Chronicle Article on the Internet and Student Writing

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Josh Keller reports on the research and debate over the impact of the Internet on student writing. Not surprisingly, there are differences of opinion to be found. While there is a general sense that more time spent writing is a good thing, the article also reports on concerns that the informal writing of social media leads to poor academic writing and sloppy thinking. Really, the more I think about it, the more this seems a "dog bites man" kind of story. The report focuses on several longitudinal studies undertaken at Stanford, Michigan State, and elsewhere with the idea that such studies might resolve these debates.

Yeah, right.

Why ask whether writing on the Internet makes you a better academic writer? Why not ask whether academic writing makes you a better user of social media? I suppose it is understandable that academics might want to value a particular kind of academic writing, but in the end that valuation is a demonstration of thinking that is no less sloppy than the poor thinking habits of which they accuse students.

I wonder where one might find the longitudinal studies and extensive research that demonstrates that academic writing (if such a thing actually exists and can be quantitatively defined) is the best possible genre for developing "critical thinking" or producing and disseminating disciplinary knowledge. Of course such studies and research do no exist. The value of academic writing is purely tautological. Academic writing is the best academic writing because academic writing is what academic writing is. 

If we give even a few minutes thought to the issue, we can recognize that academic writing practices emerge from historical-cultural-material-technological-ideological conditions. Whatever skepticism one wishes to turn toward social media discourses should be turned doubly so upon academic discourses.

When we talk about academic discourse we are really talking about two unrelated things.

  1. The constellation of largely unrelated discourses employed in faculty research. These discourses are mostly untranslatable from one discipline to the next and often from one sub-specialty to the next. Generally, only a few thousand people worldwide could read any one of these given discourses. And whatever value these discourses may have in these small communities, they have no direct relation to the writing practices of undergraduates, who do not write in these discourses and rarely read them.
  2. Another constellation of largely unrelated discourse practices undertaken by undergraduates in their coursework, which include everything from literary interpretation to lab reports to pseudo-professional genres preparing students for workplace writing in any one of hundreds of careers and majors.

The real problem with this whole debate is the continuing mythology that there exists some generalizable academic discourse. In the Chronicle article, Keller notes that skeptics believe social media genres "have little relevance to the kind of sustained, focused argument that academic work demands." Really? and what "kind" would that be? Can you describe the "kind of sustained, focused argument" that is displayed in literary criticism and a lab report and a poli-sci analysis of public policy and a review of a marketing campaign and an environmental impact report and so on?

The truth is there is no "kind of sustained, focused argument." Now, if the purpose of college writing instruction is to prepare students to write 5-10 page, research, literary interpretation essays, then clearly that would be what you would assign students in a first-year writing course. But I imagine that even for undergraduate English majors, the goal is to prepare students to write in a broader range of genres than this. The goal, as I think most of us envision it, at least in liberal arts majors, is to prepare students to write in a general and flexible way for a range of civic and professional discursive contexts. And if one takes a look at what those contexts currently are and where they might be headed… well, an examination of social media discursive practices would seem a reasonable part of such a curriculum.

So, no, I don't think tweeting or keeping a blog diary will provide much help to a student writing a literary critical paper. And I've seen little evidence that writing a literary critical paper will help a student write a job letter or a marketing brochure or a grant for a non-profit agency. And just as the habits of tweeting may even be detrimental to composing academic prose, academic writing habits can be detrimental to composing successful business prose.

The best I think we can say is what should be fairly obvious. The more we write and the greater variety of genres in which we write, the better prepared we will be to write in a variety of genres in the future.

In short, this article indicates that we continue to ask the wrong question. And maybe I should have just written that, but I'm an academic writer by trade and my habit is to elaborate (typically beyond almost an audience's level of interest). Hmm… maybe I should be relying more on my habits of tweeting discourse.

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