A New Literacy

Over at incrementalism.net, there was a recent post called Academic Exercises. This post was a reaction to a piece in the Wire by Clive Thomson who quotes a survey done by Andrea Lunsford and her research on student writing.

In the Wire article, Clive begins with a familiar refrain: young adults entering college are unable to write well. Their attention span is limited. They are not well educated. They spend hours of their time talking about themselves on Facebook or Tweeting nonsense. To counter this stereotype, Clive summarizes the recent research of Pr. Andrea Lunsford.

Andrea Lunsford isn’t so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

Her conclusions contradict the stereotypes of young adults who cannot write. Here is a list of some of her conclusions:

  • Technology is reviving our ability to write
  • Technology is taking our literacy in new directions
  • Young people write more than any other generation
  • Young people are adept are formulating arguments in a public and oftentimes controversial sphere

What is interesting about Clive’s article is that he reports that Andrea Lunsford found that students are disappointed with their academic papers because there is no audience. So, what students write does not have an immediate or no effect on the world. Their exercises tend to be purely intellectual exercises.

The post, Academic Exercises, re-emphasizes this last point. Many of the papers written for college are exercises. They don’t necessarily engage the student in new and interesting ways. They have no or at best a minimal affect on the world at large.

So I find it really interesting to learn that a whole generation of students shares my disdain for purely academic exercises. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement, but I think the article does point out a need for change in the way school work is assigned. Students who are used to creating and sharing their creations as a part of their daily life won’t be motivated to work on projects that they’re expressly forbidden to collaborate with their peers on, and which effectively die on the day they’re handed in for grading.

As this post highlights, there are many new ways of engaging students. But of course, this takes a lot of time in order to plan lessons and organize new types of learning activities adopted to various learning styles. Unfortunately, my experience is that many in academia are fantastic researchers. Yet, the amazing teachers stand out because there are not many of them. There seems to be a struggle not just with students and exercises but also in terms of the role played and expected of faculty. Are faculty researchers or instructors or both? If they are also instructors why is it that there are not graduate courses to help future faculty to become good instructors? Of course, research brings in a lot of money and prestige for a college/university. It is also students who bring money, prestige, and who become future alumni. Though some colleges/university focus on the importance of instruction, not all provide the support that faculty might need in order to meet the changing face of what students expect and how they hope to be engaged. It is not just that some schools need to know how to better engage students but also how faculty can be better prepared as instructors.