My Arguments with “The Database and the Essay”

“It is true that neither novelty nor invention is requisite  for copyright protection, but minimal creativity is required” (Bender V West Pub. qtd. In Johnson-Eilola, WNM 206).


I am a postmodern by heart, but I don’t understand the meaning of the statement above.  Creativity can be defined as the production or invention of “something that didn’t exist before in the world” (WNM 206), but who is to judge if the production or invention was already in existence before the producer/inventor put it in the world?  Where is the creativity police?  I imagine they must have their plate full.  “Minimal” is a quantifying term, as in “a little bit.”  How can we discern, then, whether a production or invention is only “minimally new?”  Not only would it be difficult, in the first place, to determine beyond the shadow of a doubt whether something is “new” or “old,” but it would seem nearly impossible to determine if it is only “a little bit new.” How “little” is a little bit?  I get a headache just thinking of all the possible and plausible answers to this question.  And I am reminded of John Barth in his seminal essay on (literary) postmodernism, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (yes, this is a “deep link” and I share it unapologetically)  in which he quotes an editor of Jorge Luis Borges: “For [Borges] no one has claim to originality in literature; all writers are more or less faithful amanuenses of the spirit, translators and annotators of pre-existing archetypes” (73).  This sounds like a modest and elegant philosophy; however, even Borges’s works are copyrighted.  In Borges’s most notable book, Labyrinths, I get lost in his wit, and I can’t separate the fact from the fiction, as the author is infamous for blending and blurring reality and make-believe.  So, returning to Johnson-Eilola’s point, what is “truth”?  What is “creativity”? (What’s “new”/what’s old?) And, how can we put a retail price on “little bits” of intellectual property?

But despite our postmodern climate of intertextuality, new media, shared authorship and regulated intellectual property, we still need to take responsibility -and hold our students accountable -for meaning making.  “[C]ommunities create contingent meanings through a process of negotiation, with specific articulations made real only in concrete, specific contexts. So common meanings arise through shared usage, but those meanings are also open to debate and change” (WNM 207).  As far as I’m concerned, Composition is a field in which we teach clear written communication, which goes against the chaotic tenets of postmodern theory.  Even though we are in a postmodern time, we still need to teach our students to make sense of the world, their thoughts and how to go about producing meaningful texts.

As for the economics of intellectual property in “chunks” as opposed to whole texts, I need to ask this question: is academic conversation and inquiry a commodity or a practice for developing our intellectual lives?  I understand the regulation of paying for rights of use of large “properties” such as textbooks and even hefty college readers, assuming that they present complete works (full articles and essays).  But does this mean that we need to ask permission to quote from other scholarship in our own writings and handouts?  Let’s say I have a block quote of 400+ words that I insert into a writing prompt – should I have to ask permission to use this “property” from the publishers?  Should I be expected to pay for the use?  If this is the direction in which regulation is going, as I am hearing from Johnson-Eilola, then nobody will want to quote “chunks” of other texts anymore.  How will we deal with this?  What materials will we be left with as our teaching offerings?   Somebody please tell me that this regulation won’t also fall onto students writing papers!  How will we teach our students to deal with it?  Many students are resistant to conversing with other scholars as it is – what will happen when they have to seek permission to use every single quote?  Will they wait for a response?  Will they pay for it if required?  Please tell me this isn’t where we’re headed!

Then, there’s the independent scholar who wants to self-publish eBooks and sell them for a buck.  She wants to join in the conversation and will have many quotes from many previous texts in her essays and inquiries.  Does she have to seek permission from every single publisher to reproduce two and three-sentence quotations that are already properly crediting the respective authors of “little bits of creativity”?  What percentage of a book’s one-buck-profit will a publisher expect to get for a two-sentence quotation of a scholarly article published in 1988?  This scenario may seem hypothetical, but it’s not.  I am currently editing an indie book on piano practice, and I honestly don’t know what “fair use” is anymore.  (I would appreciate any advice, if you happen to have it).

“We can’t separate writing from the economic sphere” (WNM 212).  I don’t know what do to with this statement either.  As I read the words and decode their meaning, I say that we must certainly can and even should separate writing from economics (unless you’re writing about economics).  I understand that we must deal with the regulations and restrictions that come along, and we should also pass this wisdom onto our students, but what exactly does Johnson-Eilola mean?  And why does she list this as the first item under “New Responsibilities in Construction?”

Some random final notes:  I found the idea of “writing as architecture” fascinating and, indeed, New Media writing is much more like “building” something than plain text could ever be. I am also indebted to the author for the long section on weblogs, which is a big help for my research project, and for the different digital assignments and exercises we can use in the composition classroom.


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.