Are We In The Midst Of A Literacy Revolution Unseen Since The Greeks?

Clive Thompson reports that Stanford’s Andrea Lunsford thinks so:

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.

But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

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 but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.

The brevity of texting and status updating teaches young people to deploy haiku-like concision.

I identify with the need for a specific audience.  That’s why I’m here blogging for you.  I find it brutally hard to motivate myself to write for an indeterminate other.  Yet, I can write morning ’til night in online fora such as this (and have been doing so for years before just centralizing it in a blog of my own).  The plan is to use this forum to first draft everything I think through this interactive format which so stimulates me and to have the freedom for daily occasional writing about the day’s events and other small ideas that would have no home in formal settings.   My ideas develop faster and more excitingly through conversations, lectures, and written posts and debates, and the written versions are invaluable because unlike all those innumerable ideas which dissipated in the air when a class or a conversation ended, these written remarks remain and can be corralled and coalesced into something formal.

The article comes via the man who more than any other inspired me to blog and whose style and format I have most consciously tied to emulate.

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