“We’re in the Middle of a Literacy Revolution”: Wired Magazine on the New Literacy

wiredI’ve got more great stuff for you on how social media is affecting our lives.  This is a fascinating piece from Wired magazine called “Clive Thompson on the New Literacy” that covers briefly a study by a Stanford University professor named Andrea Lunsford of 14,000 pieces of writing by college students–academic papers, blogs, texts, chat sessions, and more–that analyzes the style today’s students use to write. (Image: Mads Berg/Wired)

This study enters the debate currently raging over whether students are writing far more poorly in today’s digitized world than they used to.  Here’s how Wired writer Clive Thompson sets the table:

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.

Here’s Lunsford’s surprising conclusion for her study:

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

Here’s what else she found:

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.

And here’s the final take-away from the study, as Clive Thompson sees it:

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 whole thing is worth reading.

My take?  I’m not so convinced.  I do agree that the multiple platforms on which today’s youth communicate does likely help them to learn how to communicate to diverse audiences.  That is a useful skill, one that we could undervalue, especially those of us who emphasize the importance of formal writing.

But with that said, I really wonder whether today’s students write as well as Thompson and Lunsford seem to think they do.  I have served as a grader a few times on both the graduate and undergraduate level, and I was stunned at the poor writing in the papers I encountered.  It’s one thing to be able to text, “hey dude tht game rocked 4 me” and another to argue persuasively, logically, and even elegantly for the reasons behind Rome’s fall.

With that said, this is an article that is worth serious consideration.  The insight that today’s students actually write more than any other generation is history is worth pondering in its own right, and does perhaps balance our perception of things.  Christians have a vested interest here, as we value both clear communication and high-level thought.  This doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a “Christian position” here, but conformity to Christ and His dominion over all of life necessitate that we think about this matter.

In addition, I would say that while blog comments and message board discussion often get hammered as unprofitable (and regularly with considerable justification), I personally often find simulating, logical discussion on intelligent blogs and websites.  You’d be surprised at how sharp and thoughtful a discussion of obscure NBA players can get.  I, for one, love that kind of technical, involved analysis.  Before web 2.0, basketball nerds like me had no such outlet.

Whether Lunsford and Thompson are right or not, it’s clear to me that you can’t simply slam web 2.0 and move on.  It’s a mixed bag.  The same collegiate goofballs that are turning in shoddy history papers are those posting highly nuanced and intelligent observations of the University of Florida football team’s recruiting decisions.  I for one wonder if this is not a net loss, but it’s at least interesting to think about, as the article leads us to do.


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