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.