Benkler Meets Murray

What happens when we take the (allegedly old or superannuated, according to some) process pedagogy approaches — in fact, I’m thinking primarily of those who have been labeled (accurately or not) expressivist — and put them into play with the approaches of those (of whom I am one) who concern themselves with emerging technologies? When one reads Peter Elbow’s Everyone Can Write with care, with generosity, with a critical eye, what might it tell us about student writers and the condition of being digital?

If we go back to Donald Murray’s “Teach Writing as Process Not Product” or A Writer Teaches Writing, what might we gain from Yochai Benkler’s three observations from The Wealth of Networks that “first, non-proprietary strategies have always been more important in information production than they were in the production of steel or automobiles” (or other industrial goods); that in a networked information economy, “the aggregate effect of individual action, even when it is not self-consciously cooperative, produces the coordinate effect of a new and rich information environment” (or what we might call a new commons); that we have recently seen the emergence of “effective, large-scale cooperative efforts — peer production of information, knowledge, and culture… typified by the emergence of free and open-source software” and the overflow of the open-source ethos into domains far beyond those of the programmer (Benkler 4-5)? Quite a bit, I think. Murray’s and Elbow’s concerns with individualism and ideas mesh quite well with Benkler’s focus in ways that the so-called social turn in composition studies could not at all anticipate.

Interestingly, so much of that theory in the social turn was derived from Marx and his inheritors, but today seems inadequate in the context of Benkler’s observation that the Internet “is the first modern communications medium that expands its reach by decentralizing the capital structure of production and distribution of information, culture, and knowledge. Much of the physical capital that embeds most of the intelligence in the network is widely diffused and owned by end users… This basic change in the material conditions of information and cultural production and distribution have substantial effects on how we come to know the world we occupy and the alternative courses of action open to us as individuals and social actors” (30). Ownership of the means of production and distribution is returning to individuals — is decentralizing — and we’re needing to turn back to a focus on those individuals, not as isolate or solipsistic, but as networked agents, as writers and composers whose actions have concrete and tangible effects.

Benkler Meets Murray

One thought on “Benkler Meets Murray

  • May 28, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    You’ve rehabilitated Benkler for me. Well, that’s an exaggeration: I like WoN. But its strong undercurrent of individualism unnerves me, especially as he seems to imagine unfettered personal choice. To have it contextualized in process pedagogy (of which I am not one of the kill-it-now camp) is to place it in a friendly home where I can feel more comfortable with it. I’ll be teaching WoN in my grad class next spring; I’ll be interested to see how students react to it.

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