Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, September 14, 2009

at least they're writing . . .

Some time back I posted about the idea that even if young people are reading stuff their elders and betters think are trash, “at least they’re reading.” The question was simply whether reading anything is better than reading nothing. Well, we can ask the same question about writing:

As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can't write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into "bleak, bald, sad shorthand" (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?

Andrea Lunsford isn't so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

(For links to Lunsford’s work, follow the link above.) Lunsford has discovered that textspeak is not making its way into student papers, and further argues that student writers today are highly “rhetorical” in the sense that they’re always aware of the audience they’re writing for. But does all this textuality make for better student papers? Do students who text frequently and spend hours a day conversing with friends on Facebook do a better job of producing sound, clear discursive prose than students who aren't so textually active? I can't tell from the article. Well, at least they’re writing.


  • It's good to see an old OSU name. :-)

    It's interesting to see parents on special needs list get exciting about their children being able to text. This gives new opportunities to nonverbal people who are able to text, changes the playing field.
    On the other hand, it handicaps those who are can speak who aren't able to spell/write, and I have met a smart, articulate man who had this inability.
    * * * * *
    As with speaking, any writing is good for a beginner.
    At some point, I would ask what the opportunity cost is. What is being giving up, for the time spent writing? Face to face time? Is the teenager ignoring Grandpa sitting across the lunch table, to text his buddies?

  • I just skimmed the Umberto Ecco article you linked on Twitter.
    This post juxtaposed with it, creates some context to show what is being lost, with the gains made.

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