According to Wired‘s Clive Thompson, our Facebook- and instant-message-saturated landscape isn’t turning college students into text-talking, LOL-spouting automatons. In fact, his recent article in the magazine’s September issue argues that modern technology is actually helping them become better writers.
It sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately, it probably is.
Thompson’s article highlights some preliminary results from the Stanford Study of Writing, an ambitious, multi-year research project spearheaded by Stanford University English professor Andrea Lunsford. The study analyzed 14,672 writing samples from 189 Stanford undergraduates—everything from in-class assignments and essays to emails and blog posts—and concluded that we’re in the midst of an unprecedented “literary revolution.” Lunsford notes that while writing was once confined to the classroom, the rise of text-based socialization online and via mobile phones means that students are now writing more than ever before—a finding that is hard to dispute. But her more controversial claim is that this shift is giving birth to a generation of persuasive writers.
Lunsford argues that today’s students are especially adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and altering their tone and style to be as effective as possible. She points out that writing produced for friends or the Internet—the Facebook wall post, the Internet forum message, the tweet—is meant to be public and convincing in a way that much academic writing is not. This tendency, she claims, has given rise to the Mark Zuckerberg era’s latter-day Ciceros.
Lunsford’s conclusions are seductive, but we should view them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Lunsford is no social scientist. She is an expert on rhetoric with a Ph.D. in English, and, consistent with her knack for oratory, she seems unwilling to concede that we can draw few conclusions about American college students at large from a study of undergraduates attending one of our country’s most prestigious universities. 97 percent of her participants had a high school GPA of at least 3.8. On average, they were smarter than most members of the Stanford Class of 2005 to which they belonged. Is it at all surprising that they wrote persuasively and didn’t festoon their honors theses with emoticons?
The problem with Lunsford’s having stumbled into a thicket of garden-variety selection bias is that her results obscure what is in all likelihood a fairly serious issue. A 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 64 percent of teens incorporate informal styles from their text-based communications into their writing at school, and 38 percent say they have used text shortcuts like “LOL” in schoolwork. Admitting that texting and IMs are weakening writing skills nationwide may not be trendy, counterintuitive, or good fodder for an article in Wired. But most indicators suggest that this is exactly what is happening.