Category Archives: Economics

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, Part 1

Yesterday was Veterans Day. It was a cold morning here in Pullman: around 20 degrees, and we still have a few nasturtiums left in the front flowerbed. I’d listened to the NPR news piece about poppies and Flanders Fields and Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations, and it occurred to me briefly that poppies would look nice when I opened the front door and went to put out the flag. With my hands so cold, I didn’t think long about poppies.

First Lady Michelle Obama had marked the occasion the day before by honoring women veterans at Arlington, and by announcing several technological initiatives related to careers and education. I think that’s a good thing, but I also had some difficulties with the ways military service and higher education were framed. As the White House’s strategic communications officer COL Steve Parker put it, “[t]o support veterans in their transition to meaningful employment, the First Lady announced two significant public-private partnerships with LinkedIn and Coursera that will help military members find and land the jobs they want.” For the sake of COL Parker’s ongoing career satisfaction and that of other servicemembers, let’s not talk about that “transition to meaningful employment” phrase, but the “public-private partnerships” are interesting in what they reflect about who we consider to be public and who we consider to be private. I see LinkedIn as the Facebook of the job search world, in both good and bad ways, and LinkedIn shows perhaps even more than Facebook how some efficiencies favor employers rather than would-be employees: as the axiom goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product.

I have somewhat more difficulty with Coursera as a “partner” in a “public-private” partnership between veterans and American taxpayers as the “public” and a for-profit educational enterprise as the “private.” Coursera, as one might imagine, is very happy about an arrangement by which “[t]he VA will endorse Coursera to 21 million US Veterans” in the name of “expos[ing] Veteran learners to industry relevant education.” It’s a familiar trope: praise those wonderfully selfless irrelevant dopes who we all seek to honor, in the name (not spoken too loudly) of profit. If you’ve read Google Chief Economist Hal Shapiro’s early-oughts Harvard Business Press infocapitalism primer Information Rules, you’ll recognize it as coming straight out of that playbook: what Coursera has done, quite masterfully, is to achieve distance education lock-in of a captive audience. With the public aid of the VA and American taxpayers, Coursera is increasing its private profits.

Coursera specializes in MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, a recently-touted solution to what regimes of increasing privatization and profit have spuriously manufactured as an economic crisis in higher education. As Charles Lowe puts it in his introduction to a recent edited scholarly volume on MOOCs,

Millions of dollars of grants have funded many experiments with a variety of MOOCs based on different theoretical principles and using different interactive tools. Elite colleges are creating MOOCs to enhance their own reputations, although ironically not offering college credit for the courses themselves. Politicians, looking for yet another route to cheap education, are pushing MOOCs upon public institutions, with commercial entities determined to monetize the MOOC equally prodding the debate in favor of MOOCs for higher ed. (xi)

Jeffrey T. Grabill acknowledges that “the ‘great recession’ of 2007–2008″ was why he and his colleagues “were thinking about MOOCs at Michigan State in 2012″ (40). Nick Carbone characterizes MOOCs as “just another business venture seeking to promise educational efficiency—more students served—at lower per student costs” (193). Efficiency trumps all, and in a political and rhetorical environment where we know that the price tag for veterans’ post-9/11 GI Bill is US $9 billion, perhaps MOOCs and their increased efficiencies of education offer an answer.

And so, in response to Michelle Obama’s initiative with the VA and Coursera and distance education, we might well ask Cicero’s question: cui bono?

In his co-edited volume, Charles Lowe traces the advent of MOOCs to the early 2002–2008 work of George Siemens (ix) and to MIT’s 2002 OpenCourseWare project. The MIT project resulted in discussions that led to UNESCO’s work with online Open Educational Resources (Lowe x), which I was grateful to make use of and share with Afghan English instructors when the United States Military Academy deployed me to Kabul in 2011. As Lowe observes, the notion of Open Educational Resources carries “an idealistic vision of creating freely available educational opportunities for anyone with Internet access, educational opportunities equivalent to the traditional classroom which would particularly help those in developing areas of the world” (x): an apparent public good, worth contrasting to the harvest of private profits from public service.

More to follow.

Works Cited

Carbone, Nick. “Here a MOOC, There a MOOC.” Krause and Lowe 193–203.

Grabill, Jeffrey T. “Why We Are Thinking About MOOCs.” Krause and Lowe 39–44.

Krause, Steven D., and Charles Lowe, eds. Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Online Courses. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2014. http://www.parlorpress.com/pdf/invasion_of_the_moocs.pdf

Lowe, Charles. “Introduction: Building on the Tradition of CCK08.” Krause and Lowe ix–xiv.

Why the Sparklepony Matters

There’s been a dust-up around my professional conference, CCCC (the Conference on College Composition and Communication, or informally, 4Cs or Cs), and the conference game that Wendi Sierra and others designed to help graduate students new to the discipline network and professionalize. The comments section at the Chronicle of Higher Education story that reported on the game is, as one would expect from most online comments sections, dismaying: defenders of the game are making smart, articulate, and carefully considered arguments, and there are also a lot of trolls and idiots, to include Florida State University English Department graduate student and teaching assistant Adam Weinstein, who wrote a nasty little piece for Gawker based only upon secondhand information from the Chronicle article and his perusal of Google to find Chris Kluwe’s book (which he dismisses in a phrase that makes it quite clear he has no idea what Kluwe is doing in the book) and his (yes, seriously) use of urbandictionary.com.

Here’s the deal. The “sparklepony,” as an evolving concept, came out of Collin Brooke’s conference presentation in 2010, wherein Collin referenced the World of Warcraft Celestial Steed, a new in-game decorative mount/vehicle that players could purchase for $25. The Celestial Steed was quickly ycleped the “sparklepony” by the in-game community (Weinstein: you’ve got your etymology wrong, and need to work on taking your grad student research skills beyond Google) and Collin mentioned the appellation in his presentation, observing that this was an instance (I paraphrase from my own memory here, and apologize to Collin if I get him wrong) of an online luxury good: a way that WoW players could purchase items of value that stood only as class markers. The name and concept of the “sparklepony” was quickly and enthusiastically taken up by the conference Twitter backchannel, especially by scholars who shared Brooke’s interest in the intersections of technology and writing instruction, and who extended that interest into ludology or game studies, including—especially—Jill Morris. Jill made a number of physical-object “sparkleponies,” decorated with glitter and googly eyes and feathers. Those material instances of in-game digital objects became physical objects of value: scholars interested in the blur between digital and material worlds, including myself, coveted them. As such, they became the prize for the C’s the Day game.

That circumstance perhaps makes it clear that graduate students like Adam Weinstein need to be rather more careful in “journalism” (Gawker LOL) that attacks an entire field and scholars (established and emerging) in that field. Collin Brooke’s work demonstrated how immaterial and digitally reproducible objects became tokens of value in World of Warcraft, and suggested implications for how those immaterial objects (like writing) took on diverse forms of value, and how that valuation might have consequences for rhetorical practice. The ways Jill Morris remediated those digital objects into material objects, with diverse material forms of value, extended Brooke’s insights in important ways. Wendi Sierra’s incorporation of the Sparklepony as a token of material value into a systematic social form of professionalization for newcomers to an academic discipline illustrates in crucial ways how what Hardt and Negri have termed the “immaterial labor” [sic] associated with the information economy has important material consequences for composition scholarship—and therefore for composition pedagogy, and also more broadly for entry into the academic discipline.

In other words, this game has important professional and economic consequences, not just for graduate students, not just for professors, but for undergraduate students as well. Value aggregates, and as recent conferences have demonstrated, value aggregates in complex ways, especially when that ostensible boundary between F2F and online blurs—as it has in the case of the C’s the Day game. The Sparklepony, as object remediated from for-pay online game into online slang and from there into academic discourse and from there into practice of academic professionalization, is amazing: I love it in the same way I love the frozen time-golem of the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council. The Sparklepony, for some, is a reminder of faculty obligations to help professionalize graduate students, and also a reminder of the ways that digital work intersects with the embodied materiality of F2F work—and the embodied materiality of F2F play.

The Forensic Imagination and the Commodification of Process

In his discussion of William Gibson’s Agrippa, Kirschenbaum notes that “while the title _Agrippa’s_ immediate referent is to a brand of photograph albums, it also hearkens back to Renaissance mage Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim” (230), and while the reference is appropriate, it apparently overlooks what I believe is a much more relevant reference: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and his son Agrippa Postumus, so named because he was born after the death of his father. Agrippa the senior was elaborately memorialized by Augustus, while Agrippa Postumus was executed following the death of Augustus, and his step-father Tiberius became emperor. These figures seem much more closely connected to the subjects of Gibson’s ephemeral poem in their representation of father-and-son relationships and in their relation to memorialization.

But perhaps such contestation is part of the point Kirschenbaum makes: a reading is always only ever a reading, informed as much by the reader’s material and social and historical contexts that she brings to the reading as by the forensically unique allographic textual artifact itself. On page 185, Kirschenbaum uses a screenshot of multiple windows running different electronic versions of Michael Joyce’s _Afternoon_ to demonstrate how digital texts are not purely virtual, and so shows us what revision means, in its re-use, re-reading, and re-attending to a text from a position located within and conscious of a particular material context. Revision is always situated in a kairotic moment. In Kirschenbaum’s words, “formal materiality. . . serves to fetishize via the computational distance (or torque, or simply effort) necessary to. . . access certain objects in certain ways. In my own case, the first time I successfully opened a first edition of _Afternoon_, I was exquisitely self-conscious of something very much like bibliophilia, precisely because I had to couple the file itself with the right Macintosh operating system and the right version of Storyspace, thereby imposing a formal regimen on the binary object that was _Afternoon_, which then led it to execute, consume system resources, and ultimately present itself for my inspection and manipulation. This kind of access and recovery will, I suspect, ultimately prove more enduring th[a]n a collector or connoisseur’s sensibility, which seeks to acquire and possess” (186). If formal materiality is effort or work, Kirschenbaum’s example also demonstrates that it can be pleasure, as well. It’s both the process and the kairotic/phenomenological moment of the experience of a text that remediates it and reforms/performs/deforms it within a specific material context, to and from which there are specific material and textual inputs and outputs that negotiate between different levels of textual, social, and technological systems. In other words, the process Kirschenbaum describes is economic: value and labor are circulating, and in texts just as in computers, “[v]ersioning. . . exposes the cumulative labor that attends a piece of software” (202). The process is an instance and an example of the economic aggregation problem, by which we cannot measure all the inputs and outputs of any economic activity.

This is what happens, then, “whenever process collapses into product” (Kirschenbaum 253): the forensic imagination takes the meaning of a text as its material form and that form then takes on secondary meaning and value in its aestheticization and commodification. Such a move is also performed by the corpus of composition pedagogy (in its theorized condition) does.

Rhetorics of Debt

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011.

Anthropologist David Graeber points out Aristotle’s use of the term symbolon to argue that “coins are merely social conventions” (298), and observes that symbolon originally meant “tally” and often referred to “an object broken in half to mark a contract or agreement” (298). Think of the heart-half necklaces young couples wear today that serve as reminders of their relationship: from Graeber, we understand that those were instances of what Aristotle was talking about. So coins literally symbolized social relationships between people, even as today they have become (according to Marx and his successors) the ways to abstract those social relationships, to wrench those relationships from their interpersonal contexts. Graeber then extends his analysis to set up a parallel with language, which exists as an interpersonal communicative link but is also arbitrary: the word has as little intrinsic meaning as the half-heart necklace—it is an arbitrary set of sounds—and only carries meaning in its social context. It is at once deeply particular and remarkably abstract. Words, like money, are “arbitrary tokens of agreement” (Graeber 299) that spring up among individuals. Consider Graeber’s observation in a Burkean context: Burke’s Grammar breaks down the terms by which we engage one another, whereas his Rhetoric examines the systems of persuasion by which we allow ourselves to identify with one another. Graeber’s remarkable book offers an extensive historical grammar of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships. How, then, might I work towards a historical and technological rhetoric of debt and money as instantiations and abstractions of social bonds and relationships?

The Bridle and the MOOC

I’m enrolled in in the “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” MOOC (#edcmooc) that the University of Edinburgh is offering through Coursera, and it’s offering an interesting bit of synchronicity with some of the other things I’m working on, including taking part in a reading group with five graduate students as we work our way through Marx’s Capital volume 1, and teaching the spring-semester iteration of a 300-level WSU course (DTC356) called “Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information.” As you might imagine, reader, there’s a bit of overlap, and some curiously shifting perspectives.

In the reading group, we just finished the notorious Chapter 3, the chapter on money, and the dialectical back-and-forth got a bit head-spining. It’s the first chapter where Marx mentions accumulation, and the impulse toward accumulation, but it’s also an amazing analysis of how capitalism when it works perfectly inevitably tends toward crisis because of the way it works perfectly. The chapter takes Marx’s foundational work with the commodity (and its instantiation of frozen socially necessary abstract labor: in other words, the first way we see labor undertaking its transformation into capital) as its starting point and then investigates the curious and contradictory ways that money functions, winding its analysis toward the function of paper money and credit as a human-created technology. Marx notes that there are some items that possess value (in that they are frozen labor) and a price, and that there are other items that possess no value in his technical sense of the term (because no labor went into them: his examples are honor and conscience) but that do possess a price. I’ll leave my quibbles with that second half of the definition for later — I believe that social constructs like honor and conscience themselves require labor to produce even if we are seldom conscious of that labor — because the important thing to note is that there are some things that have prices but that do not have values. I would extend this to say that there are some things that have prices but that have negative values: for example, the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs) that were intentionally crafted to be so mathematically complex as to be beyond understanding and so to be able to hide the so-called “toxic” mortgage loans that were incorporated into them, with that complexity allowing bankers to sell them to investors while those bankers simultaneously bet against those instruments as investments, and thereby profited from the collapse of the product that they had sold knowing that they had designed them to fail. Those CDOs and CDSs are human-designed technologies of capitalism, and they carry prices as mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth (from sucker investors to savvy bankers, apparently), but I’m still wondering whether or not they fulfill Marx’s definition of a commodity as carrying the value of the abstract social labor that went into their production.

Here’s an analogue for that question: given enough computational and analytical power — or, in other words, given enough human labor translated into the digital capital of financial systems analytic software via lines of code written and accounting formulae written and aggregated study and expertise all operating on machines designed by teams of engineers and experts who relied on previous insights and innovations going back even prior to the invention of the transistor — could the ways that CDOs and CDSs contributed to the Crash of 2008 have been anticipated or prevented? Did CDOs and CDSs as technologies of capitalism determine that such a Crash *must* have happened at some point? In the DTC356 course I’m teaching, we’re reading about Claude Shannon as an information theorist who believed the necessary step to decode information was to discard meaning: we don’t care about meaning, Shannon argued. We care about the signal, about the code. Focus enough on the code and discard the context and one can decode any information. In this sense, I suspect Shannon was largely a technological instrumentalist of the sort produced by the first half of the 20th century, particularly if we understand “technology” to exist as a field that includes “tools, instruments, machines, organizations, media, methods, techniques, and systems” (“Reification”). Technological instrumentalists believe technologies to be use-neutral and subject only to human intention, even as their invention seems to demand their use, even as they seem to exist as autonomous entities divorced from us, apart from society, simply things laying to hand to be used.

To my mind, though, what Marx helps to show is the ways in which human social arrangements give rise to systems that blinker us in specific ways, that point us toward certain ways of being and certain technologies, so that in a capitalist system CDOs and CDSs make perfect sense even as they precipitate crises that demolish enormous amounts of actually-existing value (as instances of frozen human labor). I don’t (or won’t) identify as a technological determinist (although I tend much more easily toward an overdetermined technological determinism than toward a technological instrumentalism), but when I look at the intersection of social, political, and economic habits and practices with technologies like computers, cell phones, CDOs, and CDSs, I can’t help but think of the end of the classic Raymond Carver story “The Bridle” and its attitude about technologies like the bridle: Marge looks at the bridle — that instance of frozen labor, that commodity, that technology — after all that has gone on in the story, and thinks, “If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you’d catch on in a hurry. When you felt it pull, you’d know it was time. You’d know you were going somewhere.” That circumstance at the end of the story, though, seems to me to point to the same circumstance that finally happened, however inexorably, in 2008: the overdetermined combination of heterogeneously massed human intent and reified technologies that some understood better than others produced a perfect crisis. We socially design our own technological affordances, and often, as with the bridle, we elect to wear those affordances.

Economics and the Stultification of the Process Movement

Kristin Ross, in her Translator’s Introduction to Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, notes Rancière’s response to “Althusser’s need to deny the antiauthoritarian May [1968] revolt as it was happening in order to pretend later to ‘discover,’ through chance and solitary research. . . what the mass student action had already revealed to everyone–the function of the school of as an ideological apparatus of the state” (xvii-xviii). Such pretending serves a necessary purpose of deferral, in that “May ’68 was not the proper moment,” and such a position was “that of the educator–he who knows how to wait, how to guard his distance, how to take the time of theory” (xviii). That deferral or delay is something I’ve been trying to examine in the intersections of economics and composition, and more specifically in the intersections of composition’s process-based attention to work over time and the Marxian attention to labor performed over time and the aggregation and transformation and appropriation of its value. So it’s pedagogically interesting to me when Ross summarizes Rancière’s argument that “[r]ather than eliminating incapacity, explication, in fact, creates it. It does this in part by establishing the temporal structure of delay (‘a little further along,’ ‘a little later,’ ‘a few more explanations and you’ll see the light’) that, writ large, would become the whole nineteenth-century myth of Progress” (xx). She contrasts this practice to that of “narrating” or “recounting” or “storytelling, an act that presumes in its interlocutor an equality of intelligence rather than an inequality of knowledge, posits equality, just as the act of explication posits inequality” (xxii). It seems to me that specialists in rhetoric and composition studies might take Rancière (or Ross’s gloss of Rancière) as suggesting that “explication” functions as a sort of commodification of knowledge into product that can then be used to meter and assess and value and necessarily defer any moves toward equality, whereas “narrating” or “recounting” functions as the immaterial labor (q.v. Hardt and Negri) of metacognitive reflection; the valuable working-through of lived experience. Labor takes place over time (including the labor of writing: that’s the fundamental insight of the process movement), while neoclassical theories of economics are concerned with prices and commodities and so-called “laws” that are ostensibly timeless–Ross describes Rancière’s attacks on Bourdieu’s “perfect timeliness and seamlessness” (xxiii)–or that exist largely outside of measurements over time.

So there’s one set oppositions. I’m having trouble reconciling it, though, with Byron Hawk’s critique in A Counter-History of Composition of the stultification of the process movement in composition, partly because he’s talking about complex systems in mostly sychronic ways (i.e., they exist in influential ways at particular moments) even in the diachronic history he’s offering. Hawk points out the problem that while the writing process movement has done a good job of “linking the frozen product of writing to the immediate history that produces it. . . as an attempt to bring movement and recursivity to writing studies,” it has also “been reified into a rigid, linear pedagogical practice” (192), and I agree, to a point. Process has itself become product, in what economists would call the transformation problem, through which labor is reified into capital. But that doesn’t need to happen, and Hawk usefully points toward ways we might forestall (or at least more carefully examine) the transformation problem by inhabiting Mark C. Taylor’s argument that “the writer as screen operates in a polarity with the situation and in an ecology of personal experience, texts that are read, and words that are written” (Hawk 193). According to Hawk, this results in a situation in which the written “text is at one point in the process a parasite on other texts, but during the process it reaches a ‘tipping point’ and is transformed into a host with which others will enter into a parasitic relationship and ultimately transform” (193). Such a situation is precisely yet another enactment of the transformation problem: accumulated immaterial labor becomes immaterial capital and can thereby recirculate and serve as the economic input into other texts. (I’ve talked before about how this happens through the economic process of production, distribution, use, and re-production: said process takes as its inputs immaterial labor, immaterial capital, and material-technological capital, and in the context of our contemporary information economy and its sub-context of textual economies runs them through that cycle into outputs of different forms of immaterial labor, immaterial capital, and material-technological capital.) Hawk’s primary purpose, as I see it, is to examine the complex systems or ecologies where those transformations happen because of the openness and what he calls the “complex vitalism” of the systems, whereas my interest is in more in tracing how those various and discrete systems connect over time and through the labor-slash-process of writing and its various stages, and how value gets appropriated (and by whom) at each of those stages.

That’s a whole lot of abstraction. Here’s the move toward specificity: what I’m trying to do in my work is to trace a diachronic economic examination of written products and processes in relation to the complex systems under which they are produced. Such an examination might be seen as one instance of what Jody Shipka in Toward a Composition Made Whole nicely characterizes as the move to “examine final products in relation to the highly distributed and complexly mediated processes involved in the creation, reception, and use of those products” (39): it’s a move her book admirably makes with insight and rigor. I hope the economic vocabulary and mode of analysis I’m working with will help me do that productively, as well, especially as I look at those mediated systems and networks in the examination of writing pedagogies associated with military instruction at U.S. and Afghan service academies that I’ll perform at on Friday afternoon (C session, 2:45-4:00) at C&W 2012. If you’re going to be at the conference, come out and take in the network diagrams, economic vocabulary, complex calendaring, revised cycles of appropriation, and pictures from a faraway dusty place. I’ll try to post more on that stuff before I set out for Raleigh.

Production Narratives

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking toward a car with someone in the field and mentioned the pleasure I’d taken in being a part of the production process that helped move her article from acceptance toward publication. It was a cool, damp, overcast afternoon, and we talked about the production process: how we correspond with authors, the various checks and edits that get made once a piece is accepted for publication, and the real-life material contexts in which that work gets done. Academic buildings crowded bare trees behind us, and in front of us a hill sloped down with roads and paths to a narrow river. Our conversation took place among meetings and introductions and arrivals and conversations and meals, the recounting of the enjoyment of the work of production taking place in its own situated material contexts.

Here’s a portion of the story I told in that conversation: two summers ago, I was on a road trip; the Orientalist and I traveling by car from New York to Michigan to Pittsburgh to Delaware to the Assateague National Seashore for a wedding, and then back up to New York. I had academic work to do, and brought along my laptop, an AC inverter to power the laptop from the car, and an old iPhone 3 that I’d jailbroken to broadcast its cellular data connection as a wireless hotspot. I was doing editorial work at 65 miles per hour, uploading and downloading draft files and making changes and asking via email for specific corrections and adjustments, and at one point, I found myself finishing up the edits by evening lamplight and firelight on a picnic table at the Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Delaware, just outside the tent we’d set up, within peaceful earshot of the Atlantic surf. That was the pleasant memory of the production process that I shared on that cool, damp, overcast afternoon, two years later and thousands of miles away.

Both of those stories — the conversation and its internal flashback — are production narratives. They’re reflective stories about how texts (and the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that permit and constitute and shape them) get produced. I like production narratives, and I use them in my teaching: for every major assignment students turn in, I ask them to write a reflection about those material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor. For them, it’s actually a somewhat familiar genre, especially when I ask them to make the self-aware turn toward metacognition: as Kathi Yancey’s wonderful book and other studies have convincingly demonstrated, metacognition promotes knowledge transfer, and the Army makes use of that positive relationship in its systematic use of After-Action Reviews, or AARs. The cadets have all done AARs and know how they work and use AARs to refine and improve their process as well as to make what they’ve learned stick, so I sell the reflective production narrative to them as a form of AAR.

Beyond fulfilling those purposes of knowledge transfer, though, I think Kairos also points out in compelling ways how production narratives function as scholarship. The Inventio section is one of my favorite sections of the journal (well, in addition to the one that I’ve recently been promoted to editing — thanks, Cheryl and Doug!) because of cool, smart, charming webtexts like Susan Delagrange’s “When Revision is Redesign” and Daniel Anderson’s “Watch the Bubble” and the ways they demonstrate the pleasures of the text in demonstrating, analyzing, and performing how scholarship gets produced. Kairos describes the section as “focus[ing] on the decisions, contexts, and contributions that have constituted a particular webtext. Inventio authors include, alongside or integrated with their finished webtexts, materials that help them articulate how and why their work came into being.” Again: critical, reflective production narratives. But I’ve also started to see my own scholarship turning in that direction as well: I’ve recently sent off an extended economic analysis of how the Army’s plagiarized field manual was produced that attempted to account for the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that demanded and constituted and shaped that significant piece of doctrine, and I’ve got articles in the works that perform a sort of time-use study of the production of other pieces of scholarship, as well, and the Orientalist and I are starting to work on a study that attempts to account for the relationship between faculty time, scholarship, teaching, and student time in quantitative terms. So, yes, again: critical, reflective production narratives about how scholarship gets produced and — at a more abstract level — how education gets produced.

I’m a little uneasy, though, about the quantitative focus of that last study I described, because I think it departs from my particular economic focus on the fundamental purpose of what production narratives do. Production narratives are a way of paying attention to and making qualitative sense of the work and experience of composing and producing. They’re texts that operate on other texts, including ourselves, because information is an experience good. Experience goods are not always going to be quantitatively commensurable, and this fact is what I think constitutes the mistake Victor Villanueva makes when he declares that economic analysis requires mathematics and numbers, and more seriously the fundamental and crippling flaw to Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention. The process of production and the attention that accompanies that process are both activities that transform and aggregate; as such, they respond poorly to zero-sum quantitative economic analysis. If we’re paying attention to the value of composing and how it happens, we’re talking about information that is qualitative at its core. That’s part of what makes production narratives so appealing as irreducible experience goods.

Ceci Tuera Cela, Take Two

Hal Varian is the chief economist for Google and retired professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, where he founded the School of Information and held positions with the Haas School of Business and the Department of Economics. In The Economics of Information Technology, he and Joseph Farrell and Carl Shapiro outline a market-based philosophy of the relationships between economic factors and for-profit information technology companies. They note that in technological industries, constant and substantial fixed costs are coupled with low or nonexistent marginal costs for each additional incremental unit (3). This is of particular interest when coupled to the careful distinctions they draw between “Information technology,” which “is used to manipulate information,” of which a portion “may be intellectual property” (4). We know these are not separate categories. Often, in the economic cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production, one becomes the other. When that happens, we should understand it as an instance of the transformation problem and the aggregation problem. Varian is a lot smarter and a lot more well-educated about economic phenomena than am I, but I’ll point out that this illustrates a difference in emphasis and perspective: mainstream neoclassical economics is synchronic in its analysis, while I’m concerned via that economic cycle I’ve outlined with what takes place over time. Varian wants to categorize economic inputs and transactions and look at their intersections in the moment. I’m looking at processes over time and how time is always and inevitably the factor in the three problems (transformation, aggregation, substitution) that I see as being characteristic of the way we teach composition. We aggregate the labor of production into the commodification of both the grade and the skill, but the process itself attends to the phenomenology of writing in ways that blur value together rather than separate value into distinct domains.

What would happen, then, if we worked to closely examine the ways in which value is appropriated into different domains and by different parties at different stages in the economic process? Varian discusses the phenomenon of “price discrimination” enabled by “high-tech industries” in the ways that “price will often exceed marginal cost” and “a seller can offer prices and goods that are differentiated by individual behavior and/or characteristics” (12). This phenomenon, exemplified in wishlists and egocasting and the splintering of the supply of goods — Zuboff and Maxmin’s so-called “support economy” — would seem to be a strong counter to the rhetorically idealized massed economic forces of depersonalized corporations and ideologies of mass consumption. Chomsky’s critique of “Weapons of Mass Distraction” refers to advertising, and homogenizes capitalist entities in order to criticize them homogenously, as an undifferentiated group, while simultaneously surrendering to them as the overpowering metonymic avatars of an irresistible global capitalism. For critiques such as Chomsky’s, which are all too common to the discourse of composition, the game is already lost and it is always already the end of the world and the only things we can do is shake our heads and say, “If only they had listened to us, but they didn’t, so there’s nothing to be done except decry the fact that they didn’t listen to us and so reinforce our nobly subaltern position”: we have met the enemy, and he is us. On the other hand, if we were to attend to the diverse economic landscape and extend the metaphor of price discrimination to non-market activities, we would recognize ourselves and the work we do with information as an experience good.

Consider the concept of versioning as it takes place in the non-market context of revision in the composition classroom or in scholarly discourse. Varian describes “versioning” as “a way to price discriminate between collectors and casual viewers, and between buyers and renters,” and notes that “the price differences between the two version is much greater than the difference in marginal cost” (17). We know as scholars, and we teach our students, that once you educate yourself enough about a particular subject, you can shift your arguments about that subject to pitch some to experts and some to non-experts, who will take away slightly different messages and be inclined to react in different ways to your rhetorical pitch, despite how little you needed to adjust your fundamental message. We do versioning, too, in the ways we compose and ask students to compose for different audiences, and in the ways we return to habitual concerns. We embody versioning, in fact, in our variations on particular topics and our returns to the same concerns in conference presentations and scholarly articles. But it’s not price we’re interested in; it’s value, and how it circulates, and we hope that others take up our concerns and differentiate theirs from ours in new and unique ways.

That act of versioning, however, can only offer value in a context where enough people possess the motivation and the ability — the will and the skill — to make that discrimination. Varian talks about “network effects” and how those effects “are endemic in high-tech products,” pointing out that “the demand for the [technological] infrastructure depends on the availability of applications, and vice versa” (33). The condition of literacy is infrastructure. These are “demand-side economies of scale” (33): how valuable a skill is depends on how many people have it. As Varian notes, “average revenue (demand) increases with scale” (34). Increasing the number of people who know how to use computers increases the value of knowing how to use computers. The same phenomenon occurs with literacy. There is a hump, a tipping point, that one has to get over, and to a large degree we’ve done so in the U.S., and so we’ve hidden from ourselves that obstacle. That obstacle is wholly present in Afghanistan, even if we don’t know quite where it is: we only know that we have to get over it. That’s what the counterinsurgency battle is about, and that’s why we should be thinking about Plato and the Phaedrus when we’re engaging the Afghans. There are plenty of things that are going to influence them, and enjoyment of literature might be one, and familiarity with Western culture might be another (even as I cringe at the ugly inherent colonialism of such a statement). The coupled abilities of post-print literacy and computer literacy will be of enormous benefit to the Afghans if they can get enough people practiced in those abilities. Right now, they don’t have it, but we know that network effects are hugely influential, and we know that once that positive-value tipping point is passed, improvement in multiliteracies and economic gain (both market and nonmarket) can become mutually self-sustaining. In observing such a self-sustaining relationship, however, we should not confuse ourselves that marked effects are in some way equivalent to network effects, as we so often do.

In fact, as smart as Varian and Farrell and Shapiro are, they are in their attention to markets missing the broader and much more important picture: it’s not about money; it’s about value. Varian problematically asserts that “copyrighted computer software, such as Microsoft Windows, can have far greater economic significance than any single book, musical composition, or movie” (34), apparently ignoring the Bible, The Communist Manifesto, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, The Internationale, Triumph of the Will, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. As market economists, they see only market effects. They are once more engaging in the reductive “ceci tuera cela” argument familiar from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame: this will kill that. The book will kill the cathedral. Postmodernism will kill the author. The screen will kill the page. In fact, I would argue that the market-based economic arguments of Varian, Farrell, and Shapiro all carry within them their own unseaming and show how success with market-based interpretations of the functioning of information technology actually show and illustrate how the market is circumscribed, bound, and supplemented by a broader nonmarket economy. Not that this will kill that, but that this will coexist with that, and many more things besides, and necessarily so.

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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