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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Here’s one way to start a rumination on the uses of classroom time in teaching writing: at West Point, classes are 55 minutes long, and I work the hell out of the clock. The section marcher renders the report at the :00 second mark, and we go until I dismiss students, usually no earlier than about 54 minutes and 50 seconds after that :00 second mark, and certainly no later than the 55:00. Our class time is precious and I plan it well, including incorporating at least 20 unbroken minutes (and often more) for students to write during every lesson. Students’ time outside of class is equally precious: West Point cadets are overscheduled, and one of the essential things I can do for a plebe is to respect the time he or she spends beyond my classroom. I do so scrupulously.

Here’s another way to start a rumination about time: I’m turning 42 in a little over two months, and while I’m thinking about time and economy, it seems appropriate to note that in 1748, a 42-year-old Benjamin Franklin wrote in “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that his “friend, A. B.” should “[r]emember, that time is money.” I never liked that saying. Taken as a component of the broader argument of the “Advice” piece, the statement makes sense, but I don’t like the way it categorically commodifies the dimension across and within which we all live our lives. Time is money? Well, yes, it can be. Time is theft? Sure, if you do it right and avoid your workplace internet filters. Time is a gift? Certainly, if you’ve lost a loved one to an illness.

Time is context. In 1748, Franklin was writing in the context of what was still a largely mercantile and manual-labor economy. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Raymond Williams argues that the broad cultural changes associated with the industrial revolution started around 1780. Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville was executed in 1793, but his treatise The Commerce of America with Europe (translated and published in English in 1795) declared that

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Inverting the Classroom Model

I haven’t had much to say here lately because I’ve been doing a lot since my return (in June) from Afghanistan. In terms of teaching, I’ve sought and received permission to pilot what I think is a unique and forward-looking (for West Point) variant of our first-year composition course, and that variant has been underway since 16 August. A colleague and I saw two qualities that we considered characteristic challenges associated with the traditional ways writing plebes write at West Point, and — with permission from our leadership — have designed a first-year composition course that attempts to respond to those challenges.

The first challenge: I believe that it’s too easy to allow the classroom work associated with composition courses to focus on activities other than writing. I’ve been in many composition classes here and at other institutions where the students discuss readings and approaches and the teachers facilitate work and manage discussion and sometimes stand at the front of the classroom and show students things. Compositionists know and agree and emphasize that the work of the writing class is writing, and yet — in many classes — students simply don’t produce much text, largely because of the way we apportion the work of the course. Too often, we’ll ask them to perhaps start working on their essay assignments in a class or two, and then to complete that writing for homework and bring it in the following lesson in the form of a draft essay, and too often they’ll come in with only a page or a paragraph or two that they dashed off in 15 minutes. There’s a whole complex of related problems associated with that mode of instruction: instructors think they are responsible in some way for “delivering” or “covering” what they envision as course content, and so they attempt to describe or demonstrate to students what an effective introductory paragraph looks like, or review the passages in the book that discuss effective transitional expressions, or talk with their students about what the author to whom the students have been asked to respond in their essays might have really meant, in order to help the students engage with that author more insightfully. I don’t believe such activities do much to help students become better writers.

The second challenge: the classroom work associated with many writing courses uses tools and modes of work dedicated to producing texts that look like they should be printed in a single, unified format on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, even if those sheets of paper are never physically turned in. In other words, and as many scholars in the field of computers and writing have lately been pointing out, we dedicate ourselves to preserving a unitary genre and document model that is no longer the world’s dominant mode of textual production. In mummifying and fetishizing this model, we turn our students’ attention away from the many other ways that texts get produced: we privilege the thing itself, the dead thing, instead of attending to the textual practices and ways of writing (the verb, not the noun) that will help students improve as writers. We need to help our students gain the critical approaches and skills in using the tools, techniques, genres, and modes that will help them adapt to diverse and changing writing situations and produce texts appropriate to those situations, whatever those situations may be.

In response to those two challenges, my colleague and I have designed a first-year composition course that (1) inverts the usual classroom workload and (2) asks students to use an array of digital tools, media, and technologies to respond to that inverted workload.

We’ve inverted the classroom workload by moving the work of writing into the classroom, and moving the discussion and delivery of course-related material outside the classroom. In other words, our students write while they’re in class, and discuss and seek guidance from one another and from us when they’re outside of class. During every class session of the semester, we give students at least 20 minutes (and often longer) to write, using the site 750words.com to do so. Students who wish to pass the course with a C must write 750 words every lesson for 40 lessons: when they’re done with our course, this single requirement will result in C students having written 30,000 words. We encourage students to adapt, revise, and copy and paste those 750 daily words into their formal graded essay assignments and into their weblog writing. Furthermore, because that daily writing displaces some class time that might be ordinarily devoted to class discussion or delivery of course materials, we off-load the discussion as homework to be undertaken on the class weblog, to which students are also required to contribute. In that way, the discussion is shifted to an outside-of-class writing activity that the instructors moderate and manage and contribute to, while what would ordinarily be homework is shifted into the classroom. While we might have students show up to class not knowing what’s going on because they haven’t read the blog, we will never have students show up without something written, because their work will always be there on 750words.com. And we believe that simply doing the writing — that minimum of 30,000 words by semester’s end — will help them get better.

Additionally, we’re using sites like 750words.com (which encourages private writing) and our class weblog (which demands public writing) and zoho.com (which we use as our online collaboration tool for their more formal essay-assignment writing, but also serves as a cloud-based writing application) to get them to shift up and change the ways they write depending on the contexts and audiences and purposes for which they’re writing: in other words, the ways we ask them to use the digital tools associated with the course are also ways of training them to be agile, adaptable rhetors. Technology is context, and context is an inescapable component of the rhetorical situation, and to pretend that the 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper is the only delivery medium for student writing is to radically shortchange a student’s adaptability to a diverse range of rhetorical situations. If we help students write (and write a lot) in different ways and in different contexts for different media and different situations, we cannot do other than help them improve as writers.

That, at least, is my hope.

The Value of Stability Operations

One component of my primary long-term scholarly project is to examine the ways in which the work of writing carries economic value. As I’ve noted previously, in Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define “immaterial labor” as “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge, or communication” (290). For Hardt and Negri, there are three varieties of immaterial labor: first, “an industrial production that has been informationalized,” second, “analytical and symbolic tasks,” and third, the emotional work involved in “the production and manipulation of affect” (293). I think that’s a fairly useful definition and taxonomization, and it helps that it goes further than Reich’s use of the problematically limiting term “symbolic-analytic work” in the allowance it provides for “the production and manipulation of affect,” a form of work that rhetoricians are not unacquainted with. Here, immaterial labor is opposed to material labor — the production of consumable things — in a way that recalls the reductive oversimplification Richard Lanham draws between an economics of “fluff” (managing information) and an economics of “stuff” (manufacturing objects). I believe the immaterial labor students perform in the composition classroom certainly qualifies as economically valuable scholarly work, and I believe the same holds true for literacy education in general.

Which is what makes it interesting to me when Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, Commander of the Nato Training Mission — Afghanistan (NTM-A) (the unit under which I’m working during my deployment here), writes that literacy “is a matter of life and death in Afghanistan,” and that it additionally serves as “the essential enabler that addresses not only life and death issues, but the cornerstone elements of professionalism: the ability to enforce accountability, the opportunity to attend professional military and law enforcement education, particularly specialized skills taught in technical schools and continued education, and the knowledge to combat corruption.” To the best of my knowledge, most analyses of military economics have been focused on the market-oriented positive and negative externalities of military spending itself, and not on considering aspects of military actions as being inherently economic on their own. What happens, though, if we think about literacy education as immaterial labor in relation to LTG Caldwell’s note that in September 2010, “the NATO training mission ha[d] about 27,000 recruits from the Afghan army and police in mandatory literacy programs at any given time,” and that “[t]hat number [would] grow to 50,000 by [that] December and to about 100,000 by June of [2011]”? Can we consider stability operations in general to be a form of immaterial labor, and if so, what do we consider to be the product — the economic output — of stability operations?

Maybe it’s a silly question: it depends on how far in the future one looks for the positive economic effects of having a stable government, one might well reply. (Although it does certainly call attention to the fact that government itself is partly an economic effect and not just an inhibitor, regulator, or controller, as much of popular neoclassical economic discourse would have us believe; but also not just an effect — the so-called mere superstructure — that vulgar Marxist orthodoxy would posit.) That reply, however, should call our attention to the problems with looking far beyond economic activities for their hypothetical economic effects, as we too often do with higher education, considering it only in terms of its long-term economic outcomes. Economic activity does not exist as economic activity solely because it has an outcome that can at some future point be exchanged on the market for cash value — in other words, because it can be commodified into a product. Understandings of economic value must be in terms of labor value as well as in terms of commodity value.

Interlingualism’s Terms

There’s an apocryphal story supposedly told and repeated in the past year or so by a high-ranking general here, one I’ve only heard secondhand, and so I don’t really have access to verifying its details or its telling, but it’s a grim story, and goes something like this: there’s a mixed unit operating in the field in one of the more dangerous places in Afghanistan, US soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers, and they come under fire from insurgents and call for reinforcements and a medevac for the injured, only conditions are such that the Americans can’t figure out where they are from the landmarks and the Afghans can’t read the map well enough or communicate on the radio sufficiently clearly to give the inbound helicopters an accurate fix on where they are. By the time the helicopters locate them, there’s no one left. The medevac becomes a casevac.

It’s told to highlight the perils of miscommunication or lack of communication across languages and cultures, and told in service of a commitment to English-language education for ANA soldiers. Afghanistan has two official languages and a number of others besides, and rather than build L1 literacy and then L2 proficiency, the notion is to move directly to L2 proficiency and literacy for all Afghans, using English as the acknowledged foreign alternate language or interlanguage for purposes that most Americans here would consider to be pragmatic, or what James Britton and others have called “transactional”: language that gets things done; that performs the work of the world.

To that end, the English as a foreign language classes here are designed and taught to promote and assess pragmatic linguistic competency in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. As one would expect, at the Afghan institution that I’m working at until mid-June, English instruction is understood as purely and deeply pragmatic, much as English seems to be used to accomplish the quotidiana between and among the diverse soldiers of the international force at the base where I’m housed, Israelis and Mongolians and Greeks and Romanians and British and Dutch and French and Belgians and Americans and Germans and Portuguese and Australians and Italians and others.

I’m writing this at a picnic table outside. It’s warm for a January day; an afternoon in the 40s, a cool breeze doing nothing to cut through the heavy haze, and three Czech smokers come outside for their before-dinner fixes as the sun starts to go down. Behind me, there are the main doors to the barracks with laser-printed semi-official reminders and dicta and policies; to my left, the comings and goings from the flight line that I’m strictly forbidden from photographing, Bulgarian Hinds and white-painted UN cargo helicopters, the Air Force’s C-130s, the 727s and 737s flown by Ariana and Pamir bound for Kuwait or Dubai or Kandahar or other polyglot locales where English can similarly serve as a second language or — in its function as a “bridge” language — sometimes as something approaching a lingua franca. All around, there are the technological implements of communication: cell phone aerials, satellite dishes craning their concave faces skywards, coax and Cat 6 cable strung through the hallways of the barracks, radio towers topped by their blinking caution lights, and to my front, the vehicles studded with their electronic countermeasures antennae that serve to protect against IEDs activated via various electronic devices when powered up, generating around them a traveling null zone empty of any indigenous electronic signals, an electromagnetically-produced decommunicationalized bubble that leaves pedestrians glaring at their cell phones and then at us — the high-tech multinationals who travel swiftly through their streets; who use English as our own sort of interlanguage — in frustration. Yes, there’s some imperialism here, arguably even something of a colonialist project, and I’m ambivalent about some aspects of it, even — as I’ve noted before — while I believe in the need for and usefulness of literacy in service of the rule of law and self-determination for Afghanistan.

That imperialism is one analogue of the “English-only instruction” that Min-Zhan Lu compellingly argues “parades the (seldom delivered) promise of enduring access to wider communication and better educational and job opportunities” (608), and English (though not English-only) instruction is often posed as offering precisely those promises here.

cricket with guard

While I think Lu’s characterization of “English-only instruction” sometimes problematically extends into caricature the practices Bruce Horner and John Trimbur thoughtfully dissected in their 2002 article “English Only and U.S. College Composition,” I like the way she poses English-only advocates against what she terms “living-English users,” who are users of an English “kept alive by many and by many different ways of using it, each of which is itself a living process in-the-forming: informing and informed by the specific, different dynamic, historical and social contexts of individual acts” (608). So, too, do I buy the contention she makes with Horner, Trimbur, and Jacqueline Jones Royster that “notions of the ‘standard English speaker’ and ‘Standard Written English’ are bankrupt concepts. All speakers of English speak many variations of English, every one of them accented, and all of them subject to change as they intermingle with other varieties of English and other languages” (305).

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Call Me الَّبِحُ

I was happy to see Rebecca Moore Howard’s recent post on Ten Principles for Teaching With a Handbook. I agree with every one of the principles she proposes, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how teaching with a good handbook often gets undervalued. Composition instructors often want to focus on (and argue about) what we characterize as the “content” of a course: in textbook terms, we have intense and longstanding debates that often focus on the course reader at the expense of our attention to the course rhetoric or the course handbook. I’m now starting year five of teaching writing and contributing to program and curriculum development at my current institution, and out of our cadre of instructors, I’m the only one who’s taught first-year composition every year. That’s valuable to me.

One reason it’s valuable to me is that we’ve had the same handbook for five years. It’s not Becky’s Writing Matters, which I’d love to adopt and have argued for, but the Little, Brown Handbook has served us well. (This is the part where I have to tread carefully because of who I work for and because I can’t use my position or my employer to endorse something. So: not endorsing; just saying what we use and how we use it, in a similar fashion to the way soldiers of all ranks describe the effectiveness of the M4.) When I got to my institution in 2006, we were using the 10th edition; we’ve since upgraded to the 11th. But one of the ways in which we adhere to Becky’s Principles 9 and 10 is that our first-year students get the handbook — the LBH, as we call it, in our institutional fondness for initialisms and acronyms — at the start of their academic careers, and are required to use it as a reference for all their subsequent writing, until they graduate. And our institutional policies refer to it by name and cite it. That’s some powerful stuff.

So I’ve got some acquaintance with our handbook. It’s no substitute for a rhetoric, but I enjoy teaching with it, and I’ve heard tell of students who get so familiar with it that they take it with them when they deploy after they graduate. And I found in our lesson conference meetings in the reorganization week run-up to the start of classes that I’ve internalized mental links to almost all the sections in the book: talk to me about citation practices or the rhetorical situation or fused sentences or nonsexist language or errors in the use of determiners or the distinctions between revision, editing, and proofreading and I can give you chapter and verse.

I’ve decided to take on a title for myself, and I made that title public at one of our lesson conference meetings: with the help of the Orientalist, I’ve figured out that my name should be الَّبِحُ: al-Lebihu, “The LBH,” with the understanding from Becky that the handbook is not the equivalent of شريعة, Sharia (law), but of الكلام‎, Kalam (dialectic).

My Homework

The semester is underway, with lesson 2 of 40 taking place tomorrow. We had our academic convocation this afternoon, which was a pleasant enough ceremony in the Dean’s and Superintendent’s reminders that academic endeavor is of first importance in what we do. The need for such a reminder likely seems odd to those familiar with the environment of higher education, but here there are some who are occasionally eager to emphasize Sparta at the expense of Athens.

This semester I’m teaching EN101, our first-year composition course, and our course director has selected a new course reader. To increase our familiarity with the selections from the reader and our familiarity with one anothers’ interests and professional styles, and perhaps also to help remind us of what it is we’re asking our students to do, he assigned us homework: each member of the EN101 faculty was asked to choose one selection from the reader and write a two-to-three page summary and response essay. (I think assigning teachers to write at least one essay similar to what students are doing before the semester gets underway is a pretty good idea: I like that our course director did it, and wound up learning something valuable.) Two to three pages is not a lot of space, and I didn’t particularly cover myself in glory in what I wrote for the assignment: I’ve assigned summary and response essays in the past, and it’s not the most fair thing to ask of a student, since the genre almost demands that they respond with something fairly simple and basic.

That’s what I came up with, at least. This is some of the poorest writing I’ve done in a while; not really interesting or even original, with over-used analogies and recycled truisms that are likely familiar to most of us. I guess the thing I’m least unhappy with is the organizational device or trope, but even that is a bit of a gimmick. Why post this, then? For one, it’s a way to get me started blogging again after far too long a dry spell; for another, it’s a way to remind myself to carefully consider what I’m asking students to do, and what I expect them to get out of the assignments they complete. I’m not assigning a summary and response to my students this semester, and I’ll think hard before I do so again.

(And yes, it’s even got five paragraphs. Gah! What the hell is wrong with me?)

Cursus Imperii

In the Romantic view of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, civilization proceeds from an idealized “Savage State” and to a desolated version of that state ultimately returns. For Cole, as for Jos

Keynes and Composition

Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes notes the importance Keynes placed on socially-based “conventional expectations” (93, emphasis in original) in the face of pervasive uncertainty, and contrasts those “conventional expectations” to the perfect-information wishful thinking of the proponents of the rational expectations hypothesis. Keynes’s insight was that what makes economics work and fail is adherence to conventional expectations and expectations of the conventional, and this is as true of social-epistemic models of knowledge work in composition as it is of economics. Collaboration as a generative activity is sustained by and generative of conventional expectations in the face of uncertainty, not by the perfect-information utopia of rational expectations. Writing is social, and exists in uncertainty: both those circumstances are what make it work.

“Digital Maoism” for Digital Rhetoricians?

I’m reading Jaron Lanier’s 2006 cautionary anti-crowdsourcing manifesto “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism,” and it’s interesting to look at the way he understands writing. On the one hand, in looking at “most of the technical or scientific information” on Wikipedia (I think I’d qualify that to say “much” rather than “most,” unless he’s got access to statistics he’s not citing), he notes that “specific texts get cloned from original sites at universities or labs onto wiki pages,” and such information thereby “loses part of its value” when taken out of its context of production and out of relation to its author. Fair enough: yes, I’ll certainly go with that; the notion that all writing is inherently rhetorical, and that context matters, although he seems to be performing the current-traditionalist move of privileging the primary or original (I’m resisting the urge to put that word in scare quotes) context over any subsequent context or recontextualization. (The New Critics said, implicitly, “Always dehistoricize,” to which Jameson rightly retorted, “Always historize,” to which in turn digital rhetoricians, remix artists, and others aquiver in the ecstasies of influence might respond, “Always rehistoricize.”) Of course, the critique he’s making could be leveled against the decontextualized knowledge found in any encyclopedia, and in fact it often is, implicitly, in the way that composition teachers forbid students from using encyclopedias (wiki or otherwise) as sources for research papers. It’s an interesting take on the value of writing, though; the suggestion that something is somehow worth less when it’s copied into a new context: does this work with or against the ideologies associated with the social turn in writing instruction? Against, I think: it’s a romantic ideal masquerading as a rhetorical ideal. This sense of the nature of his argument is strengthened for me when Lanier asserts that on the Web (and, implicitly, in writing), “value would flow from people” and that “value always came from connecting with real humans.” (Note the familiar romantic privileging of authenticity in the use of the word “real.”) Ultimately, in fact, writing itself becomes for Lanier an asocial act: “What I think of as real writing. . . involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.” For networked writing, that’s a pretty striking concept.