The Internet, That Old Scapegoat

Online-Writing-Jobs1A new Pew study is out, reporting the effects of the digital revolution on student writing. It’s a broad study with dozens of both thought-provoking conclusions and what strike me as flawed equivalencies. For now, I’ll focus on just two points.

The first is that I learned of the study through an article on Atlantic Wire titled “The Internet Is Making Writing Worse.” Well, dog bites man, I thought. But I clicked on the link to learn that the Pew study reaches no such conclusion. It opens with the statement, “A survey of 2,462 Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers finds that digital technologies are shaping student writing in myriad ways and have also become helpful tools for teaching writing to middle and high school students.” How did we get from that opener to the Atlantic Wire headline? Well, the reporter focuses on what he calls “academic atrocities” that the Pew study supposedly reveals, “including using informal language in formal papers and plagiarizing” and having “trouble reading long texts.”

Indeed, the study itself shows that 57 percent of these cutting-edge teachers rate their students’ ability to “appropriately cite and/or reference content” as “Fair” or “Poor.” They also report that 69 percent of their students are “Fair” or “Poor” at “read[ing] and digesting[ing] long or complicated texts.” But the study does not indicate whether the teachers think these weakness are a consequence of using digital media, and no comparable set of responses from, say, 1975 exists for comparison. Citing references and digesting complicated texts are both things most of us learn to do only in an academic setting (as opposed to “use tone and style appropriate for an intended audience” and “construct a strong argument,” skills that many good students begin and continue to acquire in their extended families or extracurricular activities). So it makes sense for these to be among the areas where the learning curve is steepest, regardless of digital content.

Citing digital content appropriately is a challenge for experienced academics as well as students, and the rules on such citation continue to evolve, so even putting aside the tremendous temptation offered by online term-paper factories, it seems reasonable to conclude that use of the Internet makes both drawing and understanding hard and fast rules in this area more difficult than it once was, not that it makes students less capable.

Such citation is an issue primarily in formal academic writing, another area that the Pew study focused on and where the Atlantic Wire finds wired students’ writing “atrocious.” Interestingly, while the Pew respondents saw a continuum in their students’ writing, from texting to blogging to writing for class, they find that their students draw a bright line. Writing is “something their teachers MAKE them do,” one teacher noted, even as another noted that “e-mail, texting, social networking” were “access points” to writing that were unavailable in her generation and should be encouraged.

All the same, the teachers in the survey placed “tremendous value” on so-called formal writing. The first reason given for this emphasis was the need for students to write formally on standardized tests, the second to “be successful across social domains,” which sounds to me like code for making it in the white-collar world. Since responses also complained—despite the students’ own bright line—about the “creep” of informal writing into formal essays, I found myself wondering when and how it was that the formal essay, most often a research paper, became de rigueur in the American educational system. After all, as many who have taught abroad can report, even graduate classes in other curricula eschew long papers in favor of oral examinations or presentations.

Turns out that we’ve had less than 150 years’ experience at placing the research paper at the heart of our educational model. We imported the idea from Germany in the late 19th century, and by 1910 the idea was not only fixed, but had spawned that pesky cottage industry, the sale of research papers. The original purpose of the paper, according to Margaret Moulton and Vicki Holmes, was “to create new universal knowledge,” but soon enough the benefits became folded in with the burgeoning field of composition and the challenges inherent in “the vagaries of research itself.” That there may be other avenues toward the kind of thoughtful analysis and expression that not only certain professions but also a thoughtful and engaged citizenry should cultivate was much debated in the first few decades of the research paper’s dominance, but lately such notions have faded to whispers.

Since students think writing is something that they are forced to do, principally in the form of a formal research paper that educators mistakenly assume to be the bedrock of learning, perhaps the first course of action that the Pew study can precipitate is a renewed dialogue centered on the bright line between formal and informal writing and the extent to which preserving that line is a useful activity for educators. The Atlantic might double down on its doom and gloom headlines if such a debate got going. But as a more optimistic teacher reported to the Pew researchers, “I think we’ve always been a creative species that has produced a lot of thoughtful articulation of ideas.” Let’s not freeze ourselves in amber just yet.


Return to Top