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Don Tapscott

Writing in the age of composition

Today’s university students are doing more writing in more varied forms outside of their classes than ever before.  They are texting, writing on Facebook walls, sending e-mails, posting or responding to blogs, and generally using the keyboard as the principal means of communicating online.  While it is easy to see they are the most prolific student writers ever, does this mean they are better writers?

This hotly debated question is explored by Josh Keller in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article entitled “Studies Explore Whether the Internet Makes Students Better Writers.” “Some scholars say that this new writing is more engaged and more connected to an audience, and that colleges should encourage students to bring lessons from that writing into the classroom.  Others argue that tweets and blog posts enforce bad writing habits and have little relevance to the kind of sustained, focused argument that academic work demands,” writes Keller.

I’m firmly of the former school, and the article cites good reasons why.

Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor of English at Florida State University and a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, calls the current period “the age of composition” because new technologies are causing more people to compose with words and other media than ever before.

“This is a new kind of composing because it’s so variegated and because it’s so intentionally social,” says Yancey. It has a strong influence on how students learn to write.  “We ignore it at our own peril.”

Jeffrey Grabill, director of the Writing in Digital Environments Research Center at Michigan State, says college writing instruction should have two goals: to help students become better academic writers, and to help them become better writers in the outside world. The second, broader goal is often lost, he says, either because it is seen as not the college’s responsibility, or because it seems unnecessary.

“The unstated assumption there is that if you can write a good essay for your literature professor, you can write anything,” Mr. Grabill says. “That’s utter nonsense.”

The writing done outside of class is, in some ways, the opposite of a traditional academic paper, he says. Much out-of-class writing, he says, is for a broad audience instead of a single professor, tries to solve real-world problems rather than accomplish academic goals, and resembles a conversation more than an argument.

Rather than being seen as an impoverished, secondary form, online writing should be seen as “the new normal,” he says, and treated in the curriculum as such: “The writing that students do in their lives is a tremendous resource.”

Ms. Yancey, at Florida State, says out-of-class writing can be used in a classroom setting to help students draw connections among disparate types of writing. In one exercise she uses, students are asked to trace the spread of a claim from an academic journal to less prestigious forms of media, like magazines and newspapers, in order to see how arguments are diluted. In another, students are asked to pursue the answer to a research question using only blogs, and to create a map showing how they know if certain information is trustworthy or not.

The idea, she says, is to avoid creating a “fire wall” between in-class and out-of-class writing.

“If we don’t invite students to figure out the lessons they’ve learned from that writing outside of school and bring those inside of school, what will happen is only the very bright students” will do it themselves, Ms. Yancey says. “It’s the rest of the population that we’re worried about.”

If we agree that the new purpose of universities is to educate students on how to be lifelong learners, it only makes sense that we equip to do their best at all forms of communication.

I encourage readers to comment.

Tags: School/College


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