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.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • 1minionsopinion

    For some of my longer posts, I don’t even want to contemplate how many hours went into figuring out just the right order for my thoughts and what’s the best way to get the points across. Some of them I’ll revise and revise and revise until I get it how I like it.

    That’s one thing computers have made easier. I remember doing literal cut and paste with paper and my highlighter and my scissors in school to do the same reorganizing of drafts. No wonder so few people bothered doing “first drafts” at all…


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