1. Thompson claims that people are writing more than ever as they socialize online (paragraph 4). Consider your own time spent writing online,
texting, or tweeting. Has this time and involvement made you a better writer? Why, or why not?
2. According to Thompson, students surveyed in the Stanford Study of Writing “defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world”
(paragraph 7). Do you agree with this definition? Can you think of a better one? What examples come to mind?
CLIVE THOMPSON ESAY
As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits° fretting once again about how kids today can’t write — and technology is to blame. Face-
book encourages narcissistic° blabbering, video and PowerPoint have re- placed carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language
into “bleak, bald, sad shorthand” (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at
hand, right? 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. “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she
says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it — and pushing our literacy in bold new directions. The first
thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place
online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the
classroom — life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up. It’s almost hard to remember
how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment.
Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a
paragraph again. But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept
at what rhetoricians call kairos — assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern
world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek
tradition of argument than the asynchronous° letter and essay writing of 50 years ago. The fact that students today almost always write for an
audience (some- thing virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they
defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s
over something as quotidian° as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost al- ways less enthusiastic about their in-class writing
because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. As for those texting short-forms and
smileys defiling° serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single
example of texting speak in an academic paper. Of course, good teaching is always going to be crucial, as is the mastering of formal academic
prose. But it’s also becoming clear that online media are pushing literacy into cool directions. The brevity of texting and status updating
teaches young people to deploy haiku°-like concision.° At the same time, the proliferation° of new forms of online pop-cultural exegesis° — from
sprawling TV-show recaps to 15,000-word videogame walkthroughs — has given them a chance to write enormously long and complex pieces of prose,
often while working collaboratively with others. We think of writing as either good or bad. What today’s young people know is that knowing who
you’re writing for and why you’re writing might be the most crucial factor of all.
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