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?