"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Beyond Good and Bad Writing: Are We in a 21st Century Flowering of the Written Word?

According to Stanford writing and rhetoric professor Andrea Lunsford, we are
“ ‘in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.’ ” In the September 2009 issue of Wired, Clive Thompson explores this claim in “The New Literacy.”

Bemoaning the ills of email, online chatrooms, and texting as a collective onslaught on well-crafted language has been going on for longer than I realized.

But according to Professor Lunsford, there’s plenty of data to suggest that, as Thompson puts it, “technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.”

Under Lunsford’s direction, the Stanford Study of Writing conducted student interviews and gathered nearly 15,000 student writing samples (“everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions.”)

Here are a few of the more interesting implications and findings that Thompson shares from the study:
  • “Young people today write far more than any generation before them.”
  • Thirty-eight percent of that writing was classified as “life writing”—writing that isn’t related to school work.
  • Truncated spellings and abbreviations—the hallmarks of texting—were not found in a single academic paper.
  • The students’ writing demonstrated a well-developed sense of context—rhetoricians use the Classical Greek term kairos, “assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across.” (This sounds a lot like the sociolinguistic concept of register in speech.)
Let's elaborate on that last bullet, because it, to me, is the most intriguing detail from the article. Here's Thompson again:
The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience other than the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.
(As a former English major, I can tell you that the abstract idea of the “audience” was just that: abstract. Is the professor my audience? No. He or she will be reading my paper, but I’m really writing it for “the reader.” Oh, yes, that helps.)

Of course we can find potential problems in this writing revolution, if that’s what it is. Hey, it’s not difficult to suggest the skills potentially being lost as we watch technology alter human behavior, especially when it comes to the expression of ideas. That’s not new. Not new at all. In Plato’s philosophical dialogue Phaedrus (360 BCE), he has Socrates say the following about, what do you know, writing:
This invention … will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties.
Our "own faculties" indeed. More fascinating—and much more important, I think—are the ways that new technology reshapes our existing abilities. In other words, let’s think about what’s being gained. “The New Literacy” suggests an encouraging development in a form of expression that, speaking as a professional editor, has long suffered from the sometimes crippling anxiety of Am-I-doing-this-right? A vigorous, liberating understanding of who we’re writing for and why we’re writing may be, as Thompson concludes, the most important force as the written word takes off on a new direction.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your work on this. I enjoyed reading it.

The new methods of communication are reactionary. Most of the proactive efforts are occuring elsewhere, perhaps where there is a greater impact on profits or casualties or whatever. As such, the new methods of communication must be judged by how well they enable people to communicate in the new world as it is.

It occurs to me that the new order of communication is being deemed as 'ok' because it can meet many of the traditional requisites of writing. I think that judging the 'new' using 'old' results in nothing new and usually causes harm.

Phaedrus could not have possibly known that forgetfulness would be produced, not by the ability to record information somewhere for future reference, but by the ocean of data we have created in our bizarre curiosity about humpback whales and the new Jay Leno show. The so called information age has rendered memorization useless for all but intimate and careworn recollections. He valued memory in an age when it was paramount. We now live in an age where data retrieval and reliablity-estimation are the key skills - and should be taught in schools.

They should be taught in schools because they are the new standards which determines success (in some fields) in this world, as well as connectedness to the greater society (hive-mind seems a tad judgemental a term). I go to the doctor to determine the health of my lungs in this modern atmosphere, I do not check the health of my cocyx or any other vestigial organ.

We must be willing to put our metrics through the trial by fire as readily as our kids homework. If they result in no-change, if my kid has to memorize Longfellow, that's fine with me. I love Longfellow. But when we're done with that she and I are going to talk some one's and zero's. Actually, I don't think I'm undermining my point here, but if she has to talk one's and zero's all day, when she's done she and I are going to talk Longfellow.

Anonymous said...

What a thoughtful post and insightful comment! AEB

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