Bolded Plagiarism: Academic Writing and Grammar Instruction in light of the Corporate Spectacle

We can’t separate writing from the economic sphere. I think the academic borrows much from the ecclesiast, pouring over obscure tomes, debating in scholastic fashion matters of abstruse import.  Displaced not just by science, but also by corporate value systems, the practical role to be played by the humanities, including even the disciplinary parent of literary study, rhetoric, of course remain in question.  Teaching to digital literacy offers an avenue toward greater relevance, to being sure one’s work at least theorizes, if not realizes, a relation to the economic sphere.  And today, the internet is recognized as having a relation; the mounting of the web-based pageant costs around $200 Billion a year.

We’ve been convinced to chip in, and someone is getting paid, why not a few comp teachers?

Rhet/Comp seems to want to embrace the internet as its own, or least claim it as a semantic domain of inquiry, though the academy neither created the technology nor has any means of controlling it over its production of texts. Which can be good:  It seems clear in light of web-based writing that thesis-driven writing in a deductive form is most native to the dead meadows of teacher-directed assignments, those situation-less exercises in rhetoric.

But of course, the academic values in English, bearing as it does historical links to religious-textual contemplation and hermeneutics, surely remain at odds with exchange value that dominates late capitalism’s representational spectacle. I think those that find the pill of our field’s recent protean shifts most bitter are those poetical minds who transubstantiated the value of the soul into the secular clothes of the “individual experience” of authors and readers, hoping to retain a certain hermetic quality to the whole conversation, unsullied certainly by market forces.  Perhaps the underlying prevalence of this attitude helps explain why might find ourselves having this conversation at all, trying to parse a verifiably present reality that threatens to eclipse our profession as a matter of course, or perhaps with in few more cycles of software development.

In defense of those averse to emplotting writing with economics, I suppose the parcelization of text within the bounds of individual works does mirror an intensification of commodification on all levels of society.  Yet [t]his shift is extremely important / because it opens up a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a “work”/ –as a relatively extended, coherent whole –/ and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks.  Don’t many of us working in academia experience market-driven thinking like this as an intrusion, especially if we came here willing to barter away material ambitions in exchange for some kind of escape?

Lest we polarize matters overmuch, let me note that the academy and the corporate-textual realms seem to share at least one point of affinity.  I am thinking of the underlying compulsion to participate in the discourses safeguarded by these different milieux.  Class:  “I’d like to hear you speak in class more!”/ Online: Like? Comment? In both cases, identities, even the most slipshod and hastily abandoned postures, create surfaces throughout which flow good old power, in all its capacities, both restrictive and generative.


Class:  The student’s contributions and fashioned artifacts are tracked by the attentive instructor (my grammar check just informed of the passive construction here — it is deliberate, not that I realized it until I hit spell check). Online:  When we write or act electronically, marketers swoon, or else scheme to calibrate their models, such as those that might [assume] users of their site move top-down.  We click to gaze upon ourselves and fellow travelers while corporate employees surveille such actions in sum.  We circulate minutia in digitized economies of affective approval, all of us etching upon palimpsestic spaces the silhouettes of identities, creating commerce through self-fashioning because such movement is what they extract value from.  Questions of form, property, and propriety aside, generating texts through more or less elaborate modes of copying and pasting increases our raw compositional output, as a society, each slippage and recombination now generating surplus value to be captured as profit.


We might regard the academic institution as a tool of extracting and maximizing extractable intellectual work from its participants.  In a semi-idealized world of exchange, rather than use value, the academic institution can always absorb more of the output it demands:  Through discourse and ritual it entices the formation of identities through which it can incite great feats of precisely this kind of activity.  If the academic institution is in decline, perhaps this is so because other social arrangements are coming to (1) more effectively entice identity-formation and (2) better maximize human output of a kind of intellectual work that is valued in exchange.

Rhet/Comp seems to seek to establish affinities with the forms of textual afforded by both the internet and computers more generally.  In a world of where school-based language instruction is largely prescriptive, we can hardly take the Computational Linguists who devise grammar checkers available in software like MS word to task for offering a “right” answer to grammatical questions.  Perhaps what rankles most is that corporate-mediated instruction, via software, will reach a mass audience of millions when sentence-level lessons in Composition, themselves notoriously fallible (I’m giving one the old college try tomorrow, in fact), tend to reach scores of learners at a time, at best.

Consider the irony:  As software-mediated grammar becomes more the norm, corporate-dispensed instruction will come closer to establishing a consistent vision of written English, thereby both usurping a previously academic prerogative — the adjudication of proper usage and syntax — with an astonishing ubiquity that the individual teacher, even as a handbook textbook author, could never achieve.  This only underscores the need for Rhet/Comp to follow, as best it can, the mutative course of technological innovation, or become irrelevant to the actual composing life of our society.



2 comments on “Bolded Plagiarism: Academic Writing and Grammar Instruction in light of the Corporate Spectacle

  1. This reminds me of a couple of recent events. Yesterday, in doing research for my presentation, I found a video featuring Hans Rosling. The video is about his Gapminder software, which visualizes quantitative data. In the video, he interviews some researchers at Google who use statistical analysis to create models for language translation. On the one hand this is great. Websites can do this already, and live text translation for instant messages isn’t that far off. Eventually your phone will do translation on the fly, as you talk to someone.

    But there are downsides. This type of technology, based on statistical models, could be used in the corporate-mediated online courses you reference. In essence, we could have bots teaching English composition online, in the not that distant future. Would the bots have any concept of schema activation? Maybe. Statistical modeling would be easy to adapt for this. Would the bots understand agency, voice, audience, logos, ethos, pathos? Again, I can see statistical models making this childs’ play.

    But what about assessment? Would the bots revert to banking models and depend on tests? What’s to stop a student from writing responses to discussion topics or whole papers from copy-pasted material? Who would notice? Who would do the final assessment and grading? A bot?!

    I actually had this happen in one of the classes I teach online. An ESL student did this, no only for her midterm paper, but for discussion topics. She was lifting entire passages from websites on film theory. She was copying text out of the book we read on film editing theory and pasting them into her report, and pasting them into discussion topics about the book that we are discussing!

    I privately confronted her with the problem and she confessed that she was having difficulty with English and didn’t realize she was doing anything wrong. It was an acceptable practice in here country. I directed her to the school’s online writing lab and ESL tutors for further assistance.

  2. Pingback: Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

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