Category Archives: Openness

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.

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

Freedom and Property

At Computers and Writing last year, I briefly chatted with John Logie about some of the smart things I’d recently had the good fortune to hear him say about intellectual property. He made the case in our conversation (as well as in some of his recent presentations) that advocates of openness in intellectual property would do well to reframe the debate away from the term “property” because of the ways the term itself — “property” — is both inaccurate (owning an idea is not the same as owning a car) and tends to make people feel instinctively possessive. I get that, and I’m kind of with him on it.

The problem I see, though, is that notions of property and ownership are so deeply woven into all aspects of our culture that it’s really, really hard not to say “mine.” Especially when it comes to stuff that is somehow connected to you. In fact, I’m kind of wondering: for some belief systems, doesn’t all morality and ethical individual conduct essentially come from the concept of ownership, and from the concept of self-ownership in particular? I’m thinking here especially of John Locke and Chapter V of the Second Treatise on Government (and, to a lesser degree, some of the ideas in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding): in other words, the concept away from which Logie wants to shift the debate is one that’s deeply foundational, and in some ways part of the bedrock of Western democracies.

Are there possible alternatives? Other ways to think about ideas in ways that don’t rely on conceptions of individual ownership as foundational and necessary to freedom? What are some positive opposing terms for “ownership”?

I don’t know. Rousseau’s notion of the freedom of the self and the way — in my limited understanding — that he seems to conceive of individual liberty and a sort of positive self-determination might be a possible alternative. But if Logie’s talking about reframing the debate, Western audiences tend to go for Locke a lot more than they go for Rousseau.

The Clear Use of Sources

I’m looking at a quotation that I don’t know what to do with: it’s confusing me. I ask you, reader, to help explain it to me; to help me figure out how the author is using a particular source. Here’s the quotation, in context, from pages iii-iv of the Preface by Marshall Sahlins to The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual:

As deconstructed in the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual, the applied anthropology of the US Military may be described something as follows: a planetary strategy of research and destroy, involving the deployment of armed and largely culturally-illiterate American forces from among the thousand or so garrisons now distributed on foreign soil, sometimes complemented by second rate mercenary academics, all charged with an investigation of the cultures of the local peoples sufficient to determine if and how they can be subjugated or, failing that, taken out.

Here is anthropology as a weapon in dubious battles, as the critics rightly claim. For as it is put by a certain Lt. Colonel cited in the counterinsurgency manual:

“There will be no peace… The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To these ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. We are building an information-based military to do that killing.”

But then, whose side are you on, Petraeus? Although the counterinsurgency manual pretends to be based on up-to-date social science, it lacks the critical reflexivity of the latter, since what it dare not address is the Americans’ own presence as an invading and occupying power.

My question is about that “There will be no peace” quotation that goes up to “killing”: how is Sahlins using it? What’s the purpose? There seem to me to be several problems with the quotation. First, the “certain Lt. Colonel” is never cited in the counterinsurgency manual: the quotation comes from a xenophobic 1997 editorial piece by the then-Major Ralph Peters, published quite clearly not as scholarship but as opinion, and in its content clearly superannuated by the work that went into the counterinsurgency field manual. If we are to believe that authors work with a sincere commitment to the words they write, that work strikes me as creditable, and should in no way be related to the execrative fustian offered by Peters ten years earlier.

So: the material leading up to the quotation says some nasty things about the military and about the authors of the field manual, and about the intentions of its authors in using anthropological scholarship. The material following the quotation directly addresses General David Petraeus, who directed the authorship and publication of the Field Manual that Sahlins critiques.

Why, then, does Sahlins use a quotation (itself not cited at all in the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual: I found the Peters source via Google) from an author he doesn’t name? Is this guilt by association? Is there an implied equivalency between the opinions of the author of an editorial piece and military doctrine? If so, how is the quotation supposed to relate to General Petraeus? Should we understand from the way the quotation is positioned that General Petraeus is to be held to account for the opinions of the now-retired Peters? In sum: what are we to understand as the intended relation of the Peters quotation to FM 3-24?

CCCC07: IP Caucus

I’m in New York, where the 2007 meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication got underway today. I’d meant to finish up Cadet Casey’s story before the conference started, but time got away from me, so I’ll see if I can make the time to do so tomorrow before serious conference-blogging gets underway.

The Intellectual Property caucus was engaging and productive. From what I understand, a lot of what went on will be summarized at the CCCCIP site in days to come, and it’s late with an early day for me tomorrow, so I’ll be brief in my notes here. Karen Lunsford started the meeting, and while she made a number of important points and exhortations, what I found most interesting was her description of the University of Kansas’s March 10, 2005 University Council resolution, which declared the importance of access to scholarly information and called on all faculty members to ask publishers for permission “to permit the deposition of a digital copy of every article accepted by a peer-reviewed journal into [an open access] repository.” According to other people at the meeting, the University of California system is working toward a similar initiative. Such a move would have profound implications for scholars and the circulation of knowledge, and one can only hope more institutions follow suit. Charlie Lowe followed Karen, talking some about Creative Commons and the IP Caucus Open Source Software resolution, encouraging schools and faculty to explore the possibilities offered by OSS in their work and their students’ work. John Logie then spoke for a while about the relationship between the CCCC IP Committee and the CCCC IP Caucus: the caucus is essentially a task force, he said, while the committee has “administrative teeth.” While the Committee is the formal arm, he suggested, the Caucus is more of a grassroots space where radical, powerful ideas take shape. He talked about the annual “Top IP Stories” he’s working on, where people discuss the most important news stories involving intellectual property in the past year, such as the 2006 US Appeals Court decision in Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley wherein the Court ruled that the remixed re-publication of Grateful Dead concert posters qualified as fair use under Section 107 of U.S. copyright law.

After Logie spoke, the caucus broke into work groups. I was in a group dedicated to unpacking IP issues in the classroom: as Carol Havilland put it, we as composition scholars have a habit of engaging intellectual property concerns in complex conceptual ways, but then turn around and teach our students simple rules without helping them explore the rationales behind them. We wound up talking about what it would look like to teach an “ethics of citation” and what such an ethics would do and how it would work. Brian Ballentine was the one taking notes, and I’m sure he’ll recap the session with more grace and facility than mine at Our small group session closed with Havilland offering an interesting proposal: it might be useful, she suggested, to look for cases to share with our colleagues where the rules we express to our students come into conflict with other rules, with institutional principles, or with what we see as ethical behavior.

Enough for tonight. Tomorrow, I present, and I’ll be attending more than a few sessions and meetings — I’ll see how well my note-taking holds up.

Update: Bradley’s blogged it, as well.


No matter what my job as a scholar and pedagogue employed by the federal government might mean legally speaking, for my writing here at Vitia, it’s high time I performed/acknowledged/declared this rhetorical release, given what I believe about the uses of openness and (f)re(e)mix culture:

All original material posted hereafter, aside from comments owned by their respective commenters, is hereby released into the public domain.

Given that I’ve published here early versions of things that have made it into Pedagogy and JAC, I know that writing such a statement of release may in the future give me difficulties. And, well, that’s kind of a big part of the intent, dear reader: to let it go, and in so doing, to open it up to complication.

The Plagiarist as Pokémon

pokemon beastie The ongoing debate surrounding TurnItIn and other plagiarism detection services (PDSs) has taken some interesting turns. Sharon Gerald has smart insights and suggestions about how teachers might deploy such services in their classrooms, to which I can only say: go, read, now. But I’m particularly interested when Clancy suggests that “the anti-PDS arguments… don’t address the underlying principles enough,” and I agree with her that we need to talk about those underlying principles more — but those principles are also why I disagree with the way she casts the debate. So, to sort this out (and I’m sure she’ll correct me if I’m misrepresenting her position), for Clancy the foundational question seems to be: if plagiarism must be detected in order to prevent it, how do we construct the work of the composition course in order to facilitate that detection and prevention?

pokemon beastie In Clancy’s words, “What exactly do you do at the moment of encounter with that paper that you’re 99.9% sure is plagiarized?” According to Clancy, in the past, such certainty came from the “intuition” of professors. First point of disagreement: it’s not “intuition” at all; it’s the instructor’s familiarity with previous drafts and strong engagement with the students’ style, which — in my experience — develops very early in the FYC semester. In other words, what Clancy calls “intuition” is a product of the way the contemporary composition course is constructed (or, OK, at least my composition course). So in that sense, the moment of detection has already happened, by virtue of the way we teach. It sounds to me like Clancy’s actually asking for verification, for which she offers five methods, four of which I use: Googling, talking to the student, requiring a paper trail, and requiring multiple drafts. (I agree that the ethics interview and “originality report” are obnoxiously didactic and sanctimonious.) Clancy says talking to the student can make the student angry, to which I’d reply: not necessarily, especially if you say to the student something like, “I notice your style and tone changed markedly in this paper. Can you tell me about your writerly decisions regarding audience? What sources and positions are you drawing from here?”

pokemon beastie More confusing to me is Clancy’s assertion that asking students to show their “paper trails” — their notes as well as their drafts — fosters an attitude that students are guilty until proven innocent. I don’t see how this can be so: making those trails visible and helping students to see that essays don’t spring fully formed from the foreheads of their authors is, for me, part of the processual work of the composition classroom. But then I see what Clancy’s saying: she’s assuming that showing the paper trail is done in service of plagiarism detection. It’s a similar case with Clancy’s assertion about submitting multiple drafts and “sources to compare the drafts to” in order to detect plagiarism: if one understands, rather, that writing gets produced in class, that the work of the writing class is writing, then those drafts are produced as an organic function of the course, as in-class material product (and, OK, evidence) of its valuable intellectual labor. And the instructor doesn’t have to “micromanage” at all — my students produce generative writing in class, respond to one another and revise, and so when I see the final document with all the evidence of textual work that preceded it, I spend the most time with their one-page reflective letters where they describe to me what changed and what didn’t, where they got stuck and un-stuck, what strategies they used, and why. Ultimately, I think Clancy runs into trouble when she sees that sloppy, recursive writerly process as serving plagiarism detection and prevention, rather than seeing the avoidance of plagiarism emerging organically from the processes that good writers use.

pokemon beastie And that perspectival shift is precisely my problem with TurnItIn: the enactment of an argument about how to best use PDSs performs an epistemological shift that causes us to privilege plagiarism prevention as the overriding goal, and to see all other aspects of composing as serving that end. TurnItIn privileges the appropriative moment and positions plagiarizers as Pokémon, telling composition teachers, “Gotta catch ‘em all!” So criminalized, they must all be caught and punished. Of course, this language (consider Clancy’s use of “burden of proof”) is perfectly in line with the popular media rhetoric on plagiarism pointed out by Rebecca Moore Howard; language that constructs plagiarism as the ultimate “deadly sin” punishable by the “academic death penalty.” Such a language of criminality and the privileging of property rights obscures the way that writers work, cite, collaborate, argue, and respond to one another. But see, there are two impulses in Pokémon: the accumulative impulse (“Gotta catch ‘em all!”) but also the give-and-take engagement of playing one card against another, one Pokémon against another, the pleasure in the way that texts and writers engage another. My problems with TurnItIn are that the ideological blinkers it offers show us only one value for writing — and, further, that it indicates to students that it’s perfectly acceptable for one party to appropriate that value while another party is criminalized for performing the same appropriation.

pokemon beastie I’ll whisper here my dark and unspeakable secret: dear reader, I won’t lose sleep if I fail to catch and punish every single wicked, evil plagiarist. Sure, I notice the odd changes of voice and style, and every time I’ve noticed such shifts (every semester save one since 1998), I’ve confirmed that there was indeed a problem, and followed up on it. But if The Doomful Specter of Academic Plagiarism called me before him to pass judgment upon my pedagogy and told me that I’d been found wanting — told me that a student had, heaven forbid, Gotten Over — I’d be like, “Well, OK. So?” Does that in some way invalidate my entire pedagogy? Does that show what a jacked-up terrible instructor I am? Does that show that said student learned nothing from the course and thereby offer a reason why we must use machines to hunt down and mercilessly exterminate the relentlessly proliferative scourge of plagiarism committed by the lazy and amoral students populating our courses?

pokemon beastie Well, here’s a thought. A while back, writing teachers were cheered by the arrival of a technological solution to the relentlessly proliferative scourge of spelling errors committed by the lazy and illiterate students populating their courses. Today, there’s a substantial body of empirical evidence pointing to the radical increase in homonym and wrong word errors in student writing following the rise in popularity of spelling checkers in word processing applications. So tell me: what kind of increase in ethical errors might we imagine seeing in student writing, if we were to pass along to machines the apparently overly onerous task of actually paying attention to how our students write?


In some ways, I may have it easier than instructors at other institutions when it comes to the question of plagiarism: here, our plagiarism policy is graven in stone.


Here, plagiarism as a violation of the honor code becomes a matter of who one is, a performance of identity, as the intersection of an economic interaction (the appropriation of someone else’s written labor) with the affectual response to experience (that dreadful desperate sensation of feeling overwhelmed by work combined with the moral nausea at thinking of betraying ideals).

Which is why I’m so interested that my hometown newspaper has picked up the recent and ongoing discussion of how appropriate technological and profit-based responses are to such matters. One wishes those who have picked up the Post story or responded to its branches in other venues (I won’t link to the ugly, bigoted, redneck parochial crap that the Wichita Eagle allows to remain on its site) might have first read Rebecca Moore Howard’s insightful and compelling rhetorical analyses of our ongoing discussion of plagiarism. One wishes those who have picked up the Post story might have consulted folks with some expertise on the topic of writing, writing instruction, and plagiarism — but of course, as Howard points out, the issue of plagiarism is all too easily argumentatively reduced to judgments of instructors good versus students bad, students steal versus scholars borrow, neutral technology versus ethical decisions.

Take, for example, Platypus Matt’s repeated assertions in the Kairosnews threads (I know Matt, and I like Matt, and I figure he knows that here I’m not dissing but disagreeing) that “the victim” in cases of plagiarism is “the teacher.” Student bad, teacher good, innocence violated by rapacity. But how is the teacher “the victim” of plagiarism? How has the teacher lost or been injured? Matt quite explicitly dismisses the notion of the value of student work, and instead clearly constructs plagiarism as a concern of authority and pride: the student pulled one over on the teacher. The only way in which I could agree with such a perspective would be by asserting that I expect to always be in a position of knowledge and experience superior to that of my students — and that’s an assertion I’ll never make. Matt’s arguments seem to me to evacuate student writing of its implicit value as work.

Yet, at the same time, I’m very much inclined to agree with Matt’s strong critique of the discursive equation of writing to property. Writing isn’t scarce and solely owned intellectual capital, as Matt rightly points out: it’s in fact, a complicated amalgam of productive and distributive processes. Writing is produced by a complex interaction of social relations, labor, and technology; so, too, do those same factors of technology, labor, and social relations interact in profoundly complex ways to distribute writing. In both the production and the distribution of writing, we see information as necessarily constructed by human labor, and therein lies our concern with its appropriation.

The problem that I see is that performs precisely that same appropriation while simultaneously uglifying our relationships with our students. is an inherently suspicious technology of surveillance, sending to our students the message that none of them are sufficiently trustworthy in our eyes. I suppose I could be accused of having the luxury of that big stone monument and everything that goes along with it to rest my indulgence upon — but I’ve felt the same at other institutions, as well. More importantly, though, appropriates the value of student writing for the sake of its own profits, while at the same time criminalizing students for the very same practice. In other words, stands as a monument of staggering hypocrisy — and that’s not a monument I’m going to erect in my classroom.

Remixing Composition

A bit past our semester halfway point, I asked students to (anonymously, if they chose, as many did) evaluate the course: what they were or weren’t getting out of the class, which types of work were most and least useful to them, which aspects of my teaching practices were least or most productive. The results were informative and helpful, and also fairly consistent. What was most helpful were their perspectives on what types of writing they already felt fairly comfortable with, and what types of writing they felt hadn’t yet been adequately addressed in the class.

As I recently described, Essay 1 asks students to choose a personal context, to examine their own relation to that context, and to draw some conclusions about that relationship, supported by examples from experience. Essay 2 asks students to engage with a difficult text in the sophisticated ways that academia expects, to understand and then move beyond its argument and draw broader conclusions, and to support those conclusions using accepted forms of citing textual evidence. Essay 3 asks students to chart the complex rhetorical and logical interrelationships among a group of texts on a given topic, to analyze those relationships, and then to make an argument to a specific audience based on that analysis, supporting their arguments with examples appropriate to their audiences. Essay 5 will ask students to perform an analysis of their own writing both within and beyond the context of the course, looking not only at their own writing since September, but also to the past and future and synthesizing possible trends and tendencies. Looking at those assignments, and at my students’ progress, I anticipated (correctly) that they’d probably be burnt out on citation-format stuff by this point in the semester, and also that there might be a desire for more engagement with the nuances of style and questions of genre, since they seem to be doing quite well in terms of their writing’s content and structure. (More evidence that they really are a bright bunch this semester: in semesters past, working with students on structural concerns in their essays has sometimes felt like the teacherly equivalent of pulling teeth.)

And I was right. Their written responses to the mid-semester evaluations indicated a strong interest in tone and style and the authorial motivations for deploying certain stylistic strategies, an interest in the rhetorical strategies associated with other genres (including, from several students, concerns with film and visual literacies), an interest in textual juxtaposition, and from an overwhelming majority of students, an interest in doing “creative” work. This last interest is somewhat problematic, for two reasons: first, to be blunt, College Writing is a course in the essay. But that first reason supposes that essays are somehow less creative than other genres — which is, of course, the second problem.

And so their responses — along with some insights from Joanna, Amber Engelson, and Amanda Carr — led to my new Essay 4 assignment, where I ask students to remix a text.

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CW05: Copyright Anxiety

Dánielle Nicole DeVoss, Nancy Allen, and Stephanie Vie gave a presentation titled “Copy-Right Anxiety: File Distribution and Intellectual Property,” and I’m not sure what the hyphenation means — maybe foregrounding the question of whether it’s ethical or right to copy? I didn’t hear them explain it, but that certainly didn’t detract from the quality of their presentations. Dánielle’s focused on using examples of video pastiche to theorize some implications of new media convergence, while Nancy’s had a deeply pedagogical focus on the implications of open source practices for the classroom, and Stephanie’s examined the intersection of students’ attitudes about peer-to-peer file-sharing and their attitudes about plagiarism; the three, taken together, sparked a lively discussion and composed a sort of collective matrix of insight about the nature of intellectual property online.

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About the Tools

In comments, John writes:

I will agree that we haven’t developed many good tools for helping students re-enter their word-processed drafts. Or, perhaps more accurately, Microsoft has not incorporated the kinds of tools that writing teachers might recommend. There’s an interesting question: why hasn’t our profession (and groups like CCCC and WPA) found a way to challenge Microsoft to incorporate useful teaching tools into Word?

To which I want to say: I like the sentiment, but no, no, no, no, no. Don’t teachers who employ digital technologies in the classroom already do enough unpaid sales and marketing work for Microsoft? Aren’t we already doing more than enough to lock ourselves into using the tools of big corporations so that they can wring ever-increasing amounts of cash from our educational institutions?

Charlie Lowe is doing really good and important work with the open source community on developing digital tools for writing teachers, and the open source community is likely to be much more responsive (or at least responsive for the right reasons) in terms of developing those digital tools than Microsoft. Please, let’s get away from this logic that favors the relentless increase of privatization.