in the broader economy, beyond the composition classroom. The composition classroom is not an economic site but must serve the future needs of economy. By such an argument, capitalism determines pedagogy, and student identity and classroom activity are determined by the past injuries and future prospects of the economy.

Such a determinist perspective on the economy can only promote pedagogical stasis. Yet as we well know, many of those who work from a Marxist economic perspective are just as guilty (if not more so) of such determinist perspectives as capitalist free marketeers, particularly in the more conventional ways they have attempted to interpret Marx’s notions of base and superstructure. In writing of the determining economic base and determined cultural superstructure of industrial capitalist commodity production, Raymond Williams points out that much confusion has come out of the multiple meanings of the word “determine,” and suggests that we would do far better to understand determining as “setting limits and exerting pressures” rather than in the theological sense of total “prefiguration, prediction or control” (4). Williams argues at length:

We have to revalue ‘determination’ towards the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content. We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men [sic] in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process. (6)

This understanding of dynamic process, of economic activity as being something done intentionally by people in specific material contexts, is key, particularly when applied to to today’s information economy, where culture and economy are increasingly blurred. The blurring of culture and economy is itself a space for intervention, a space of possibility, a space not governed by the supposedly objective rules of capitalism but by human activity and intent. We might do well to see those objective rules as another instance of the “laws, constitutions, theories, ideologies, which are claimed as natural, or as having universal validity or significance” which “simply have to be seen as expressing and ratifying the domination of a particular class” (7).

As we know, though, the economy is changing: we no longer live in the industrial economy that gave arguments about working-class identities so much of their force, and we need to move away from the circumstance described by J. K. Gibson-Graham wherein “attachment to a past political analysis or identity is stronger than the interest in present possibilities for mobilization, alliance, or transformation” (5). A static focus on economy as always either prior to the classroom or in the student’s future closes off any possibility for change.

Furthermore, the capitalist notion of exchange in service of accumulation, as a way of remedying lack, is a commodifying move in the context of the classroom. It turns education into a market transaction, and this would seem unsurprising when markets are increasingly being promoted as useful ways of organizing all aspects of life. Commodification is a way of counting things, and counting things gives us clear-cut boundaries, walls things off, narrows down the possible answers, and so we think of market approaches to higher education are essential to making things run smoothly, commodifying units of instruction, outcomes, skills. Yet we know that some things cannot and should not be commodified. Teaching students an all-commodifying approach results in students who will only write, only learn, when they receive something in exchange.

2. Class as process

But this is not the only way to understand class and economic activity. Rather than seeing class as a place in a social hierarchy, we might see class in the sense of Resnick and Wolff, who redefine the term “class” to describe the economic process of the appropriation of value. Resnick and Wolff’s focus on appropriation comes out of Marx’s distinction between necessary labor and surplus labor. At the most basic level, class happens differently depending upon who appropriates the value produced by labor, and how. Children being put to work for the family business could be seen as an instance of a feudal class process, while the consumer who buys the goods produced by that business could be seen as an instance of a market class process, and if that consumer uses those goods to produce her own goods and exchange them for some other service in conjunction with a group of like-minded others, she may be seen as participating in a communal class process. For-profit commodified capitalist transactions are only one variety of transaction in a diverse economy.

People engage in productive, value-laden economic activity for diverse motivations: what Yochai Benkler has characterized as profit-based or market-oriented motivations, but also social-psychological motivations and pleasure-seeking rewards: writing for cash or for a grade versus writing as an act of social or communal belonging versus writing for pleasure. Whatever the motivation, people’s economic actions are components of a cycle of interconnected work, appropriation, ownership, and use. These processes must always be understood as taking place over time, especially given Benkler’s key insight that “Information is both input and output of its own production process (37). Furthermore, in terms of writing, textual collaboration and appropriation are key aspects of all writing: no writing takes place outside a historical context or without influence, and information is always built upon a foundation of other information. Seeing the cycle of textual work, appropriation, ownership, and use as economic act allows us to see Benkler’s information production process as an intentional economy. In that cycle, each element leads into the next and sometimes overlaps and blurs with the next, with use leading back to work.

the cycle of work, appropriation, ownership, use

Textual work consists of production (the act of writing) and distribution (made more efficient by digital technologies), with reproduction being one aspect of distribution. Work can be performed for any variety of motivations. Appropriation is the harvesting of value, performed by various parties and at various stages of the work of writing: in writing to learn, appropriation is performed by the writer in an independent class process: she appropriates the value of her work. Writing and selling a book is a market class process, with the publisher appropriating the surplus value of labor at the point of distribution. Ownership can be individual, institutional, community, or state; it can be embodied or commodified; and—as with copyright’s artifically limited monopoly—it changes over time. Use, like work, can be performed for any variety of motivations and purposes: one can use texts for pleasure, for self-education, for accomplishing tasks, for social rewards, and for appropriating and remixing into new texts.

The new efficiencies of the information economy’s digital technologies greatly facilitate that remixing. The manipulation of information is not an extraeconomic abstraction, but something with concrete and measurable economic effects. As Johndan Johnson-Eilola argues, “symbols are now a class of material objects, conceptual objects, with market value, social force, and dimension” (4), and our students’ compositions and our own are instances of symbolic work.

3. Writing class in the network economy

Some types of economic good — including information — take on more value the more they are used; the more they circulate. Scholarship on portfolios and citation practices has demonstrated that publishing and citing student work increases its affective value for students and increases their engagement with writing, and more recent scholarship on weblogs in the writing classroom has demonstrated that positive relationship between public writing and affective engagement as well. Networked writing is valuable, and in the information economy, we are all increasingly networked. What we need, then, is a language of economic diversity that helps us to understand the diverse types of transactions and relations that constitute networked writing. J. K. Gibson-Graham’s taxonomic breakdown of economic activity is useful to this end.

Gibson-Graham points out that conventional representations of economy construct transactions as being market transactions, labor as being wage labor, and enterprises as being capitalist.

However, she asserts, contemporary economic activity is considerably more diverse, with alternative forms of transactions, labor, and enterprise: fair-trade markets, alternative currencies, underground markets, and cooperatives; self-employed, cooperative, indentured, and reciprocal labor; state enterprises, socially responsible firms, nonprofits, and green capitalists.

Furthermore, there are also non-market, non-wage, and non-capitalist forms of economic activity: gift giving, state allocations, state appopriations, hunting; housework, family care, volunteer, and self-provisioning labor; communal, independent, feudal, and slave enterprises.

To which you might well say: so what? What relevance does any of this have for the teaching of composition?

Imagine three doctoral candidates in rhetoric and composition at a large state university. They constitute an informal writing group; meeting twice a month to discuss one another’s dissertation chapters. All three have undergraduate loans — one from a religious college, one from a public college, and one from a private college — but one has a teaching assistantship with one section of first-year composition, one has a research assistantship, and one has a fellowship and small salary for her work with the writing center, where she advises undergraduate work-study tutors. One is highly active in performing writing for a professional organization; one is a prominent member of several online communities and weblog collectives; one occasionally makes extra cash by teaching a section at the University’s continuing education center. One is a returning scholar with a teenage child, whom she regularly tutors on writing assignments; one works with students to contribute to a growing repository of free documentation for open-source software; one occasionally makes supplementary income by tutoring high-school students for the SAT. They all use in-class peer response in their teaching, they all have assigned the research paper essay and the personal essay at some point in their teaching careers, and they all practice writing as a reflective process. One assigns ungraded private journals, another asks her students to compose critical multimedia remixes of cultural texts, and one asks her students to keep public weblogs of their activities in community literacy projects. One discovers that a student has purchased a paper from one of the online paper mills, another has two students who turn in the same paper, and one recommends hiring a regular tutor to her ESL student. Eventually, they get job offers. One doesn’t like any of the offers she receives, and struggles to make a growing name for herself as an independent scholar, publishing and consulting. One likes the impressive salary and benefits that a for-profit online institution offers, and goes to work for private higher education. And one is excited to go to work as WPA-in-training for a small state school, where she also advises the student newspaper.

Now: everything I’ve just described is a form of economic activity in the diverse information economy, performed for a diverse range of motivations.

forms of economic transaction in the writing classroom

Again: all these phenomena are instances of economic activity. If we understand the classroom as a site of diverse forms of economic activity and value, undertaken for diverse motivations, we can move toward Gibson-Graham’s understanding of “economy as a site of decision, of ethical praxis, instead of as the ultimate reality/container/constraint” (Gibson-Graham 87). So doing offers opportunities for economic intervention.

4. Spaces of economic possibility

The classroom is a space of economic possibility. Writing is a form of emotional and intellectual work; what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call “immaterial labor” that engages in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). This immaterial labor takes place in independent transactions, feudal transactions, gift transactions. Certainly, students’ written work stands as labor in the production of economically useful and valuable knowledge for the self, but also stands as a form of peer-production of economically valuable knowledge for communal use in the information economy.

In this classroom space of economic possibility, composition’s work in such areas as service learning, community literacy projects, and the open source documentation and development project stand as already-existing practices that counter conventional assumptions about selfish competition for scarce resources and the resulting injuries of class. On the Web, we see online communities where individuals freely share, evaluate, respond to, and build on one another’s writing. In composition, we might imagining coupling such projects to an online repository of Creative-Commons-licensed student texts; a site that might serve as the open source philosophical opposite of, or the essayistic counterpart to Napster, where students could work on a form of massively multi-thinker online academic peer review, while at the same time rating, circulating, and remixing one another’s written texts. Submission guidelines for such a project might require a .edu e-mail address and a hyptertext link either to the assignment that prompted the posting of the text (which would require that participating instructors license and post their pedagogical work, as well) or, in the absence of an exchange-based assignment, to the student work that prompted the textual remix. Given the accessibility of server statistics concerning who logs on to the site and from where, and at what time, it would be relatively easy—given enough users—to track trends in terms of what types of essays receive the most feedback, what types of assignment are most productive, and what forms and instances of textual work students value beyond their exchangeability for a grade. We already see students collaborating to produce new academic knowledge in the peer-reviewed undergraduate journal Young Scholars in Writing, and we see our colleagues collaborating to produce new knowledge for Web resources like CCC Online and CompPile. People see not only market rewards from the immaterial labor of producing knowledge, but other forms of reward as well; other ways of bettering their own condition. Information is proliferative, and counters the conventional understanding of the selfish homo economicus.

Homo economicus, in fact, acts from diverse motivations. The very first words of Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments are these: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (9). There are motives other than material profit, and more than one way to better one’s condition.

In fact, the pleasure of the seeing that Smith describes is itself proliferative, a form of reward that might let us seek a different emphasis in the words of his from which we started:

The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it alone, and without any assistance, is not only capable of carrying the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations. (Smith 581)

An emphasis on inclusivity rather than the hierarchies of class; an emphasis on carrying the whole of society to wealth and prosperity.

Works Cited

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2006.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Datacloud: Toward a New Theory of Online Work. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2005.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 2006.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Resnick, Stephen, and Richard Wolff. Knowledge and Class: A Marxian Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1989.

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

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Oxford: Oxford Universtity, 1976.

Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review 82 (1973): 3-16.

CCCC07 B.30: My Presentation

4 thoughts on “CCCC07 B.30: My Presentation

  • March 25, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    I like that you’re giving us a sense of process as well as the content. For some reason, I can’t get the bullet-point text; I keep getting a file not found. You’ve got some great stuff here that I’ve bookmarked for later.

  • March 26, 2007 at 8:38 am

    Thanks, Nels. Don’t know what was going on with the file, but I think it’s fixed now.

  • June 24, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Stumbled upon your site this morning … and thought I’d pause to commend you on this presentation, which I thought conveyed a substantive complexity while also remaining highly listenable. Among the highlights of this year’s Cs for me.

  • June 24, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you, John! I’m happy to hear it came off well. I’m working on revising and expanding it for publication, so if you have any criticisms or suggestions, I’d welcome them.


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