First-Year Writing: Narcissism or New Literacies
by Chuck Tryon — Fayetteville State University
August 27, 2009 – 11:42
With the emergence of a new academic year–we’re already a week in at Fayetteville State–we are greeted with another round of the annual rite of passage: the lament that Kids Today can no longer write effectively. Perhaps the highest-profile version of this annual genre appeared in the (web) pages of The New York Times in a curmudgeonly blog post written by Stanley Fish that opens with a complaint about his graduate students’ prose before evolving into a complaint about what is being taught in first-year composition classes. Fish’s comments echo concerns by John Sutherland about the encroachment of text-speak and Facebook-inspired narcissism into academic writing and are not that remote from a widely-discussed lament by Roger Ebert about a “gathering dark age.” A new generation of writers and thinkers are paying attention to the wrong things, and their writing and critical thinking skills are diminished as a result.
It’s easy enough to refute some of the generational claims. As Glenn Kenny observes, after offering ample evidence: “The kids of today didn’t invent dumb. They inherited it.” Perhaps more vexing for those of us who teach first-year writing courses, is the question about whether Johnny and Jane can write. Fish, after a brief review of his grad students’ prose, concludes that something is getting lost in writing instruction, an analysis that is reinforced for him by a review of an American Council of Trustees and Alumni white paper and a survey of his university’s composition syllabi, few of which seemed to offer explicit training in the craft of writing. Although I am sympathetic with Fish’s concerns about the need to focus on writing, I cannot share his “conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.” Nor do I believe that it makes sense “to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.” Many of the approaches that Fish rejects–courses that focus on the politics of culture–succeed as sites for the teaching of writing precisely because they are so attentive to how texts make meaning and to the importance of a rhetorical context (kairos, in classical rhetoric) in which these texts are produced.
In that context, I found Clive Thompson’s recent Wired column on “The New Literacy” to be a compelling read. Thompson cites research conducted by Andrea Lunsford as part of the Stanford Study of Writing, a massive research project that examined thousands of pages student writing–from papers to short assignments–before coming to a much different conclusion: today’s students can write, and in fact, they write far more often than past generations, in part thanks to the massive amounts of socializing that take place online, whether in Facebook or Twitter status updates or in blog entries. Much of this writing is text-based, and crucially, it is written for an audience. I’ve done a number of activities, including my virginity auction activity last fall, in which students are asked to think about audience, and because of their online writing practices, I think it’s a concept that many students grasp intuitively.
I do have some reservations about Lunsford’s research. The writing that she studied consisted of a longitudinal study of work produced by Stanford students, so I’d be curious to know if similar improvement could be measured in other university contexts; however, Lunsford’s conclusions (and Thompson’s synthesis of them) are a nice corrective against the claims that Kids Today don’t know how to write.