To tweet or not to tweet….

Today I got a question from a colleague who teaches with one of my books, asking about a possible decline in student writing ability.  “Let’s face it,” my colleague said:  “students abbreviate their language and limit their attention to basic appeal strategies when they express their opinions on the electronic interface.  How do we teachers elevate the quality of their writing in this digital space?”  This strikes me as an important and highly relevant question, and certainly one that we teachers should engage.  But it also assumes that the quality of student writing in digital spaces is somehow “lower” and needs to be elevated, and it may also assume that quality of writing can be defined once and for all.  When we stop to think rhetorically, however, we see that writing quality varies enormously according to situation, occasion, purpose, audience, and so on:  a brilliant piece of advertising, for example, would make a lousy editorial or college essay—and so on.  That’s one reason teachers of writing and rhetoric stress the concept of kairos—that is, knowing what is opportune, appropriate, and timely in a given time and place.  In ancient iconography, Kairos is depicted as a young man with a prominent forelock on his forehead.  Seize the forelock and you captured the moment; let Kairos run by, however, and you find that the back of his head is completely bald, with not a strand of hair to grasp at.  I think we need to remember Kairos and the importance of context when we think about student writing in all its multiple venues and facets today.  In informal email or texting, or in tweets, it may be perfectly opportune, timely, and appropriate to “abbreviate language” and “limit attention to basic appeals” while in a college essay other strategies are appropriate.  It all depends, as rhetors across the centuries have reminded us, of your purpose, your audience, and your rhetorical situation. 


And writing quality depends on these elements as well.  That’s tweet that manages to identify and  evaluate a new Korean film—and then provide a link so readers can draw their own conclusions—would seem to me to be of high quality indeed.  In fact, I am increasingly interested in Twitter because it offers such a dramatic and timely comparison to the concept of copia that was important during the middle ages and the renaissance.  Erasmus taught students how to say essentially the same thing in many different ways and in many different styles; with practice, students could learn to produce an “abundance of words and expressions.”  Twitter works in the opposite direction, toward sparseness and simplicity—and toward furthering communication in a very, very busy world.  But there’s no reason that these two principles have to be in opposition to one another; rather, they exist on a continuum—from the most spare, succinct statement to the most highly elaborated.  The challenge is to engage students in learning when to move to one side of the continuum and when to move to the other.  But that’s also the fun of it—something like language games that lead to greater fluency and flexibility. 


First Year Writing on Wikipedia

The last week has seen a flurry—not quite a blizzard but certainly a flurry—of postings to the Writing Program Administrators’ listserv about the entry for First-Year Composition on Wikipedia.  It’s a pretty flimsy entry, that’s for sure, and many  in the thread commented not only on this fact but on the even more salient fact that we could edit and add to it any time we want.  As Michael Pemberton put it, as a field we should “coordinate/encourage/stimulate scholars, graduate student collaboratives, and others to flesh out these definitions, respond to them, add to them, and put a richer public face on the complexities, history, and research foundations of our discipline.”  Others looked up similar terms—Writing, Composition Studies, Rhetoric—and remarked on them.  Indeed, the range and quality of these entries is very wide—but that fact is not surprising given that this is “the free encyclopedia” that is “for the people.”  And the people—that would be us—are the ones who create, edit,  and improve the entries.  I took a little time looking at the history of changes to the Composition Studies entry, and there are hundreds and hundreds of them, and I checked out the list of contributors, with names like “Kairotic” and “Grammar Guide.”  It was fascinating to follow the edits over four or five years!  The result of all this collaboration is what former student and friend Mark Otuteye calls “authorless narrative,” that is the kind of narrative written by multiple hands, many of them fairly or completely anonymous.


As a strong advocate of collaborative and group writing, I am not alarmed by such authorless prose; in fact, I am particularly intrigued by Wikipedia and by how the entries get created and especially how they assume cultural capital.  The WPA discussion points up to me not only the need to engage—really engage—with Wikipedia but also to engage our students in creating, editing, and analyzing entries.  I kept wishing I were teaching a grad class I used to teach every year:  Introduction to Composition Studies:  what a fabulous assignment to ask students to work together to completely revise the Wikipedia entries on First Year Composition and Composition Studies!


When Wikipedia first started, most of my colleagues were suspicious or scornful of it:  I knew plenty of people who would not allow students to cite it at all.  Ten years later, the free encyclopedia is ubiquitous, consulted by students all the time and increasingly by lots of others, myself included.  (I will even admit to browsing Wikipedia for fun……)  And who knows what the encyclopedia will look like in another ten or twenty years.  If we and our students take responsibility for contributing solid, informed entries to it, we will be participating in the kind of shared knowledge construction that so many of us advocate.   In the meantime, “caveat emptor” is still very good advice for student writers:  certainly consult Wikipedia, but corroborate what you find there.