It’s Not That Far of a Jump from Labor Theory to Research Papers, Is it?

My notes on Chapter Six of Writing New Media, “The Database and the Essay: Understanding Composition as Articuluation” by Johndan Johnson-Eilola eventually gave way to me trying to re-conceptualize research and the research paper.  It’s been very much on my mind lately, not only because I’ve got to figure one out myself not too long from now, but I’m having a sort of existential crisis in my own classroom.

Let me explain.  The suits that run my workplace really, really want us to be doing Things. Lots of Things.  Like “Project-Based Learning.” Like “instilling 21st-Century Skills.”  Like “The Four Cs.” Like “professional learning communities.” And trying to get ourselves out of Federal Program Improvement, which entails doing a lot of practice for bubble tests like these and these.  All at the same time.  Reasonable people can agree that the ingredients list on this recipe is ridiculous and needs paring down. I spent a week at a PBL conference over the summer and, after crafting a rather decent skeleton for an entire unit on Latin American globalization, completely on my own (after my co-writer bailed on the whole conference after a day), and all of this after completing a project for an SFSU class (on blogging in secondary classrooms), I realized that if there was anyone on the faculty who could be expected to experiment with these competing ideas, who might be even marginally successful at it, it was probably going to be me.

I’ve already run into my own hurdles, like trying to teach my seniors why it’s not OK to rip off photos, because it’s like plagiarism.  I instructed them on where to get fair-and-acceptable-use photos, and not to use anything else, and they still use stuff in their blogs I’m not even sure about.  I just have to sit here and pray that they took my advice, made the effort, and that if they didn’t, that their use of said photos are going to be just fine because they are not commercial enterprises – they are teenagers blogging because Mrs. G. told them to or they will flunk.

Anyway, I have always done research papers with my classes, tenth graders and seniors, and while I don’t see my senior paper changing a whole lot anytime soon (even last month I got another email from a former student thanking me for making them write the damned thing, because they were just assigned a new one and are now responsible for getting their entire dorm floor of freshmen through it, because evidently, nobody else learned it before landing at Stanford).  But as research becomes in some ways easier because Internet, it’s also harder because, well, Internet (is that 9 billion hits?).

Teaching these “digital natives,” some of whom know a lot but most of whom know little more than my 73-year-old father (who just figured out how to make his laptop connect to wifi systems other than the one he has at home…hooray! Dad?  DAD?!?!) is daunting. There’s so much – I’ve had twenty years to figure it out, and as it grew, I learned – they are learning as it’s already here.  There are things out there that help me narrow it a bit.

And so I come to Johnson-Eilola’s two underlying concepts, borrowed from theorists in other disciplines, of understanding writing itself.  First, as “symbolic-analytic work” (201), where the author controls various ways to manipulate information and makes those available to the end user.  I wrote in my notes that this sounds to me like “knowing the user,” whoever’s going to re-use those data sets, and that maybe knowing who’s going to use your product is a lot like a writer knowing his or her audience, the people who are going to read and reinterpret what has been written.  Second, as “articulation” (201), as texts mean things only socially, and break down and are re-formed as a matter of course – meaning isn’t static.

It all reminded me of the thing with which I always open my units on research and writing research papers: “You are not necessarily saying anything new. Many people have written, in some cases astonishingly well and astonishingly voluminously, about your topic. What you are doing is bringing it together in a new way according to these rules I am about to show you.”  And I think that is still true. To some extent.  But now we need to consider the very rules, like MLA format.  The Johnson-Eilola paper covers that territory, discussing the various ways that InfoWorld and NPR tried to control who linked to their content (209), all of which were failures by themselves.  But, like the very nature of writing in a postmodern world, the ground is always shifting under our feet.  But even if we are theoretically comfortable with that, practically?  We are far from it, most of us.  I mean, for God’s sake, we’re not even really turning in a traditional paper for this class; we’re presenting our research findings in some way that is commensurate with a class that pushes the envelope of our conception of writing in the digital age.  Now, I’ll tell you what I’m very likely going to be doing: Writing an eight-page research paper and then figuring out a way to make it digitally pretty in order to present it to all of you.  I guess I still, at the very root, think and construct ideas for myself, and navigate my world, in a linear fashion (Jordan’s post discussed Johnson-Eilola’s take on this idea).

But what if I could take off the training wheels? What if I were comfortable foregoing that and producing a great digital essay without that intermediate step?  I’m not even there in my own work.  Getting myself to the place where I would be comfortable teaching it is quite another matter.  And if I have already identified myself as the most able and willing person in my workplace to do that, then we as a profession have a long period of introspection, learning, and practice.  Some of that might come in a group like the aforementioned PLC, but I can say from two decades of experience that a lot of that is a profoundly individual endeavor.

As a parent and a secondary educator, I have other concerns about the commercialization and marketing of text chunks and the “prescriptive nature” of school writing, but I think Jordan’s post captured all of that pretty well.

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.


Taking advantage of tools and bewaring of false promises

In “Blinded by the Letter Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else!” Anne Frances Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola address two myths that are associated with discussions of “literacy,” one, that literacy is always a tool of liberation for oppressed peoples, and two, that literacy will improve an individual’s sense of self and moral character. I have often had a bad taste in my mouth when reading academic discussions of literacy in the sense that academic efforts to offer literacy to oppressed peoples are like wealthy philanthropy—rich people donate money because it makes them feel good, but more often than not, not because it will really create substantial change. I’m not saying that efforts to share literacies are not worthwhile and effective, but I don’t think teaching someone to read and write is the panacea that will dissolve class inequity. Literacy is just a piece of the puzzle. The Wysocki and Johnson-Eiolola article was refreshing to me. This quote from Ruth Finnegan words it well, “So, when people might want, for example, houses or jobs or economic reform, they arc instead given literacy programs. (41)” 

The second myth taken up by Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola is that the book, and the book alone, offers people the necessary self-reflection to become more self realized and moral individuals. A book or literacy for that matter does not by default make you a moral person. I hear this in the tone of people’s voices when they react to discovering that another individual has never read a book or only plays video games. Yes, reading does open you up to considering moral ideas, but it does not inherently make you moral. The cultural expectation to read can be oppressive. This Portlandia sketch sums up this myth pretty well to me.

Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola continue their argument by applying their discussion of literacy myths to computers, urging readers to consider the use of the term “literacy” when applying it to computers—for fear that we might apply the same assumptions and myths to computer literacy. Efforts by the Clinton administration to put a computer in every classroom seem to be tangential to this idea of applying the same myths of literacy to computers. Computers in every classroom did not save students, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt them either.  

The second assumed promise of literacy that the authors warn us to consider carefully is this idea of improving the self, the bildungsroman of literacy. A bildungsroman is a literary term for a coming of age story. Computers are very much tied to self-improvement and authoritative self-identity. We can see these myths embodied in rags to riches stories like that of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, all wunderkinds whose abilities and destinies were unleashed because of computers.


We cannot assume that people are missing out on the good life if they don’t know how to work an iPod.

But to completely dismiss computers and computer literacy because it brings along some myths of overzealous promise is unwise.

Computers can be powerful tools for discovering identities and understanding how power is negotiated. InColin Lankshear and Michele Knobel’s article, “’New’ Literacies: Research and Social Practice,” the authors analyze “‘new’ literacies” (which at the time of the article’s publication are new but today are more broadly accepted as commonplace)

in the form of blogs, online fan fiction and “synchronous online communities (this appears to be a precursor to things like World of Warcraft).


It took me awhile to wrap my head around the idea that each online community represents a separate discourse community, thereby offering an individual the ability to become literate within that discourse community.

Each community: fan fiction fans, synchronous online community members, and bloggers, all three of these discourses offered community members avenues for re-imagining their identities and expressing themselves in ways that conventional media and reading and writing outlets had not.

Lankshear and Knobel classify communication through fan fiction and online synchronous communities as “relationship technology” rather than “information technology” (while blogs seem to stand in both categories), and they argue that awareness of these literacies can be applied in the classroom. I would rephrase this suggestion as “know your population. ”

Framing curriculum in formats that are personally compelling for students is beneficial in terms of engagement for the students. Students can have “authority” over their school assignments in ways that traditional research papers may not allow, capitalizing on the “relationship technology” that youth are so adept at navigating.

An article in A New Literacies Sampler continues along similar lines as Lankshear and Knobel. In “Popular Websites in Adolescents’ Out-of-School Lives: Critical Lessons on Literacy” by Jennifer Stone, Stone explores how popular websites used by teenagers support literacy practices encouraged in schools (a la Robert Brooke’s “Underlife and Writing Instruction” wherein the transgressive activities of students in class actually reinforce classroom goals). In Stone’s research she observes youth using the rhetorical skills that complement classroom practices. Stone suggests that schools can help students to “begin addressing the convergence of genres, modalities, and inter-textuality to promote consumption” (61) that is inherent in many popular websites.

In conclusion, it may be beneficial to use technological literacy in the classroom as a tool for empowerment and self-realization, but it is necessary not to overstate what our claim of “literacy” offers students. We are offering them tools, but we are not necessarily offering liberation or morality. It is also important to note that the tools benefit not just the students, but also, us, as teachers in our ability to engage our students.

All Your Database Are Belong to Us?

In “The Database and the Essay: Understanding Composition as Articulation”, by Johndan Johnson-Eilola, I found several things interesting. The main one is that this line of argument seems totally contrary to what Lessig was talking about in his TED talk. Lessig seems to be saying that if the masses of technology users rise up and communicate their thoughts that conceptions of fair use should be expanded, copyright holders (and the legal system) will listen, much like they did when BMI won their battle against ASCAP, with the end result being that information is free. Continue reading