The new literacy

by Jess

Clive Thompson reviewed Andrea Lunsford’s literacy project, the Stanford Study of Writing, for Wired Magazine.  Lunsford’s project is intriguing: it was a five-year study “investigating the writing practices and development of Stanford students during their undergraduate years and their first year beyond college in professional environments or graduate programs.”  She collected 14,672 student writing samples, including everything from in-class assignments to emails and blog posts.  I find it particularly interesting that they measured the students’ confidence in writing as well as the quality and volume of their writing.

According to Thompson, Lunsford thinks that technology, far from destroying writing and literacy, as is the oft-repeated lament, is reviving them.  But here’s where I find myself becoming skeptical: Thompson says that for starters, “young people today write far more than any generation before them.”  He claims, “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.”  How can he possibly know that?  What about journal entries and the long-lost art of letter writing and pages and pages of bad poetry that’s kept private by the writer?  “Never wrote anything, ever,” is an awfully big claim to make without providing any supporting evidence.

Still, Thompson makes a good point (I suppose) when he says, “The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.”

I wonder if limiting the study to Stanford students affects the ability to apply its findings to the general American populace.  I’m not trying to say anything about Stanford in particular (I don’t know anything about the school, in fact), but schools generally have a particular identity, a certain homogeneity, that may have impacted the outcome of the study.  The Stanford Study of Writing was designed specifically to help augment the school’s program on writing and rhetoric and the writing center, but I’d love to see a wider-ranging literacy study of this nature.

Thompson also links to Marcus Berkmann’s New York Post review of David Crystal’s book txtng: the gr8 db8.  Crystal agrees that non-standard writing like texting actually challenges literacy skills because it demands sophisticated skills in reading and writing.  I know I’ve spent hours poring over enigmatic shorthand texts or facebook posts, trying to figure out what the heck the writer was trying to spell.  I love the playfulness and the mutability of language, which as Crystal points out is part of a long “European ludic (playful) linguistic tradition,” but I still think text-speak is irritating.  So there.