Who will inherit the language?

Last week, I shared some examples of the writing I see from students at the community college where I work. Most of it comes from essays written before they take writing classes, so the hopeful assumption is that they will improve as they go through their college career. In reaction to that post, Renée over at Lessons from Teachers and Twits brought to my attention this video posted on Profesorbaker’s Blog. It is an interview of Professor Andrea Lunsford, Stanford University’s Director of Writing and Rhetoric, who conducted a longitudinal study of writing abilities, following 190 students at Stanford for almost six years. She explains that she found no significant influence of technology on the quality of writing.

What can this study really tell us? How accurately does it reflect what is happening in schools and colleges these days? Can we really conclude from it that technology is not exerting any influence on the English language or writing skills? Or must we limit our conclusions to more modest proportions?

I believe we should be very careful not to overestimate the implications of a study like this. It seems shortsighted and premature to take this study and conclude that reports of declining writing skills due to technology are “myths.” It would be similarly irresponsible for me to present more of my collected snippets of writing from essays by single mothers from the Bronx, ex-convicts, first-generation Americans from uneducated families, or learning disabled students and claim that this is proof that students around the country can no longer write at anything even approaching college standards. As usual, the truth has got to be somewhere in the middle.

There are far more questions that are raised by Professor Lunsford’s study than answers provided. Most of my questions are concerning the validity of the voluntary method of data collection. Lunsford invited 241 random students in the incoming freshman class to participate in the study and 190 accepted. She was able to collect a cross-section of students and abilities that she says matched the general demographic of the Stanford student body.

These 190 subjects were then asked to submit their work to an electronic database. They were asked to submit coursework, but also any other work they do on their own. The submissions were voluntary. Were they submitted before or after grading? Were they final drafts, or did they submit all drafts? Did they have any sort of feedback on their writing before submitting it? Did the subjects submit everything they wrote, or did they exclude pieces that they thought were not their best work?

This method of collecting data for the study may have skewed the results. It would be difficult to understand the true effect on language if we are only looking at the shiny final attempts and not at the writing in its raw form. Perhaps one could argue that the ability to make the final product shiny is evidence in itself that writing skills are still alive and kicking. After all, even the best writers have to go through drafts, and the final draft is proof that the writer is engaged in the writing process and understands how to revise and edit.

I would argue that it still distorts the data and calls the results into question. A final draft shows what a student can eventually do, but not how much help that student needed getting there. What did the first draft look like? How much cleaning up did it need? And most importantly, who did the cleaning? Did the student revise alone or with a friend? Were corrections made by the professor before submission? Was the piece workshopped? Did the student go for help at Stanford’s Hume Writing Center?

I can certainly attest to the difference good help can make when revising and editing because I see this on a regular basis. With seemingly endless feedback and assistance, a student can correct some of their errors, but too often, that student would never have been able to do it alone. When we have to exert such a massive effort to help students approach the minimal standards, doesn’t this say something crucial about the state of writing ability?

My other main concern is how applicable this study really is to the question of writing ability in college students and what may be influencing those abilities. Of course, as I said earlier, I can’t claim that my community college students are more representative of the country’s population than Professor Lunsford’s Stanford students. But I can tell you that she is starting off with a much higher level of writing than I will ever see in my Freshman Comp classes.

Consider this quote at 3:18 when she says, “By the time students get to college, they understand who their audience are and they understand what the purpose of writing is. They know if they are writing to a college professor, that they’re not on twitter. They just know that and they adjust their writing accordingly.”

This is rarely true for the students that I tend to see. They do not understand the purpose of writing, or of a separate style for writing and speaking. One of the most common complaints I hear is, “But I don’t speak that way, why do I have to write that way?” They do not understand context, and that it is not appropriate to use the phrase “grow some balls” in a critical analysis to Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

They don’t even understand that even email to their professor should still follow certain more formal conventions of English. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received that didn’t even include a salutation or a signature. As for texting abbreviations, Lunsford says she didn’t see even a single instance in her Stanford study, nor in a wider study she conducted that included other schools. She clearly never asked me for data, because I could easily have provided her with examples.

In addition, at 6:39, she is asked this question: “Can they still do the standard 2,000 word essay and still have it make sense?”

She responds: “Yes, these students certainly can do that…They are all very bright and very keen, and they are determined to do well.”

Most of my students are also very ‘keen’ and ‘determined to do well’, but they haven’t had the abilities or the opportunities to do anything with that determination. Take this example from an entrance essay: “If you’re going to school, that’s good, now you have to find a job. Those are the words that my probation officer said to me.” Just how is the Stanford study supposed to relate to him? When was he able to learn to ‘adjust his language accordingly’?

Or here’s an example of a different problem: “I wish I had the facility of words that the clever people possess to explain the importance or disadvantage of using cell phones to the people.” No matter how ‘keen’ or ‘determined’ this student is, will she ever reach the level at which Professor Lunsford’s students even start? Is she underestimating her intelligence or is her limit simply far below that of the average Stanford student? And if so, how can she “just know” when to use different styles of writing?

The students who have the opportunity to attend – and stay long enough to graduate from – an Ivy League school will continue to have an advantage, not only during their college career, but most likely before they even think about where to go to college. They may be the vanguard in defending the current standards of writing, and if so, then Professor Lunsford’s findings are encouraging. So far, that elite vanguard is holding steady.

However, it may not be enough to stem the tide of changes that are afoot in the less privileged academic arenas. These are the students who may not be intelligent enough to recognize that their language skills aren’t up to the standards being held by schools. Perhaps they were not lucky enough even to have been exposed to “proper” English. Perhaps they have been exposed but don’t understand how to even discern which context calls for which type of writing.

And maybe, just maybe, they haven’t been taught this because increasingly, their teachers are blurring the lines too much themselves, and aren’t able to guide their students. How are students supposed to learn that forms of writing appropriate for texts or tweets do not belong in an essay if their teachers never call them on this behavior?

So if Lunsford’s students at Stanford are too elite of a population to generalize, and my students are possibly too small of a percentage at the other end of the scale, where does the middle fall? Will the top-of-the-food-chain Ivy Leaguers be able to uphold standards and prevent a decline in language skills? Or will there be change from the bottom up, coming from people for whom contextual lines are not so distinct, and who get most of their reading input and writing practice from their cell phones?

Who really has the stronger influence on the language?

8 thoughts on “Who will inherit the language?

    • It’s true. I’m glad that the smart kids who can afford an Ivy League education are still good enough writers, but while they are off impressing those in the Writing and Rhetoric program, what is the rest of the country doing with the language? I know that it might not necessarily be her conclusion that writing skills in America are just fine – this is, after all, an interview and not her actual research report, so the interviewer’s questions may be leading her into making more generalizations than she otherwise would. But she still seemed a bit overconfident in her assessment that there’s no cause for alarm. Her students – even the nationwide study – volunteered their work. Chances are, this means she didn’t get the real cross section of writing (not just students) that she needed for a more thorough analysis. My students who barely got Ds would NEVER submit their work voluntarily, and so examples of lower quality writing are therefore excluded. Hello, skewed results! :)

      • Lunsford is obviously in her own little word, and it’s probably not such a bad world to be in!
        I know 4th grade is a long way from college, but for 7 years I taught the lowest language arts group. These children were terribly deprived of language role models and their lives had zero enriching experiences. (Unless you count walking to town for a carton of cigs with mom’s latest boyfriend an enriching experience!) It was very difficult, as their teacher, to provide the amount of enrichment and guidance that they need to be successful readers, speakers, and writers. Unfortunately, the teacher’s influence isn’t always as strong as the influence of family and peers.

      • “Unfortunately, the teacher’s influence isn’t always as strong as the influence of family and peers.”

        That’s so true. The way the community speaks becomes a part of the child’s identity. If they start changing too much, they may feel excluded from that community. Learning how to speak differently in school could be like turning their back on the community that gave them their identity. The kids really need a support network – if not for linguistic reinforcement, then at least for emotional support – and if it’s not there, the teacher may be fighting a losing battle.

  1. Her study strikes me as remarkably limited in its usefulness. As the comment above suggests, most Stanford students will have been on the college track since grade school and will have come from media-savvy households where reading is valued (and where educated parents are keen on maintaining the family’s status for another generation). I’m not especially worried about Stanford students’ communications skills or their ability to code-switch; the bigger problem is trying to figure out why the students the rest of us teach aren’t coming to us with better instincts for (for lack of a better phrase) the reading and writing habits of highly effective people.

    • It reminds me of the David Crystal video/interview in which he claims that young people are reading more than ever but that they are just doing it on their phones. Really? I mean, really? I don’t know how he can equate reading text messages, email, and 200 word articles about Dancing With the Stars with the experience of reading classic and modern literature in a school that actually knows how to prepare students to be literate citizens. The ones lucky enough to have that background of course can gain skills from even more practice with the succinct nature of texting, using twitter, or chat rooms. They have the more formal literacy and are just adding a second type of digital literacy. But I feel that more and more students are getting digital input as their only literacy input (and this is increasingly flawed input!) and it’s much much harder to try to add the more formal level when they are so severely underprepared for it.

  2. I am so happy that you wrote this beautifully crafted article. I have been pondering where to start for days and, in my delay, you covered everything.

    I kept finding myself with my mouth agape as I listened to some of the statements that Lunsford makes in her interview. I realize this was a long-term study – I believe she followed the subjects for six years, if I am not mistaken. Well,, that means student writing samples started being collected in 2005. These students were not texting in 4th grade. They came to social media late in their adolescent lives. Facebook was an infant in 2004. What I’m saying is that I think we are going to see an enormous change in the way students understand (or rather do not understand) audience, the necessity to switch back and forth between formal and casual, a dramatic increase in the inability to spell (without hand-held devices that auto-correct or computers that spell check) as well as a decreased comprehension of grammar and why it matters. Like you, I see far more students on the weaker end of the spectrum these days, but I taught at exclusive private schools where the expectations for English classes were higher than those in many Comp-101 classes at the college level. I am underwhelmed by this study and Lunsford’s findings, and I sincerely hope that her conclusions are quickly forgotten so that we can go back to what most of us regard as obvious: students in our community colleges, even the best and the brightest, still need a lot of assistance.

    • That’s an excellent point about the timing of the study. Not only is the population not representative of the wider US college population, but the study was done too early to see any significant effects of social media/technology. I think we’re going to see a lot more changes in the next 10 years or so.

      The thing that got me was how dismissive she was when she replied to the question about whether or not students can still do a ‘standard 2,000 word essay’. My students freak out when they hear that the final research paper is 1,500 – 1,750 words! These are the ones who were ‘good enough’ to place directly into Comp 101 and were not required to take remedial writing (unlike about 60% of the incoming students).

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