Monday, October 5, 2009

On “On the New Literacy”

So you finally got around to reading the piece in Wired about college students and writing?

If you mean Clive Thompson’s On the New Literacy, I read it some time ago.

So how come haven’t you written anything about it?

Well, I’ve been really busy, mostly grading student essays. That takes a lot of time. I've been putting in long hours at the Continental Paper Grading Co.

So you’ve haven’t been able to write something about students’ writing because you’ve been grading your students’ writing. Pretty ironic.


So what do you think about the claim that “online media are pushing literacy into cool directions”? Thompson quotes Andrea Lunsford, the director of the Stanford Study of Writing, who says that “we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.”

I, uh, don’t see it.

Because of the essays you’ve been grading?

Not really. More because of overall impressions developed over several years.

Can you elaborate?

I just haven’t see any remarkable development in students’ writing ability. To the contrary: I see much evidence of a long, sorry decline. It’s not unusual to read entire essays with no punctuation beyond the period. It’s not unusual to find confusions about spelling that not long ago were pretty much beyond my imagining: and for an, pros for prose.

What more concerns me is an overall decline in the ability to develop a coherent line of thought in an essay. What I find most urgently missing in student writing is skill in developing an overarching argument, within an essay and even within paragraphs. Much of the blame here goes not to the Internets but to the rigid list-oriented model of essay-writing that students are required to follow in their earlier schooling: “There are three foods that I like. First. Next. Last, but not least. In conclusion, there are three foods that I like.” By the time students get to college, the possibility of the essay as an adventure in thinking, a trying out of ideas, is largely gone. And without the reliable “three points,” the work of writing an essay becomes analogous to driving without a steering wheel.

But you have to admit, students are writing more than ever before.

Here too, I don't see it. Here’s what Thompson says, expanding on Lunsford’s claim that today’s college students do more writing than any previous generation:

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.
This generalization about the past is laughable, as anyone aware of the diaries, journals, and letters of earlier generations can attest. But the claim about today’s students can be plausible only if we count as writing any words made as marks by hand. Here are three of my recent texting efforts:


Check yr email
And a recent shopping list:
Blue Silk


sun-dried tomatoes

These are examples of written language, but they’re hardly examples of the sustained thought that more typically defines that which we call writing.

What were you doing shopping for silk in the supermarket?

No, Silk, with a capital S, soymilk. Good stuff.

My mistake. I’m guessing that you’re also not persuaded by the claim that students are “remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos — assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across.”

No, I’m not persuaded. Or yes, I’m not — I’ve never figured out how that kind of question works. I don’t doubt that students texting friends are adept at kairos (as are debt collectors, extortionists, and political operatives, at least sometimes). But I’m not convinced that a grasp of kairos in socializing with peers transfers readily to other contexts. Consider, for instance, the lack of kairos evident in many student e-mails to professors, beginning, often, with the infamous “Hey,” or with no greeting at all, ending with no signature, and sent from unseemly addresses. Or consider the lack of interest many students show in following directions for written work. A strong sense of kairos would make unstapled pages, misspelled authors’ names, and “In the book it says” things of the past. But they’re all still with us, or at least with me, despite cautions and reminders galore.

Well, you finally got your two cents in. Do you think your readers know that you picked up the idea of the self-interview from Thomas Merton’s journals?

I’m sure of it.

Related post
How to e-mail a professor
Writing, technology, and teenagers

comments: 10

Matthew Schmeer said...


Have you read this yet? Eerily similar concerns to your post here.

thalkowski said...

I like the self-interview trope. It also reminded me of Joyce's catechistical chapter in Ulysses, (which might have been Merton's inspiration).

Michael Leddy said...

I hadn’t seen this piece — thanks, Matthew.

I’ve sometimes used five as a “magic number” in post titles. ("On the Internets, five, like ten, is a magic number.")

Merlin Mann has also written about online pieces devoted to n tips.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, Merton loved Joyce. Or he could’ve been influenced by catechisms themselves, no? : )

I didn’t get your comment until after posting my own, Timothy — such are the mysteries of Blogger comments.

Anonymous said...

I was amused by the complaints about students, something echoed by so many in academia these days. It says something about the lower grades and a general lack of skills acquisition by students by the time you and other faculty see the loss and mourn. The problem, as with all problems, is in finding the root cause of such decline. While the political and pedagogic lenses are often trotted out, I think there is a more basic cause. Perhaps we simply have too many students whose access to higher education can do nothing for them. In a society where not all are intellectuals and only the greatest of intellects evidence themselves after long years of accomplishment to climb beyond the noise level of social commentary, perhaps too many students are being brung along to higher education who should have been left to low aims and aspirations. Drop out rates in many inner cities point to this, sadly, as a truth. The question of whether these minds can be saved must be married to the question of "if saved, then what?" Faculties bulge at the seems while budgets come to their limits. Where shall all the young minds turn for employment? Perhaps better to turn their hands to work, rather than their poor skills in writing and problem solving.

Michael Leddy said...

I’d like to think that I'm observing rather than complaining about "the kids today," et cetera. As any student of mine would attest, I am always optimistic about the students in my classes. And I don’t go along with the idea that some people are better “left to low aims and aspirations.”

Manual labor can require writing and problem solving at pretty high levels. Drawing up a detailed contract and figuring out problems of space and time are also the work of the mind. Every time there’s someone working in my house, I’m reminded of that.

Slywy said...

Michael, you're so right. The idea that manual labor isn't also mental has always seemed strange to me. One reason I can't do anything handy (sew, knit, etc.) is that I don't have whatever part of the brain that likes to plan things like patterns and stitches ahead. Someone who can do that amazes me, even if he or she isn't a towering intellectual.

DF said...

Loved this post.

My $.02: no one has ever liked writing, not from the beginning of writing, except for a few gifted shamans who are DNA oddities. Writing is totally unnatural to the human condition. We have attempted to be literate (>10% can do more than write their own name) as a species for maybe a few hundred years. Going back tens of thousands of years no one ever worried about writing-- or reading, for that matter. It probably will take another 50,000 years of bitching and moaning about bad writing before homo sapiens evolves into homo scribens.

In the meantime, I will still fight to get students better at writing. I believe in the enrichment of lives through writing, reading, and thinking. In the beginning was the Word, baby.

T. said...

I'm no gifted shaman, but I LOVE writing!

Michael - this has to be one of my favorites among all your posts. I also appreciate your wonderful insight regarding manual labor.

Must go back and read it all again for the third time, for the sheer pleasure of it.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Slywy and T., I should’ve also mentioned my dad the tileman. James Leddy is in the thesaurus as a synonym for meticulous.

DF, your thoughts here remind that I have Christine Kenneally’s The First Word in a stack of books I’ve yet to read. Thinking of language in terms of evolving human abilities is pretty exciting. I’m with you: no giving up.