Posted in Reading, Social Media, Teaching, Writing

Old-School (and New-School) Writing in the Digital Age

Essays on Writing (2009)
Essays on Writing (2009)

When my students and I read Wendy Leibowitz’s article “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” I found myself drawn less to the details about blogs, word processing, and email that dominate the article and more to a single observation about composing longhand: “I encourage students not to write their first drafts on a computer, so they might actually think before putting words on the page” (Bernard qtd. in Leibowitz). That sentence led me to reflect on the continuing role of old-school writing in my own classes. Although my students use new technology (posting blog entries and submitting papers to the university’s Learning Management System, or LMS), they frequently put pen to paper as well. I have persisted in requiring them to write longhand as a way of cultivating focus and depth in their prose. But is writing by hand still relevant in the digital age? That question—one that’s frequently raised now in response to the new Common Core Standards—prompted me to explore the science of handwriting and to consider what new technologies teachers are using with, or in place of, the old.

The bibliography that follows consists of Leibowitz’s article, which spearheaded my research, and two additional articles: one that examines the role of handwriting in cognitive development and a second that investigates how blogs have become a fixture in many college courses, in some cases replacing the traditional term paper. Together, the three articles create a strong case for preserving the tactile custom of putting pen to paper while embracing the new technologies that will inspire the best writing.

Whether these annotations (all drafted by hand) will serve as preliminary writing for an essay of my own, I cannot say. Either way, the insights I have gained through this research will inform the choices I make as my teaching—itself, a work in progress—continues to evolve.

Annotated Bibliography

Leibowitz, Wendy. “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. Boston: Longman, 2009. 137-142. Print.

In “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing,” Wendy Leibowitz reports that writing in the digital age presents both “perils and possibilities” for students (138). Her conversations with professors reveal that their attitudes and approaches vary considerably. While some require students to use digital technology throughout the writing process, others advocate limiting screen time, correlating online reading and writing with diminished critical thinking and writing skills. Whether they adhere to April Bernard’s view of Web writing as “adjunct to traditional forms” (140), or to  Robert Coover’s belief that it’s a “fundamental element of literacy” (141), professors find themselves rethinking the tactile experience of putting pen to paper and seeking effective strategies for using the newest technologies to improve writing instruction.

Leibowitz’s interviews with eleven professors do not constitute comprehensive research, but her article presents an informative overview of the variety of ways professors teach writing in the digital age. Though she writes for academics—specifically readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education—her straightforward prose speaks to a general audience as well. Readers who encounter her article now, more than a decade after its initial publication, may wonder how the professors she interviewed have since adapted their teaching to address the prevalence of social media and texting in students’ lives.

In addition to publishing articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Leibowitz, an attorney turned journalist, has written on technology and the law for The National Law Review and The American Lawyer.

Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind 24.4 (2013): 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second, third, and fourth graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.

Writing for readers of Scientific American Mind, Keim addresses a general audience of readers interested in psychology and neuroscience. His reporting of Beringer’s and James’ studies points to the critical role of handwriting in cognitive development, a subject of particular concern to many parents and educators as the Common Core Standards Initiative—which deemphasizes handwriting in favor of keyboarding—has prompted a national conversation about the future of cursive in the classroom.

Brandon Keim, a freelance science journalist, has written articles for Wired and Psychology Today, as well as Scientific American Mind, and has been featured on broadcasts of National Public Radio’s Science Friday and Talk of the Nation.

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times Co., 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Mat Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Richtel’s article offers New York Times readers a glimpse of the contrasting teaching approaches adopted by writing professors who find themselves at a critical juncture, illustrating for a general audience how, as Andrea Lunsford says, professors are “trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Matt Richtel writes for The New York Times about technology and its impact of society and culture. His series of articles “Our Brain on Computers” (2010) explores how our constant use of digital devices affects not only our behavior but also our thought processes. His 2009 series about the dangers of distracted driving won the Pulitzer for national reporting.


Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Acadamese, or Academiotics, Ripe for Parody

Essays on Writing (2009)
Essays on Writing (2009)

In “Disruptive ‘Sexual’ Voices in English 101,” writing teacher Lizbeth Bryant recounts a semester marked by students’ sexual comments that she tried unsuccessfully to silence. To learn why their innuendos and puns persisted, Bryant interviewed students, studied composition theory, and re-examined the students’ words, leading her to conclude that she erred on two counts: labeling the comments (as sexual and inappropriate), and seeing the students’ voices solely from her own perspective. Seeing the error of her ways, Bryant shifted her focus from defining the students’ voices to the interactions among those voices, allowing them to develop rather than quelling them. Bryant concludes her essay by addressing how she could have “transformed these conflicts into teaching moments” (100), offering a list of talking points for classroom conversations about voice.

While Bryant’s efforts to make meaning of her students’ voices merit praise, the voice of her own essay reveals how academic jargon invites the very mimicry she seeks to understand. When she turns away from the research that focuses on what “students should be doing” (97), her journey seems promising, but Kay Halasek and Mary Louise Pratt, the scholars whose theories she adopts as an alternative, write in academic jargon that scarcely invites dialogue—except with those who speak the same academese, as Bryant proves she does. She writes that Halasek “asks teachers to examine the preformative nature of our pedagogy as an act that ‘entails answer-ability’” (97). Does Bryant mean performative rather than preformative? And what does she mean by our pedagogy entailing ‘answer-ability’? (Who knows?)

Bryant credits Pratt with helping her understand how she “us[ed] the power of the academy to impede a student’s process in voice development” (97), yet she offers no evidence that she has considered how her own voice as a writer might impede communication with her readers—or how traces of that voice may influence the voices of students in the classroom or in the interview she conducts with them.

Her discussion of the interview reveals that Bryant spoke with only two students, both female. Readers can only wonder what conclusions Bryant believed she could draw from such limited data. The interview prompts other questions as well: Did she request interviews with more students, both male and female? If so, did they decline? And if they did, what are the implications of their reluctance? Notably, in her account of the interview, Bryant quotes the students but not herself, missing the opportunity to let readers hear her own voice in response to theirs. And the absence of her spoken words prompts even more questions: What traces of the academese of her prose might infect her speech, and how might they impede her conversations with students?

Applying the theories of Halasek and Pratt, Bryant reconceives the classroom as a construction zone where her disruptive students “navigated the discourse waters of the academy and decided to bring aspects of their voices of community into the construction zone of the classroom” (99). Her almost-mixed metaphor of navigating discourse water to enter the construction zone brings to mind American Ninja Warrior, which most students—not just hers—would find more appealing than her talking points on voice.

Bryant views her students’ disruptive sexual voices as a response to her power in the classroom. As the one who wields the gradebook, she does possess power that her students lack. But that power alone doesn’t distinguish her from the students. Except for the rare prodigies who pen their dissertations in puberty, professors don’t have the libidos of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, and the frontal lobes of their brains aren’t still in development, either. Simply put, freshmen and professors aren’t in the same place sexually or cognitively. A study that considers the body as well the mind might offer more insight into students’ “sexual” voices and professors’ responses to them. But even if Bryant initiated such a study—partnering with a neurobiologist, perhaps—would she and her collaborator write in voices that students or general readers would understand (or want to)?

In a better world, if the jargon of one academic field met the jargon of another, the two would crash and burst, scattering smaller, more intelligible words and phrases. In the real world, though, it’s more likely for the hyper-specialized vocabularies to merge, yielding a mutant form of impenetrable academese seemingly devoid of any real-world relevance. Writer Victoria Dailey calls it “academiotics” in a recent spoof on The New Yorker’s website, where she fashions this monstrosity from the first sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“The heterogeneity of assumed intentions may incur a conclusory stereotype regarding gender selections in marriage-based societies, especially in those where the masculine hegemony of capital resources presupposes the feminization of property and uxorial acquisition.”

Such writing seems ridiculous because it is. That’s why it becomes the subject of ridicule, as the words Bryant spoke to her students became the subject of their mimicry. And the essay that Bryant writes in response to that mimicry risks inviting more of the same. If a student says in class, “I wouldn’t stick mine in there. Don’t know where it’s been,” asking yourself why and reconsidering your own reactions are valuable practices. But a two-thousand-word study of why-my-student-said-I-wouldn’t-stick-it-in-there may not only seem ridiculous, it may also perpetuate the worst stereotypes about scholarship.

Admittedly, Bryant’s initial audience wouldn’t ridicule her essay. The first readers of “Disruptive ‘Sexual’ Voices in English 101” encountered it as a chapter in Voice as Process, a book written primarily for them: scholars of rhetoric and composition, readers fluent themselves in the academese, or academiotics, that’s so ripe for parody. But Bryant’s decision to include the chapter in Essays on Writing, her textbook for first-year writing students, demonstrates her belief that her words speak to freshmen as well. She seems to be saying, I can have a conversation with you that I couldn’t have with those students back then.

Can she? If she turns to her talking points, asking students “How asymmetrical power relations operate in the academy,” or how students “attempt to subvert control by the hegemonic structures” (100), will they answer, or will silence fall on the construction zone?

Byant, Lizbeth A. “Disruptive ‘Sexual’ Voices in English 101.” Essays on Writing. Ed. Lizbeth A. Bryant and Heather M. Clark. Boston: Longman, 2009. 95-100. Print.

Dailey, Victoria. “Pride and Prejudice, Translated into Academiotics.” Condé Nast, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.