Student Writing & Fast Capitalism

January 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: History, postprocess, rhetoric 

We live in the age of fast capitalism.  At first glance, this is an exciting time to live.  Through global transit and technology, the world is better connected.  People have access to different cultures and language.  Our opportunity to learn and know increases.  Potentially, people can improve themselves.  The world market can assemble products and provide services quickly and with economic and resource efficiency.  Westerners have a particular advantage at the moment and as consumers can get more of what they want, when and how they want it.  For all the serious environmental and human consequences, there are lots of benefits to more and cheaper.

So you may ask, how does fast capitalism effect student writing?  If more communication is necessary through globalization and interconnected technology, in fact, there are many opportunities for students to write as future workers.  Again, that’s exciting.  Student writers can write for multiple purposes: email, texting, web design, multi-media advertising, research and reports, etc.  As future workers, students must be adaptable to market needs, but is that really a big deal?  Flexibility is a virtue of fast capitalism, and who begins college with the goal of becoming lazy?  People are motivated to go to college for various reasons, but laziness isn’t usually at the top of their list.  Students are motivated to train for a job or want the experience of learning under demanding and stimulating classes.  Even if the reason to attend higher education originates from parents or social pressure,  college can be an ideal setting in preparing for a world of fast capital.

And frankly, old fashioned capitalism and industry can make work boring .  When Henry Ford famously implemented the assembly line where tasks were broken down into simple manageable units, workers felt under challenged with the same day-to-day drudgery.  But industrialization didn’t stop with managing products.  People were susceptible too.  Post-Fordian thinking breaks people down into manageable units.  Yet if fast capitalism works, people are kept too busy to become bored.   Productivity is admirable and its own reward, isn’t it?

Today’s writers are challenged with new tasks and more genres than before.  Unfortunately, as writing across the curriculum has shown us, little in writing is easily transferred.  Writing is never a generic or basic skill.  Under the industrial age, writing tasks were standardized.  For example, the business letter, scientific research, or technical instructions were learned and executed by the same professionals.  But today, we are expected to write using complicated technological tools for sophisticated goals.  This takes more time to learn than most workers or students have available to them.  Complex talents like writing take time and practice to learn.  So what happens when more people are required to write in an information age?  The resulting pressure isn’t necessarily bad; it can motivate and stimulate problem solving and creativity.  One problem, however, is that since the platforms and genres change with the speed of cultural markets, fewer students will be quick or advantaged enough to adapt.  Especially in a time when more communication is needed, this is frustrating for students, teachers, and employers.

Students appear to write no worse than in years past, yet in such demanding times, it may feel like there are fewer competent writers because in meeting specific communication tasks, people are excluded from the time it takes to master those tasks.  In addition, one written skill set conflicts with others: students often say frustratingly, “But that’s the way I learned it before.”  By the time someone masters a Blackberry, the iPhone becomes the mobile communication platform of choice.  By the time a writer learns MLA citation, it’s been updated and s/he has become a chemistry major required to document according to the American Chemical Society guidelines.  Likewise, as a budding chemist, exposition is less important than the ability to produce complicated molecule diagrams, so writing first-year composition essays only partially prepares them for the new genre demand.

Specialization coupled with fast capitalism can cause resistance on the part of students saying they can’t write because they sense the time, energy, and proficiency will move on before they’ve mastered the necessary skill sets.  Frustration leads to desperation.  Groups blame one another for the bad writing they see.  Students ignore or avoid their impulses to express and develop their writing ability.  The effect can be contagious enough to effect an entire school, region, or nation.  And since one rule of fast capitalism is that those who are fastest to deliver draw economic investment, talented people are then drawn to the social, regional, and economic success.  Some worker pools gain advantage; others stagnate or even degrade.  Those that stagnate must sell off what they have, whether its skill or local materials, usually at reduced market rates.

But one piece of  good news is that technological tools like writing can allow people greater means to produce.  Learning to write doesn’t need to be a continual chasing after new kinds of writing and conventions.  Learning to write that fosters inquiry positions students with talents for inventing new ideas and revising old ways of explaining, directing, and making products or services.

Questions: Since fast capitalism emphasizes writing as a handmaiden to employment, does it leave space for people’s humanity, family, and nation?  Is so, where?