Monthly Archives: September 2011

Ambrose Bierce and the Stuffed Chief of Police

What makes writing good?

I’m not talking about the object — the product of writing-as-activity — but about the doing itself. The gerund. The activity. The habit.

I have some ideas, largely rooted in process-based pedagogy, which I know may be problematic for the composition scholars who identify themselves as post-process. In “Professional Writing Expertise,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 389-402), Ronald Kellogg points out that “[s]erious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task” that involves “hold[ing] multiple representations in mind while adeptly juggling the basic processes of planning ideas, generating sentences, and reviewing how well the process is going” (389). I’d say that’s a pretty good picture of what we teach our students to do, whether we characterize ourselves as process or post-process. Teaching that array of skills is a complex endeavor, and I can understand why plenty of composition specialists and theorists and pedagogues — you, my friends and colleagues — would want to resist reducing it to the lock-step single-sequence method that a sequence of lessons or a syllabus can sometimes make it look like. But that’s unfair: we all know, always and already, how rich and complex and challenging teaching writing can be, and we know it’s not a lock-step method. If we argue in good faith, I think, it’s hard to not see the post-process objections as ways of setting up a straw man that we’d like to beat with a stick.

We understand that post-process theories of writing assert that they take the understanding of writing-as-process as given; as an understanding so obvious that we no longer need to think or argue about it. In other words, the process understanding of writing is so basic as to no longer be able to generate interesting questions. I disagree: while process pedagogy in many places is largely taken for granted, it’s also still clearly generating argument and disagreement. When post-process pedagogues declare process pedagogy to be foundational and monolithic, I want to say: yes, of course, but not so fast.

In 1987, I was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. In the general psychology 100 course that all freshmen were required to take — Cognitive Processes Theory and Practice, led and lectured by John Hayes — we were required to participate in empirically-based psychology experiments for course credit.

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Who Sells Writing?

Most of the plagiarized essays available at the online term paper mills are terrible. The free ones I’ve seen are largely incoherent or semi-coherent patches of writing recycled for high school writing assignments so obvious they’re kind of embarrassing. I haven’t seen all that many of the for-hire ones, but the excerpted samples available at some of the sites and the experiments I’ve seen from some of those investigating online plagiarism mostly point toward a consensus that the canned essays students sometimes pay for with a credit card aren’t much better than the free ones. What’s left are the custom for-pay papers, and the prices for those are pretty high. I would imagine the quality is better than that of the canned papers, and I’m sure the for-hire term paper artists are pretty good, but I have to wonder if the trade-off in cash versus time is really worth it: for a custom paper, the going rate seems to start at around $20 per page and go up steeply. So a three-page paper will put you out at least sixty bucks.

Most students don’t make more than $10 an hour, if they work. Is a three-page paper worth six hours of your time? It depends on the student, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think working students are the ones paying $60 for a three-page paper: if they’re working and going to college, there’s a sort of value equation there that would lead most of them, I would think, to sit in front of the keyboard and do whatever one can to get the work of writing done. That work might be lackadaisical or slapdash, but from what I’ve seen, they mostly do it. (It should be clear at this point that I’m not talking about cadets, who are not permitted to hold paid employment, and who are so overscheduled as to be completely incapable of doing so. They’ve got other pressing concerns.) So if you see a good paper from a student, and it’s a plagiarized paper exchanged in a market transaction, I’d bet there’s a good chance that student isn’t a working student.

There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with how markets work differently for different people. In “The Subject and Object of Commodification,” the Introduction to the Ertman and Williams collection Rethinking Commodification (NYU Press, 2005), Margaret Jane Rabin and Madhavi Sunder call into question

the economic neutrality of markets. Markets affect the rich and poor differently. The poor are more likely to be the sellers, and the rich, the buyers, of questionable commodities such as sexual services or body parts. Unequal distributions of wealth make the poorest in society, with little to offer in the marketplace, more likely to commodify themselves. (11)

The immaterial labor of education, and of writing, is self-work, and written products are often close to the self, even if they aren’t the gushing public exposure of self that compositionists too often misrepresent as what we call expressive writing. Writing is work, and it’s hard, and that work that we and our students do carries portions of our selves. (Poststructuralist objections and pointed remarks about the illusory nature of the unified subject noted, and I’m mostly in agreement. Randall Freisinger’s perspective in the Peter Elbow Landmark Essays volume on voice stands as required reading for those who raise such objections.) In higher education, students who are sufficiently privileged not to have to exchange their labor for a wage enjoy the relative privilege of being able to at least partially appropriate the value of their own self-work: they get to write their own papers, and in writing their own papers, they are turning that labor of writing into the capital of skill at writing, as well as exchanging their papers-as-commodities in return for the good grade that will presumably contribute to the furthering of their careers.

The ultra-privileged students who don’t need to work and who have the resources to pay for custom-written papers are also exempted from the need to turn any labor into capital, because any shortcomings they might have in human capital (the ability to write well, for example) are compensated for by the advantage their financial capital will give them after college. Who remains, then? The poor. And as Rabin and Sunder note, the poor are more likely to commodify themselves, and are also more likely to have experienced the educational advantages familiar to those with more wealth. In other words, the reason that so many canned for-hire term papers — and even some of the products of the custom term paper services — are so lousy is that they’re an instance of how market economies treat different classes of people in different ways. Poor people, who are more likely to have had poor experiences in the educational system, are more likely to be the ones who try to commodify their educational experiences by selling their term papers.

Commodification and Time

I boasted yesterday that I “work the hell out of the clock.” It’s true: I do. But I’m having second thoughts about that boast. Is it a good thing to “work the hell out of the clock,” either in class or out of class?

I think it’s important, certainly, to respect classroom time and student time, and to do so by planning well, which means planning at once precisely and flexibly. My first-year composition course has an arc marked by graded events, and sequences of lessons that lead up to those graded events, and I plan those sequences themselves both at the small scale and the grand scale while at the same time allowing enough space for things to shift right or left on the calendar as they need to. I’m one of those teachers who always overplans his classes, always having ready to go more than we’ll have time to do. At the same time, I’m also one of those teachers who always cuts himself short, insisting that students have their minimum of 20 minutes each class to write what I ask them to write. Respect the time.

That’s something that not enough people here say, or maybe that not enough people here do, cadets and faculty alike. We abuse time on either side, teachers assigning cadets too much to do, cadets at all levels giving themselves too much to do, to the point where the plebes (who are still earnest, still eager to succeed at everything) in class nod like those mechanical water-sipping birds, because they’ve tried to complete all the tasks set upon them, rather than realizing (as upperclassmen do) that there are some tasks at which they will fail.

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