Spring/Summer 2009
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The Decline of Writing?

by Lauri Dietz, Andrew Roback and Alexis Presseau Maloof

Does the use of electronic media contribute a decline in English writing skills? We wrote the folks at the University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) to ask some questions on this subject. The center's director, Lauri Dietz, along with colleagues Andrew Roback and Alexis Presseau Maloof, crafted the responses below. You may be surprised at their conclusions.

Q: This isn't the first time in history that people have said the English language is deteriorating, is it?

A: Each major cultural shift in American history reawakens a rallying cry to protect against the decline of the English language. The fear is that each generation seems to march civilization closer to the "end of literacy."

At the turn of the last century, the literacy scare targeted women; as women began to enter the halls of Harvard, the quality of writing was assumed to have greatly diminished and gave rise to the first college composition courses.

In post-civil rights America, university communities feared how validating first-generation and minority college students' "non-standard" dialects would erode the foundations of "proper" English.

Since the technology boom of the 1990s, the rise of digital communications and 21st century literacies leave many fearful for the future of the English language.

Q: So, have the English language and college-level writing been on a steady decline in contemporary times?

A: Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford, two leading writing-studies researchers, decided to find the answer to that question. They collected more than 20,000 college-level papers from across the United States and analyzed 3,000 of those papers to determine the most common error patterns in students' writing. They compared those results to professors' perceptions of common and important errors and to error pattern research done throughout the 20th century. Their results: "College students are not making more formal errors in writing than they used to."

Q: In academic circles, are digital media considered to be less valuable than print media?

A: It's become clear in higher education and in our increasingly digitized world that print is no longer at the top of the textual hierarchy. The National Council of Teachers of English asserts that the very idea of a textual hierarchy that values print over digital writing no longer exists, and the Modern Language Association recently announced print is no longer the default medium for bibliographic citations.

At the UCWbL, we encourage writers and their readers to set aside fears about the perceived negative impact of technology on writing and to incorporate digital literacies into the curriculum as a means to teach the building blocks of rhetoric: audience and context.

Q: You mean writers are encouraged to blog, go on Facebook and communicate through instant messages (IM)?

A: Technology-based communications, such as blogs, e-mails, SMS texts and instant messages on social networking sites (e.g., Facebook or Twitter), are genres of writing that students—and even some professors—devote hours to outside of the classroom. Some teachers encourage students to use their interests in digital writing to develop blogs and compose visual essays to gain a more in-depth understanding of course content. Other instructors hold office hours over Facebook or have students experiment with Twitter and blogs as invention and brainstorming strategies.

DePaul's Writing Center incorporates digital mediums into tutorials to make services available outside of our offices. Feedback-by-E-mail, Quick Question and IM/webcam—three types of online services offered by the Writing Center—eliminate the necessity of the writer being in the center in person.

Q: How do these online services work?

A: Writers can access our Feedback-by-E-mail and Quick Question options through our Web site. Once they submit the online form, a tutor is assigned to review the draft or question and then respond via e-mail.

For an IM/webcam appointment, the writer schedules an online appointment and then meets the tutor in a digital "classroom" where they can each view the writer's document and communicate through an IM chat feature.

Q: If the writer and tutor communicate through IM, can the writer still learn formal English?

A: When demonstrating preferred patterns of usage, tutors also use the IM window to model the accepted conventions of academic writing. Placing both formal and informal Englishes side by side in this unique medium helps writers to appreciate the conscious decision of word and content choice in different audiences and contexts. In this way, IM writing tutorials show how conversing in informal, digital languages can create a bridge to increasing a writer's proficiency in other languages, such as standard American English.

Q: Are other colleges and universities using these methods to improve students' writing?

A: DePaul's Writing Center is leading the trend nationally among writing centers to expand into alternative digital media. The UCWbL operates active and public Facebook and Twitter accounts and publishes "Hot Topics in Writing," a podcast available on iTunes. Positioned on the frontier of digital literacies, writing centers will help shape and document the future history of literacy in America. These technology-based literacies should remind us that writing is a recursive process, and, by extension, literacy is an evolving, varied practice. Instead of fearing these changes, we can use digital mediums to negotiate with each other about preferred literacies within different contexts.