Our Semi-literate youth? Think again

Two stories about young people, and especially college-age students, are circulating widely today. One script sees a generation of twitterers and texters, awash in self indulgence and narcissistic twaddle, most of it riddled with errors. The other script doesn’t diminish the effects of technology, but it presents young people as running a ratrace that is fueled by the Internet and its toys, anxious kids who are inundated with mountains of indigestible information yet obsessed with making the grade, with success, with coming up with the “next big thing” but who lack the writing and speaking skills they need to do so.

No doubt there’s a grain of truth in both these depictions. But the doomsayers who tell these stories are turning a blind eye on compelling alternative narratives. As one who has spent the last 30+ years studying the writing of college students, I see a different picture. For those who think Google is making us stupid and Facebook is frying our brains, let me sketch that picture in briefly.

In 2001, I and my colleagues began a longitudinal study of writing at Stanford, following a randomly-selected group of 189 students from their first day on campus through one year beyond graduation; in fact, I am still in touch with a number of the students today. These students—about 12 percent of that year’s class—submitted the writing they did for their classes and as much of their out-of-class writing as they wanted to an electronic database, along with their comments on those pieces of writing. Over the years, we collected nearly 15,000 pieces of student writing: lab reports, research essays, PowerPoint presentations, problem sets, honors theses, email and textings (in 11 languages), blogs and journals, poems, documentaries, even a full-length play entitled “Hip-Hopera.” While we are still coding these pieces of writing, several results emerged right away. First, these students were writing A LOT, both in class and out, though they were most interested in and committed to writing out of class, what we came to call “life writing,” than they were in their school assignments. Second, they were increasingly aware of those to whom they were writing and adjusted their writing styles to suit the occasion and the audience. Third, they wanted their writing to count for something; as they said to us over and over, good writing to them was performative, the kind of writing that “made something happen in the world.” Finally, they increasingly saw writing as collaborative, social, and participatory rather than solitary.
So yes, these students did plenty of emailing, and texting; they were online a good part of every day; they joined social networking sites enthusiastically. But rather than leading to a new illiteracy, these activities seemed to help them develop a range or repertoire of writing styles, tones, and formats along with a range of abilities. Here’s a student sending a text message to friends reporting on what she’s doing on an internship in Bangladesh (she refers in the first few words to the fact that power has been going on and off ever since she arrived): “Next up: words stolen from before the power went out****~~~~~Whadda-ya-know, I am back in Dhaka from the villages of Mymensingh. I’m familiar enough with the villages now that it’s harder to find things that really surprise me, though I keep looking .” In an informal message, this student feels free to use fragments (“Next up”), slang (“whadda-ya-know”), asterisks and tildas for emphasis, and a smiley.

Now look at a brief report she sends to the faculty adviser for her internship in Bangladesh: “ In June of 2003, I traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh for 9 weeks to intern for Grameen Bank. Grameen Bank is a micro-credit institution which seeks to alleviate poverty by providing access to financial capital. Grameen Bank provides small loans to poor rural women, who then use the capital to start small businesses and sustain income generating activities.” Here the student is all business, using formal academic style to begin her first report. No slang, no use of special-effects markings: just the facts, ma’am. In the thousands of pieces of student writing we have examined, we see students moving with relative ease across levels of style (from the most informal to the most formal): these young people are for the most part aware of the context and audience for their writing—and they make the adjustments necessary to address them effectively.

Ah, you say, but these are students at Stanford—the crème de la crème. And I’ll agree that these students were all very keen, very bright. But they were not all strong writers or communicators (though our study shows that they all improved significantly over the five years of the study) and they did not all come from privilege—in fact, a good number far from it. Still, they were part of what students on this campus call the “Stanford bubble.” So let’s look beyond that bubble to another study I conducted with researcher Karen Lunsford. About 18 months ago, we gathered a sample of first-year student writing from across all regions of the United States, from two-year and four-year schools, big schools and small schools, private and public. Replicating a study I’d conducted twenty-five years ago, we read a random sample of these student essays with a fine-tooth eye, noting every formal error in every piece of writing. And what did we find? First, that the length of student writing has increased nearly three-fold in these 25 years, corroborating the fact that students today are writing more than ever before. Second, we found that while error patterns have changed in the last twenty-five years, the ratio of errors to number of words has remained stable not just for twenty-five years but for the last 100 years. In short, we found that students today certainly make errors—as all writers do—but that they are making no more errors than previous studies have documented. Different errors, yes—but more errors, no.

We found, for example, that spelling—the most prevalent error by over 300% some 25 years ago—now presents much less of a problem to writers. We can chalk up that change, of course, to spell checkers, which do a good job overall—but still can’t correct words that sound alike (to, too, two). But with technology, you win some and you lose some: the most frequent error in our recent study is “wrong word,” and ironically a good number of these wrong words come from advice given by the sometimes-not-so-trusty spell checkers. The student who seems from the context of the sentence to be trying to write “frantic,” for example, apparently accepts the spell checker’s suggestion of “fanatic” instead. And finally, this recent study didn’t turn up any significant interference from internet lingo—no IMHOs, no LOLs, no 2nites, no smileys. Apparently, by the time many, many students get to college, they have a pretty good sense of what’s appropriate: at the very least, they know the difference between a Facebook friend and an college professor.

In short, the research my colleagues and I have been doing support what other researchers are reporting about digital technologies and learning. First, a lot of that learning (perhaps most of it) is taking place outside of class, in the literate activities (musical compositions, videos, photo collages, digital stories, comics, documentaries) young people are pursuing on their own. This is what Mimi Ito calls “kid-driven learning.” Second, the participatory nature of digital media allows for more—not less—development of literacies.

Ito, Mizuko, Heather Horst, Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, Becky Herr-Stephenson, Patricia Lange, C. J. Pascoe, and Laura Robinson. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: When Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

What privacy?

While the right to privacy is not guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court rulings have argued that several amendments, including the 4th, create such a right. And most U.S. citizens seem to assume that we have such a right. But since the 9/11 bombings, that right has certainly been eroded. Recently, we have learned that the government is collecting all telephone numbers and messages in case they might be helpful in identifying terrorists. Where I live, if you sign a contract with Google for internet service, you must agree to allow them to collect data from your computer and, in fact, share that data.
I could list many additional examples, and you no doubt could contribute to a list of ways in which our right to privacy is being whittled away at. And while some people are very, very concerned, many others say they that giving up this right is no big deal: “I’m not doing anything wrong so why should I care?” is a frequently-made comment. This attitude seems to be most prevalent among young people, who are completely accustomed to sharing information online, and especially through social media sites.
Yet a 2010 study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania challenges this assumption. After interviewing 1000 young adults, the researchers found that young adult attitudes toward the right to privacy tended to match those of their elders: “There clearly is social significance in that large numbers of young adults agree with older Americans on issues of information privacy.” The researchers were a bit surprised and so dug a little further. In doing so, they found a big gap in levels of knowledge regarding privacy issues held by young adults and older adults: in short, young people were saying that they held the right to privacy in high regard while behaving in ways that belied what their statements:
A gap in privacy knowledge provides one explanation for the apparent license with which the young behave online. 42 percent of young Americans answered all of our five online privacy questions incorrectly. 88 percent answered only two or fewer correctly. The problem is even more pronounced when presented with offline privacy issues – post hoc analysis showed that young Americans were more likely to answer no questions correctly than any other age group.
We conclude then that that young-adult Americans have an aspiration for increased privacy even while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data.
You can check out this article, “How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?”, on the Social Science Research Network site at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1589864. In the meantime, it seems to me that writing teachers need to be on the front lines in providing knowledge of these issues to our students. I am talking about adding key information points to our curricula, spending class time in discussions of the issues, and using the questions asked by the researchers to see if our students also answer all of them incorrectly. My informal conversations with students in the last month or two suggest that they wouldn’t do so well on such a quiz: like the young people in the study, they gave lip service to the right to privacy but, when questioned about their online behavior, clearly were not demanding that right, or even noticing that privacy was often distinctly not there at all.
I at least want our students to know what it is they are giving up, and what the ramifications will be for all of us. In the meantime, I would love to hear other thoughts on these issues.