Jesse Schell mentioned the following article on Facebook, and I think it’s something worth passing on. I grew up told to put two spaces after a period. Then, I came to think of the space as a rhythm indicator for prose; two spaces equal two resting beats. I’ve long known one space had become the norm, but do we (including me) do it? No, I don’t, and my students in English 101 today admitted being taught to use two spaces. Only one student had been trained to use a single space. Thus, even when it comes to the “simple” period, the standards depend on circumstances. In taking a look at the article, we come to understand that typographical font with monospaced type would still require it. E-documents would not.
(Note how many spaces I used in my post.)
We know attention is as important to writing as it is to most any practice, and a lot competes for our attention these days. But are we more distracted than in the past? The discussion has gone something like If you are distracted constantly, you become dependent on the stimuli in your environment–digital life and multitasking have “shallowed” our ability to attend to the world and our very bodies.
Or There’s no such thing as distraction–being distracted means we pay attention elsewhere. We’ve always multitasked, and we’re smarter for the engagement it provides.
Debate can help frame our concerns, and we can pick sides in this. But without getting out of our skin or applying multiple tools, we can’t know the accuracy of our perceptions. A Feburary 2, 2010 Front Line found MIT students thought they were more productive when juggling tasks, but their reaction times slowed. Thus, we’re beginning to test how multitasking is or isn’t impacting us.
This Sunday’s New York Times Article, Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price, focuses on a forty-something multi-tasker, not simply the youth as is usually done. Care to check yourself for distraction? There’s a test provided.
Admittedly, I found the test exceptionally easy. But instead of congratulating myself on my abilities or doubting the test’s validity, I couldn’t help think the test was easy because it was a stripped down skill set I’ve acquired by playing video games.
Care to weigh in on this? It’s an ongoing question: what does digital life mean for writing? I’d be most interested in hearing what you think are the best tools to test our arguments.
We live in the age of fast capitalism. At first glance, this is an exciting time to live. Through global transit and technology, the world is better connected. People have access to different cultures and language. Our opportunity to learn and know increases. Potentially, people can improve themselves. The world market can assemble products and provide services quickly and with economic and resource efficiency. Westerners have a particular advantage at the moment and as consumers can get more of what they want, when and how they want it. For all the serious environmental and human consequences, there are lots of benefits to more and cheaper.
So you may ask, how does fast capitalism effect student writing? If more communication is necessary through globalization and interconnected technology, in fact, there are many opportunities for students to write as future workers. Again, that’s exciting. Student writers can write for multiple purposes: email, texting, web design, multi-media advertising, research and reports, etc. As future workers, students must be adaptable to market needs, but is that really a big deal? Flexibility is a virtue of fast capitalism, and who begins college with the goal of becoming lazy? People are motivated to go to college for various reasons, but laziness isn’t usually at the top of their list. Students are motivated to train for a job or want the experience of learning under demanding and stimulating classes. Even if the reason to attend higher education originates from parents or social pressure, college can be an ideal setting in preparing for a world of fast capital.
And frankly, old fashioned capitalism and industry can make work boring . When Henry Ford famously implemented the assembly line where tasks were broken down into simple manageable units, workers felt under challenged with the same day-to-day drudgery. But industrialization didn’t stop with managing products. People were susceptible too. Post-Fordian thinking breaks people down into manageable units. Yet if fast capitalism works, people are kept too busy to become bored. Productivity is admirable and its own reward, isn’t it?
Today’s writers are challenged with new tasks and more genres than before. Unfortunately, as writing across the curriculum has shown us, little in writing is easily transferred. Writing is never a generic or basic skill. Under the industrial age, writing tasks were standardized. For example, the business letter, scientific research, or technical instructions were learned and executed by the same professionals. But today, we are expected to write using complicated technological tools for sophisticated goals. This takes more time to learn than most workers or students have available to them. Complex talents like writing take time and practice to learn. So what happens when more people are required to write in an information age? The resulting pressure isn’t necessarily bad; it can motivate and stimulate problem solving and creativity. One problem, however, is that since the platforms and genres change with the speed of cultural markets, fewer students will be quick or advantaged enough to adapt. Especially in a time when more communication is needed, this is frustrating for students, teachers, and employers.
Students appear to write no worse than in years past, yet in such demanding times, it may feel like there are fewer competent writers because in meeting specific communication tasks, people are excluded from the time it takes to master those tasks. In addition, one written skill set conflicts with others: students often say frustratingly, “But that’s the way I learned it before.” By the time someone masters a Blackberry, the iPhone becomes the mobile communication platform of choice. By the time a writer learns MLA citation, it’s been updated and s/he has become a chemistry major required to document according to the American Chemical Society guidelines. Likewise, as a budding chemist, exposition is less important than the ability to produce complicated molecule diagrams, so writing first-year composition essays only partially prepares them for the new genre demand.
Specialization coupled with fast capitalism can cause resistance on the part of students saying they can’t write because they sense the time, energy, and proficiency will move on before they’ve mastered the necessary skill sets. Frustration leads to desperation. Groups blame one another for the bad writing they see. Students ignore or avoid their impulses to express and develop their writing ability. The effect can be contagious enough to effect an entire school, region, or nation. And since one rule of fast capitalism is that those who are fastest to deliver draw economic investment, talented people are then drawn to the social, regional, and economic success. Some worker pools gain advantage; others stagnate or even degrade. Those that stagnate must sell off what they have, whether its skill or local materials, usually at reduced market rates.
But one piece of good news is that technological tools like writing can allow people greater means to produce. Learning to write doesn’t need to be a continual chasing after new kinds of writing and conventions. Learning to write that fosters inquiry positions students with talents for inventing new ideas and revising old ways of explaining, directing, and making products or services.
Questions: Since fast capitalism emphasizes writing as a handmaiden to employment, does it leave space for people’s humanity, family, and nation? Is so, where?
First-year composition (FYC) can accomplish a great deal for college students but less than we so unfairly assume. The history of first-year composition is a history of remediation. Many years ago, when the same cultural class attended college, writing, speaking and rhetoric were practiced throughout all four years of college. The professional goals for college were fairly simple:
- To become a lawer
- To enter ministry service, and/or
- To provide politician leadership
After industrialization captured the nation’s economy, a business class grew up and wished for its children to be college educated. Ivy colleges didn’t know what to do with these strange people who used language less aristocratically than the curricula and professors were prepared, so while the business class demanded additional majors and contributed money these growing colleges couldn’t ignore, writing classes were used as a gateway to guard against those who would not adapt their language use toward standardized, if arbitrary, genres. Nevertheless, this remediation wasn’t simply a test to stay in college. Its current-traditional curriculum also required students practice modes of writing: narration, description, exposition, and persuasion/argument. Faculty psychology theorized that these modes were the basis for the standard way people think. This isn’t really true, but the current-traditional did help many in the business class stay in college and succeed in their business practices because it captured industry needs in some degree. Thus, the modes of writing helped business become more organized. And organized business demanded new majors and specialized writing tasks to meet their goals. For example, engineers write differently than accountants who speak differently than professional management, so shouldn’t college majors reflect these differences?
Each new generation in America has added its own class warfare to the mix of demands upon first-year writing. Since writing instruction was handed off to first-year composition, the expanding majors deleted their own writing and rhetoric instruction until many colleges have been left with one course to do the work of four years in meeting the goals of numerous majors. By now, you should get a good sense that the expectations on FYC are unreasonable.
So what can first-year composition do if we understand it can’t do everything?
- First, FYC can help students begin to understand their identities as writers. If students think of themselves as writers they will develop writing practices–similar to how we view doctors practice medicine.
- Second, students can learn to practice writing as a process. Individuals have unique talents and can develop specific procedures for getting writing done. Students can explore how they work best and where different writing tasks should use different approaches. Students can learn to be independent in their writing decisions thus preparing them for tasks where no one will tell them how to write successfully.
- Finally, students can reflect and develop analytical abilities based on inquiry. Curiosity can be enhanced through writing. In learning to write, students can see writing as a medium for learning, researching, and developing new knowledge. Professionals comment regularly that expressing their problems, attempted solutions, and accomplishments lets them know the content in their professions. Language assists in one’s thinking, so if we want to enhance thinking, we have to increase where and how we use language to investigate our world.
October 20th is the National Day on Writing.
Read or contribute to the National Gallery of Writing.
Filed under: History, invention, New Media, postprocess, rhetoric
“It’s not about timing. It’s not about keeping it short. It’s about relevance.” –Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University
Wesch is right. Information is not scarce. But even in an information age, knowledge making can be. Writing is more than a container for knowledge; it can help processing, development and production of new knowledge. For this reason, writing to learn and examining expression might present an attractive study for college students. Students crave forums for expression; they want to be heard. Learning information alongside learning to persuade is powerful and rewarding. Personal purpose and goals make information relevant, but understanding that we have to talk to one another within different social structures is some of what rhetoric and writing provides in its educational long-term.
If we accept the Academic 2.0 argument about the importance of teaching the “how” and not merely the “what” of information, we embrace the importance of writing and rhetorical studies. We can then work to implement communication activities beyond the lecture and can accept communication’s interdisciplinary habits in addition to its residing within the domain of the English department.
That said, community college students often face a wider digital divide than assumed under Web 2.0 arguments. It’s incorrect to assume all students have been naturalized to blogs, wikis, mashups, or mobile networks. This is not to say community colleges give up. The opportunities to write and research with these technologies are likely to accelerate, and ignoring the latest developments because not everyone knows them will only widen the technological divide. However, it is important to acknowledge what many (considering that the majority of students in the country are community college students perhaps I should say “the majority of”) freshmen are not digital natives. And if their professors must immigrate to the digital too, there is a tendency to go with what is most comfortable: chalk and talk, lecture and note take, and read/discuss.
While I see nothing wrong with these classroom approaches in general, academia needs to consider seriously Wesch’s earlier observation that The Machine is Us/ing Us, for our media platforms rewrite how we compose and make language (and therefore knowledge).
Or as one of the comments under the Academia 2.0 video says,
Academia is dead! learning can be done faster and better outside of universities, renting an office space and committing yourself to learning a subject has far less distractions...
Community colleges’ missions center on learning and job training, so I say, Why not put the media machine into the curriculum? It’s influencing how people gather information and make personal, civic, and business decisions. Academica can become more relevant if entry points to the network are practiced in and outside the classroom.
So blog on…
Rationale for using Web 2.0–In the humanities, Classical Greece gets a lot of attention. Western civilization leapt forward democratically and culturally in part because writing interacted with speaking to produce new ideas and fuel debates. Plato favored speaking and doubted writing much like some people treasure books and paper but doubt webtexts today. But just as writing interacting with oral language produced some of Western culture’s greatest thinking, web-network communication like Blogs and Wikis may be pushing us toward a new explosion of knowledge. Since many students are not digital natives to technology, they need opportunities to immigrate that we can provide as they learn course content.
2009 Full-time Faculty Survey (excludes English) on Writing Expected at Cayuga
Class Management (one-to-many)–The most familiar way to use a blog is similar to a classroom lecture or a syllabus where the teacher communicates unidirectionally with his or her students.
- Have your students forgotten the titles of the required books or lost the course syllabus?
Engage Web 2.0 & Many-to-Many Communication Networks–here, we may not be able to compete with the interactivity of social networking, but we can…
- Encourage interactivity and student expression beyond the classroom.
- Collaborate in groups.
- Use student material for discussions.
Audience Questions? (Ask yourself, what would you like to do with Web 2.0 tech?)