NOT the Dumbest Generation!

I have been traveling a lot this month, and I often meet parents, members of the public, even colleagues who agree with Mark Bauerlein’s assessment of young people today as The Dumbest Generation.  In his book Bauerlein finds great fault with the digital world, arguing that it is “stupefying” young Americans in ways that jeopardize the future of the United States.

That’s quite a claim—and though Bauerlein makes a few salient points, the major claim is not one that I agree with (maybe I’ll write a review of his book in another posting!).  In my view, college writers today are increasingly sophisticated communicators, able to shift gears from genre to genre, medium to medium.  They are also increasingly aware of their audiences, often in quite nuanced ways, and they use that awareness to make strong connections.  I’ve already said that these students are writing more than ever before—in spite of the fact that many of them do not consider all the writing they are doing online to be “writing.”  What this says to me is that we need first of all to engage students in talking with us about their online writing, their digital selves, learning as much as we can about its purposes, audiences, and strategies.  Then we need to help students establish connections between the informal writing they are doing on social networking sites, for example, and the writing they are doing for college.  While there are very clear differences between extracurricular writing and academic writing, I believe that students can learn a lot from what they do well in their informal writing.  Learning to think as clearly about academic genres and academic audiences as they do about online audiences is just one example of what I mean.  In addition, we can help students see that some of the strategies they use in social networking might well be adapted to their classroom writing.  To help accomplish this goal, the latest edition of The St. Martin’s Handbook opens with a discussion of moving effectively between informal and academic writing.  This discussion features “Sparker 2,” a student who Tweets about her passion for Korean film.  When we looked at these very short messages, she and I soon saw that they constitute very tiny movie reviews, with the opening of the message identifying the film, then moving to a brief evaluation and finally to a link where readers could see the film or parts of it for themselves.  The straightforward organization of these messages worked particularly well, leading us to talk about how she might apply such straightforward patterns of organization to some of her in-class writing.  Thus she can use a strategy developed for social network writing to illuminate her college work.

Rather than bemoan what some see as the death of literacy or label a whole generation “dumb,” I would much rather recognize that literacy is changing—as it always has—and try to learn as much about those changes as I possibly can.

Teacher response to student writing

Karen Lunsford and I have recently been combing through the end comments made by teachers on essays in the large national sample of first-year student writing we collected in 2006.  So far, we can say that teachers today seem to comment in much the same ways they did 25 years ago: many teachers still feel the need to tailor their comments to justify a grade. Many give more criticism than praise; the majority of comments begin with a brief note of praise for some  general writing feature/category (good introduction, good example,  etc). Then they move into specific criticism of features that need to be improved. Some, though only a small percentage, round out the comment with more general praise at the end. The topics teachers write about vary widely, but as might be predicted given the shift to more research-based writing, we saw many comments on organization, on extending the specific evidence for claims and considering counterarguments, and on citation issues.

We are particularly interested in the strategies teachers use to make connections with their students, so we’re looking very closely for any hints of how end comments strive to build relationships. Karen was recently doing research in Norway and had an opportunity to present some of these very preliminary findings at several universities. Two things stood out as of particular interest to our colleagues in Norway: the first was the relationship between teacher and student, which they found intriguing and, we think, very “American.” The second was closely related:  our colleagues spoke often about the teachers’ sense of audience and what they called the “voice” in the end comments, which we take to mean the tone. It was a tone, they said, that seemed to connect the teacher and student and that brought the two together in pursuit of a common goal. Karen and I will be thinking hard about what distinguishes these end comments in terms of tone—and we will also be looking at our own comments with an eye to seeing how we use tone to establish connections with our own student audiences.

I’m looking forward to working with Karen on an article based on these data—and to beginning some new research. Student writing is changing in exciting ways as they take advantage of all the opportunities offered by new media and technologies. As I’ve often said [ ], students are writing more today than ever before: we will all have to work hard to keep pace with them and to learn from their writing practices!


Recent research on error


My last post  detailed principles that have guided my teaching over the last thirty-five years. One additional principle has also been important to me:  the best teaching of writing is thoroughly grounded in research.  I use the term “research” fairly broadly, to include research in the histories and theories of rhetoric and writing as well as on the writing practices we see all around us.  In fact, I first became interested in textbooks because of some research I was doing on student writing in Canada and Scotland in the last part of the 19th century: what I found was that teachers were commenting on and marking “errors” that were very different from the ones I saw in student writing in this time and place. I still remember one professor wringing his hands over the inability of students to properly distinguish between “shall” and “will.” Those research findings led Bob Connors and me to our national study of error in student writing—back in 1984. (Those research findings on errors, and additional research we did on teacher response, informed the first edition of The St. Martin’s Handbook.)

Some 25 years later, Karen Lunsford and I decided to replicate the study Bob and I had done, a study that yielded some very interesting findings as well as some significant changes. We found, for instance, that the student writing we gathered for this second study was two and a half times longer than the writing we examined in 1984.  Moreover, typical writing assignments in first-year writing had shifted from predominantly personal experience essays to argument and research-based essays.  These changes led to changes in the problems students were having: not surprisingly, we found lots and lots of difficulty with citations—students wanted to know how to cite an interview done for a local television show that they watched on YouTube, for example. Most significant to us was our finding that the ratio of errors per 100 words has not risen in the last 100 years—at least not according to every study we uncovered.  Thus we concluded, in an essay reporting on the study, that “Mistakes are a Fact of Life.”

The latest Top Twenty list appears here, along with a link to the original research findings. [insert link to Top Twenty page on, (Note to Caitlin/Sarah: Can we put the old 20 Most Common Errors farther down on that same page instead of requiring a link to an outdated version of EasyWriter? On the Top Twenty page it would be good to have both. I can provide copy if you need it.)]  

My first teaching . . . and basic principles

I taught my first class in graduate school, as many of you probably did too:  I was getting a Master’s in English and was assigned to teach a section of first-year English.  I can remember very little about it except that I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing: it was a harrowing experience, to say the very least.  After finishing the MA, I taught in middle and high school—mostly grades 10, 11, and 12—and that’s where I began to grow more and more devoted to students and to learn more and more about what I did and did not know.  So after several years, I applied to a PhD program and was lucky enough to be admitted (though I was on the wait list for a long time).  I studied a lot of literature but I also was fortunate enough to take many classes in the history and  theory of rhetoric and in composition theory.  Along the way, I began to establish the principles that have guided my research and teaching ever since:

             Writing may seem solitary but it seldom (or never) really is:  writers are always in conversation with others, if only in their heads.  So writing is social and deeply collaborative; it should bring people together.

             Rhetorical theory and history provide a strong and enduring basis for writing studies:  the ancient rhetors figured out some very important points:  audience and purpose are key to everything in writing; context is all-important—writing needs to fit the situation perfectly; writing is essentially about making choices.

             All writers have strengths and weaknesses: it is our job to help identify them and guide students in achieving their own purposes.  It is also our job to attend to student writing with the deepest care and seriousness.  As philosopher Maxine Greene reminds us, when we enter every class we should know that there is at least one student in there who is “infinitely our superior in both heart and mind.”  I’ve had this proven true so many times that I’ve stopped counting!

             Rhetoric and writing are plastic arts, stretching themselves to meet the demands of every new age.  This principle has never been more important than it is right now, when we are in the midst of a huge revolution in literacy.

I’d love to hear from others about other principles we could add to this list.  So please join in this conversation!

Welcome to my blog: Teacher to Teacher

“Welcome to my blog” sounds a little pretentious to me, as the old song “Welcome to my world” always did too.  So first, a bit of a disclaimer:  this blog is meant to be a collaborative site where we can share ideas about teaching and learning in general and about teaching and learning writing and rhetoric in particular.  I’m just the person getting it started.