digital rhetoric

cooperation from composition to scholarship

I’m starting of my classes with reading Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, and cooperation is one of the themes that comes early and often. Cooperation, particularly in media networks, is typified by

  • open source software development
  • the commons of media/information vs. copyright/IP
  • regulation of network access (Net Neutrality and so on)
  • collaborative/participatory networks like the blogs, wikis and so on.

Cooperation in writing, however, remains problematic. All acts of composition may be understood as individualized (in the sense that they might be said to occur at a local site) and networked (in the sense that they occur in a context of non-local sites, e.g., other texts). Saying composition is networked does not exclude it from also being local, unless one insists that composition is exclusively local, which is impossible assuming that one is composing in some language or employing some technology not created on the spot in a fit of MacGyver-esque genius.

Yet we insist on the fiction of the author, especially in academic settings, and I won’t go down that well-trammeled path again, except to say… there it is… again.

But what would it mean to view writing as a cooperative act, as participation in a commons? What would it mean to articulate the classic challenges of composition in terms of the "tragedy of the (unmanaged or mis-managed) commons"?

Rheingold discusses typical commons problems. These problems are largely ethical in nature.

  • How do you monitor and punish free-riders?
  • Conversely, how do you convince users to contribute?
  • How do you govern the strategic, efficient use of the commons?
  • How are disputes resolved between users?

These seem to be common problems in composition. The problem of plagiarism is essentially a problem of free-riding, for example. But the interesting issues run deeper I think. When we imagine composition as private and proprietary, we see it first and foremost as something we do for ourselves, even if we only do it in order to exchange the unwanted text for something else, like a grade. Withholding grades and demanding proprietary media in exchange for them tends to strike students as, at best, some mindless game, and at worst, some coercive behavior. This is particularly the case when students are largely powerless as an economic class in the "grading marketplace."

While technically, at least according to the way copyright law is currently interpreted, all writing is copyrighted and proprietary, the vast amount of writing that is done has virtually no economic value. This is especially the case for compositions that are participate in what is really (despite copyright) the intellectual commons of our culture, which would include nearly all academic discourse.

What would be the difference, I wonder, if we taught composition not as the production of proprietary media but rather as cooperative participation in an information/media commons? It seems to me that the first challenge would be for students to recognize the value of the commons and their dependence upon it. You want to figure things out in the world, impress your boss or your lover, find consumer information, get a question answered about your neighborhood or politics or your hobby, etc. etc. We rely upon this commons. At the same time, we have responsibilities toward it.

When one moves toward scholarship, the issues become even clearer I think. In a recent podcast, Cory Doctorow talks about why he thinks e-books won’t catch on. This is what I get out of it. Basically, when people read novels, or even much nonfiction, they are not looking for much interactivity. They are really looking for a kind of sensory deprivation experience. An e-book will also always be a networked device with many other tools offering distractions. Not what people want in a reading experience.

That is, unless your an academic. B/c if you’re an academic reading academic texts you are looking for interactivity. You read the text as part of an ongoing conversation in which you are a member. Perhaps as you read you are already thinking about how a text fits into your own research, your own future writing. You mark the text to remind yourself of passages you will want to discuss in a classroom or in an article.

Of course, other readers find other kinds of interactivity. They write fan fiction, for example. But they aren’t doing the kinds of close interactivity and networking that marks academic or perhaps other professional reading. This is the kind of composing we look for students to do in academic discourse. A kind that is really obscured by a proprietary approach to writing.


One reply on “cooperation from composition to scholarship”

Disney, online collab, wiki-ing of int prop
The cooperative nature of writing has always been there and, as you said, hidden behind this myth of the individual author. The old phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” comes to mind here. But the creation of writing is tangled up in the earning of money as are most things. Thus ownership, sole-ownership, has become more and more important in order to pay wages.
In terms of teaching writing as a collaborative act, this is a longer-term mindset issue and flies in the face of corporate interest (and, oddly enough, academic interests too). There is simply too much at stake to allow a shift in the paradigm.
And yet, things are shifting anyway. I’ve just finished a very simple version of this in which I co-wrote a document with two colleagues online using Google Docs. Wikipedia is another example of building something gigantic with almost no sense of the ownership of any one piece of it (that is hidden from the casual user).
Things get even more interesting now that Google is putting books online, Amazon is making books searchable, and P2P sharing is becoming the standard practice instead of some sort of geeks-only domain. The natural movement is toward the collective even as economic forces desperately cling to the old model.


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