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.

The Orientalist doesn’t teach. She’s on the other side of the institution as a Manpower and Management Analyst, but she’s just as concerned with time. The project she’s been lately working on develops a model that determines across the curriculum how many faculty hours it takes to educate a cadet, in order that we can submit that model to the higher institutions that fund us. As one might guess, that assessment of time is a vexed issue for all concerned: teaching isn’t just teaching. Teaching is expertise. Teaching is pedagogy, informed by scholarship. Teaching is service and administration. Teaching is planning and grading. So the Orientalist is given an annual person-hour number for how much we expect faculty to work here (one that is in my view significantly lower than the number of hours it takes to be a good instructor), and polls the academic departments, asking them: what are all the tasks that your instructors perform that combine to make good teaching at West Point; that combine to make West Point a nationally recognized and highly ranked institution of postsecondary education?

What she’s asking, in effect, is the same thing I’m doing when I talk to my students about the clock. We’re commodifying time.

Rather than seeing time as a context for value, we make time a medium of exchange in its own right. The minutes spent in class working on one task or another, the hours spent outside of class finishing homework or grading papers or planning a lesson or stopping by the instructor’s office for help or riding on the train down to NYC with cadets in their dress whites to go to the opera: all these things are turned into the minutes and the hours that it takes students to be successful students and teachers to be successful teachers.

What are we doing with time? We’re exchanging it. We’re cashing it in, or so goes the popular view. According to Arjun Appadurai (The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, excerpted in Rethinking Commodification), “a commodity is any thing intended for exchange” (35). In the ways we approach the use of time in our teacherly endeavors, we are intending time for some form of exchange, aren’t we? That would seem to fit the dominant view — except for one small thing. That small thing is the word “intended,” which according to both neoclassical and Marxian conceptions of economics belongs nowhere near any discussion of value. Intent doesn’t matter to any of the major schools of economics. It means nothing to their calculations of value, which are dependent either upon demand or upon appropriated surplus labor.

Appadurai’s concern with intent presents at least one problem for the ways economists of the various schools think about the value of work and its commodification. (I figure it’s not showing my hand too much to admit that I agree with Appadurai, and I think that any conception of economic value that does not admit concerns of motivation as to why people engage in value-producing economic behavior is myopic.) I see another in his suggestion that we “approach commodities as things in a certain situation, a situation that can characterize many different kinds of things, at different points in their social lives,” which would imply “breaking significantly with the production-dominated Marxian view of the commodity and focusing on its total trajectory from production, through exchange/distribution, to consumption” (Appadurai 36). I’ll confess to some sympathy (no surprise, I’m sure) to Marxian conceptions of value, which makes this assertion of his particularly interesting to me, because I’ve long thought that my formulation of a cyclical trajectory of value for writing/composing through production, distribution, use, and re-production was fundamentally Marxian or at the very least post-Marxian.

So, too, would be my notion — following (again and still: thank you, Julie) J. K. Gibson-Graham — that there is more than one form of value to our writing and our students’ writing; that such value need not always be commodified; that the writing and learning and scholarship that we and our students perform carries diverse forms of value beyond the commodity. It doesn’t always need to be cashed in for something, and that’s part of why the motivation for economic activity is such an important component of seeing what it’s worth. Writing can be an exchange — a commodified paper for a grade — but it can be plenty of other things, as well. Appadurai suggests “that things can move in and out of the commodity state, that such movements can be slow or fast, reversible or terminal, normative or deviant” (37). But what Appadurai sees as a theory of commodities is what Julie and I see as a theory of economy: the same thing can happen with things that aren’t commodities — thefts, gifts, things that are never intended for exchange but still hold value.

In fact, if we know anything about writing, we know that it circulates, and that it holds different forms of value in different social contexts. As Appadurai notes, “commodities, like persons, have social lives” (34). We’ve seen for a while now some good attention in the scholarship of computers and writing to the social lives of the writing we and our students produce. What happens, then, if we attend to those social lives in relation to the clock?

What does your work look like at dawn, and at noon?

Commodification and Time