Writing and digital technology have taken quite a hit in the last few weeks.
Most recently, in a widely-circulated NYMag interview, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the internet was fueling the “careless writing” of our nation’s youngest generation. He declared, “People who get used to blurbing things on the Internet are never going to be good writers.”
In mid-September, in an article for The Guardian, Jonathan Franzen slammed the famous Salman Rushdie for yielding to the coolness and 140-character limit of the Twitterverse. He revealed that he was disappointed when the novelist who “ought to have known better… succumb[ed] to Twitter.”
But is the tweeting and status updating and blog posting of what Frazen calls our “media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment” harmful to students?
Andrea Lunsford, a scholar of rhetoric and writing, argues that the internet had actually heralded a new age of writing. (You can read more on her work in a previous blogpost here.) In a Stanford talk in 2012, she shared that college students are “writing more than they’ve ever written, I think in the history of the world.” And she would know. She collected the writings of 190 Stanford students over the course of five years–a total of 15,000 pieces of notes, emails, essays, poetry, chat sessions, text messages, and powerpoint presentations from 2001 to 2006–to track the development of their writing practices.
Her Stanford Study of Writing found that students, by the time they reach college-age, know who they are writing for and adjust their writing style according. The writing students do outside of class is also more engaged and more attuned to their audience than their academic writing. She concludes definitively, “Technology isn’t killing our ability to write, it’s reviving it.”
Generation Y defines good writing as writing with purpose. It doesn’t matter if that purpose is reaching fashionistas on Tumblr, or connecting with peers at poetry slams. Lunsford noted in a news article that for today’s students, “Good writing changes something. It doesn’t just sit on the page. It gets up, walks off the page and changes something.” The trick is incorporating student ideas of writing into syllabi and classroom dynamics. Or, should professors make students grit their teeth through the standard 5 page essay? Shouldn’t getting an A be enough of an incentive to write well?
Jeff Grabill, Director of Writing in the Digital Environments Research Center at Michigan State University, conducted a much shorter study that honed in on the writing of first-year students. He had a writing class keep a journal of where they wrote regardless of the platform over a period of two weeks. He later followed up with interviews. Like Lunsford, he discovered that students write more outside of class and are more aware of the importance of crafting arguments. He suggests that professors consider the online writing students are already doing as a “tremendous resource” and not as a second-rate form of writing.
History professors bemoan that they will never reach a certain segment of their class. They won’t reach those who sit in class sullen and resentful because they have to take a course to fulfill degree requirements. Online writing is a common ground that might incite them to, if not love history, at the very least engage with it on their own terms. After all, students hellbent on getting As will write 1,000 word essays, pull all-nighters for bluebook exams, and go to office hours to gauge their progress. Digital technology might offer professors a way to connect with students who don’t want to be there. More importantly, it might leave non history majors with historical thinking and writing skills that will inform their work in other disciplines.
The newest to join the fray on digital writing in academe is Professor of Journalism and English at the University of Delaware Ben Yagoda. He published two articles this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education that tackled the following question: “Is the Internet Good for Writing?” In his affirmative post, he covered Clive Thompson’s newest book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing out Minds for the Better. Yagoda validates Thomson’s claim that the internet has brought about “a Golden age of prose.” He writes, “The best online stuff is as good as it is in part because of emerging from a brutally Darwinian environment: If you are not interesting, you will die (that is, you will be ignored).” Once again, the idea that publishing online forces the writer to craft an argument and convincingly back it up shines through.
Yagoda’s negative response did little to outline the cons of online writing. In fact, it called Frazen’s piece on the modern age as “an old-fashioned essay, cranky and densely argued, filled with unexpected diction and curling periodic sentences.” It closed,
“Of all the artistic or creative endeavors threatened by the Internet, Franzen’s kind of writing is actually pretty much the least threatened. If you want to create monumental sculpture, form a jazz big band and play for people around the country, do long-form investigative or narrative journalism, or make a feature film, the economic barriers to entry are pretty high. But if you want to write a novel, all if you have to do is sit down and write it.”
Now, it is up to history professors to take advantage of the golden age of online writing that Lunsford, Grabill, and Yagoda detail.